Thanks to a new novel I'd written, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, about an 11-year-old pop star, I was given the opportunity to attend the Grammys last Sunday. The idea was to get a taste of what the momentous, chaotic day is like for a real-life young nominee. And so I packed my bags for Los Angeles, leaving behind, as per CBS's widely circulated memo about sartorial restrictions, my crotchless tuxedo.
The performer in question was Hunter Hayes, the 21-year-old country-music wunderkind who was up for three awards, including Best New Artist, and who also performed live. Hayes, from Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, is a musical prodigy. He began picking up instruments at age two, played onstage with Hank Williams Jr. two years later, and recorded two amateur albums by the time he was 10. He moved to Nashville when he was seventeen and co-wrote a Rascal Flatts song a couple of years after. His eponymous debut, for which he played all thirty-odd instruments (not a typo), wrote or co-wrote every song, and was co-producer, has racked up widespread acclaim, and the single "Wanted" has sold over two million copies. It made him the youngest male solo country artist ever to top Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart.
Hayes' team wanted to ensure that I understood he was no Justin Bieber. He was a real musician who had worked hard not to let a teeny-bopper image subsume him, they pointed out, despite his overlapping demographic appeal with some of Bieber's fan base. I was curious to see how non-manufactured he really was – or if this (relative) absence of packaging was itself the most cynical form of packaging.
I arrived at Le Parc Suite Hotel, in West Hollywood, at 10 in the morning to meet Hayes' publicist, three managers and a two-man crew from the entertainment-news program Access Hollywood that would be filming his preparations. Hayes' core team all hails from Nashville and flouts industry-shark stereotypes. Ansel Davis, one of his managers – "I'm a recovering lawyer," he told me, and his shoes, adorned with a skull design, suggested the extent of his rehabilitation – said he discovered Hayes playing in a flatbed truck at a festival in Lafayette, Louisiana.
As we waited outside Hayes' hotel room for him to finish his ablutions, the entourage, Grammy veterans all, good-naturedly lamented the grueling day ahead of them. His gregarious publicist, Tree Paine, predicted she would be on-duty until two in the morning. (She's been coming to the Grammys since 1996 and seemed to be on good terms with every media member in attendance.) "Hundreds of thousands of people would pay anything to be here," Davis said. "But it's work."
"Yet there's an energy to it when you walk in," he continued, carrying in a large coffee for the nominee. Hayes was sitting on the couch in his average-sized room, wearing a blue hooded sweatshirt, jeans and scuffed black leather Converses. A compact five-foot-six, he has the unthreatening, telegenic looks of a primetime teen-soap-opera actor, and bears some resemblance to a mash-up of Chad Michael Murray from One Tree Hill and Neil Patrick Harris (who later presented an award).
His suite betrayed no signs of egomanical accoutrements. A Grammy worker I met later in the day told me of a diva's legendary request for rose petals in her toilet, as evanescent a luxury as I could imagine. The sole indulgence Hayes had permitted himself for his nominations was a Bell & Ross aviation watch – he's working on getting a pilot's license. "It was my biggest splurge," he said. "It took three people to talk me into getting it."
The Access Hollywood crew lobbed Hayes a few softballs. He required no time to transition into interview mode, staring directly into the camera's bright lights and providing self-effacing, articulate responses that sounded unrehearsed despite the hundreds of times he's likely given them.
"I'm a little nervous," he confessed, about both the event and his abbreviated rendition of "Wanted." "It's a big deal for me." He said he feels anxious on any performance day, when every decision is "calculated" toward that night's set. "I get nervous and stressed and zone out for thirty minutes to an hour" beforehand with a vocal warm-up and guitar strumming, he said. "I can't relax. I disagree with anyone who says they're not nervous."
"There's an energy spike before a show," added the artist, who, in addition to coffee, swigs Pepsi (with whom he has an endorsement deal) and five-hour-energy drinks pre-show. A mini-crisis developed later when a full energy drink was not available and Hayes was able to absorb only 2.5 hours of fuel.
It was time to go. Hayes packed his personalized ear monitor; artists bring their own, since they're molded to their ears. Access Hollywood wanted a wide shot of him leaving the room. "Let's hide the drink cart," he joked, pointing to the unopened liquor bottles on a counter. "The thing I haven't touched that people will think is for me."
The crew filmed a long shot of Hayes walking down the hall, in sunglasses, looking a little more Hollywood. We divided up into two black Lincoln Navigators – what appeared to be the official talent car of the Grammys – and, after much jockeying, I sat next to him in the backseat as the cameraman shot him from the middle row. He was asked, inevitably, about the existence of a girlfriend. He deflected it like a pro.
"I've always believed when the right person comes, you make compromises," he said. "But I'm scared of finding that now. I'm not nine-to-five. I can't shut it off."
Hayes did over 200 events in 2012, and had spent the previous week on an Esquire photo shoot and playing The Tonight Show, among other media requests. He got his first place in Nashville the week the Grammy nominations were announced, in December, but wasn't in town for his move-in and slept on a mattress on the floor for a little while. His traveling entourage now numbers 14, taking up two buses.
We arrived at Staples Center, where Hayes and his team peeled off for rehearsal. Awards shows run through a word-for-word full performance; if you think three and a half hours is a long time, imagine hosting it twice in a row, which poor LL Cool J did. Staff members in work clothes play the role of musicians for their acceptance speeches. (Winners are announced like this: "And the winner, for this rehearsal only, is . . .") Hayes' own schedule, with his three potential awards and his performance, was plotted out to the minute.
The Grammys give some fans day passes to watch the rehearsal. I took a seat as Sting joined Rihanna, Ziggy Marley and others for their unexplained tribute to Bob Marley.
A Grammys rehearsal is uninspiring; with sparse attendance and regular lighting, the spectacle is hugely diminished. Only by watching the big-screen monitors does it at all resemble the larger-than-life event as I've consumed it onscreen over the years, when the simulacrum replaces reality. In person, the musicians look like regular human beings, small bodies on a nearby stage.
Hayes flawlessly delivered his performance and introduction of Carrie Underwood, for whom he is currently opening. The key line in the chorus to "Wanted" tells you something about the earnestness and sublimation of his songwriting: "I wanna make you feel wanted." Compare that to other classic lines of desire, such as Cheap Trick's famous "I want you to want me," or the Ramones' "I wanna be sedated" (or "I wanna be your boyfriend").
At two o'clock I left rehearsal, crossing paths outside with Ryan Seacrest in a golf cart. I met Hayes' publicist at the holding pen for the red carpet, which was just heating up and where Hayes would be shortly arriving. When he arrived, in a tuxedo and his leather Converses, I followed his crew, and two volunteer talent escorts, onto the carpet itself, where musicians mingled with industry players and their guests.
A gauntlet of TV crews buttonholed any celebrity who walked by. My facial recognition of music stars extends only to the super-famous or those who were entrenched in the mainstream before, say, 2003; when Bruno Mars walked past me later, I had no clue who he was until his performance. (I must not have been watching him carefully during the motley-crew Marley tribute rehearsal.) My rule of thumb was that the less job-interview-appropriate the wardrobe, and the more visible the tattoos and piercings, the more likely the person was a musician.
Hayes interview-hopped, answering the same questions he had fielded from Access Hollywood. After 10 minutes, I looked down the receiving line; he had about 20 more stops to go. He seemed to enjoy himself most with Sophia Grace Brownlee, an eight-year-old singer discovered by Ellen DeGeneres, and her five-year-old cousin Rosie. The girls dispensed heart-shaped candy to him. I thought about asking for some myself, having eaten only a handful of blackberries that morning after four hours of sleep on an air mattress following a cross-country flight.
At the end of the red carpet, celebrities must endure a fusillade of photos in front of bleachers full of screaming fans. Hayes scored an especially warm ovation from the crowd. I trailed him and his people through a garage and up to the tucked-away talent entrance, a long red-carpeted tunnel covered in transparent plastic. When we reached the metal detectors to the arena, my credentials no longer provided me access. I left, but hung out unmolested around the opening of the tunnel along with some cops and a few Grammy staff. Away from the spotlight, most acted like normal human beings, but – blind item! – which well-known singer arrived in a terrifying convoy of a dozen hangers-on, stalking into two Navigators that screamed out of the garage without much regard for pedestrians, then returned 15 minutes later on foot, marching with the heavy footsteps of a brigade?
If you're still reading this, it means you probably watched the show, so I won't say much about the event itself except that attendees were still scrambling for their seats as the live broadcast began; that we were instructed to "applaud for the Grammys" at the end of each commercial break, a helpful imperative in case you'd forgotten where you were; that a large cookie and bottle of water at the concession stand cost me eight dollars; that the line for the gift bag at the official afterparty was too long to investigate, but the savory mushroom bread pudding made up for it; and that Hunter didn't win any of his categories, yet nailed his performance and betrayed no sour grapes. Bieber, on the other hand, hosted Saturday Night Live the night before to promote his new album and to distract his fans from his lack of nominations, and then attempted to set up a live-stream concert during the awards (he hit some technical snags). He also catalyzed the cyber-bullying of the Black Keys' drummer, who made an innocuous comment about Bieber after the show.
Later that night, Hayes tweeted to his 400,000-plus followers, "Had a fantastic night. Got to play one of my own songs on the GRAMMY's and watch a seriously awesome show! #thankyou!!! Wicked cool:)"
It won't be Hayes' last Grammys. It'll probably be mine.