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Madonna performs with a holographic Gorillaz performer during the 48th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in 2006. (Reuters)
Madonna performs with a holographic Gorillaz performer during the 48th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in 2006. (Reuters)

Grammys: Collaborations

Surreal encounters of the Grammy kind Add to ...

When the Japanese B-movie kings who wrangled Godzilla ran short of mayhem for the big lizard to perform by himself, they brought in other supermonsters to assist. King Kong, Mothra the giant moth and a host of others kept the Godzilla franchise running through dozens of films, each with a new matchup to goose the public's interest.

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So it is with the Grammy Awards broadcast, which during the past decade has come to rely on the drawing power of once-only, who'd-a-thunk-it collaborations you never expected to see. Record sales are still sledding down a long decline, but TV ratings for the Grammy Awards are trending up, and may go higher still this Sunday as people tune in for a surreal encounter featuring Cee Lo Green, Gwyneth Paltrow and the Muppets.

It would have been fun to be at Grammy's command centre when that dream team was assembled. Sure, uniting the steel-belted R&B singer with the world's whitest actress (and freshly hatched country singer) is kind of a rematch - they got together on Saturday Night Live last month, and have recorded a duet version of Green's cleaned-up hit, Forget You - but someone had to throw the puppet card on the table. "We need something more," they must have said, sensing the approach of a moment in music history, "something to make America and the world drop everything and come to Grammy. We need … Muppets!"

The road to this high summit began 10 years ago, when a promised duet appearance by Eminem and Elton John became the No. 1 reason to watch the Grammys. Not only were the two from different musical worlds, but Eminem's rap lyrics had been called out by some as violently homophobic. What mischief might he do in the presence of an out-and-out gay man?

Elton John (left) performed with rap musician Eminem during the 43rd Grammy Awards in 2001.



After weeks of speculation, the pair performed a fairly straight version of Eminem's hit Stan, hugged, and are now reportedly the best of friends. John returned last year for another worlds-colliding encounter, with Lady Gaga, but when he appeared onstage after Gaga's crazed tear through Poker Face, she sat down for a round of respectful two-piano versions of vintage John hits. The sparkly makeup they wore was hers, but the music was all his.

That's the way it is with Grammy collabs, which, like Christmas presents, are often most exciting when still under wraps. Madonna and Gorillaz (2006) seemed kind of mind-blowing on paper - Material Girl meets cartoon band - but their actual time together was short: just one chorus, bracketed by a chill Gorillaz performance of Feel Good Inc. and a high-energy Madonna rendition of Hung Up that had more to do with ABBA (whose music was sampled) than with Gorillaz creator Damon Albarn.

Prince and Beyoncé were notably terrific together in 2004. But Paul McCartney, Jay-Z and Linkin Park (2006) merely completed a storyline that began with an unauthorized viral mashup of albums by the Beatles and Jay-Z, continued with a dreadful "live mashup" EP by Jay-Z and Linkin Park, and sputtered out on Grammy night with one of the poorest Yesterday covers ever.

Narrative is almost as important in these events as novelty. Rihanna and Drake have a hit single ( What's My Name? from her Loud album) and have never sung together on TV before, but the backstory juicing this particular encounter involves rumours that their brief romance of 2009 has revived. We can assume, however, that a bed won't be part of the set, as it was for the sticky-sweet Latino-pop duet sung at the 2005 Grammys by newlyweds Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony.

A wider influence on these get-togethers may be the current epidemic of guest collaborations on pop records. In the age of Facebook, many musicians don't seem to feel comfortable without at least a handful of well-known friends in the studio. Kanye West may have set a record with All of the Lights, a recent track that includes cameos by Rihanna, Elton John, Drake, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Fergie, Kid Cudi and others. Mashups have probably sharpened people's appetites for unusual combinations, and might even have prepared the ground for the big winners at the 2009 Grammys: bluegrass sweetheart Alison Krauss and Led Zeppelin belter Robert Plant, whose Raising Sand disc took five awards, including album of the year.

Remixers are already posting their revisions of existing songs directly to music blogs and file-sharing sites. As social networking creeps further into everyone's habits of life and work, we may yet see the advent of networked production techniques that could ultimately affect shows like the Grammy broadcast. It's not beyond imagining that, say, M.I.A. and Diplo might build a song by swapping sound files back and forth on a social-networking site. Why not get disparate nominees to do something similar, and actually debut a song that until the night of the gig had existed only online?

It could be almost as much fun as my personal nominee for this year's Monstrous Special Grammy Collaboration: Lady Gaga, Susan Boyle and Justin Bieber (all nominated for pop vocal album) covering Gaga's Bad Romance, from The Fame Monster. You know who'd be the Godzilla in that one.

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