Grammy View: From the Audience

LOS ANGELES — If you're not Madonna, Eminem, or a big record-industry mogul, people act genuinely surprised when you tell them you're going to the Grammy Awards. The guy you rent your tux from begs you to keep track of what type of collars the men are wearing. Your boss just rolls his eyes and says, "If you want the day off, just tell me you have a doctor's appointment." Because, just like the Oscars or Golden Globes, the biggest night of the year for the music industry is also a big deal for ordinary people. It's an excuse to invite some friends over for beers and popcorn, and maybe the chance to win 40 bucks in the office pool.

But wouldn't it be a million times more exciting if you were right there where the action was happening, in the same room as all those superstars, instead of sitting at home, wondering if your onion dip is up to snuff? Well … no. Actually, folks watching the Grammys at home have it pretty sweet. They can switch channels and view something else during the boring numbers. They can actually see Madonna's face up close. They can choose whom they watch the show with. And they only have to set aside three hours of their day for this extravaganza.

Just to prove how much better the Grammys are when viewed from the comfort of your own domicile, Wall of Sound dispatched a pair of ace undercover agents to Los Angeles for the actual ceremony. If watching your Mom pick up wrapping paper on Christmas morning is your idea of fun, or you thrill to the idea of being locked in a room for three-plus hours with no food, water, or bathroom breaks, attending Grammy Awards might actually be your cup of tea. Otherwise, you're much better off in your living room, where a cocktail doesn't cost $7.25 and the bar doesn't close just when the action's beginning.

But enough complaining. Decide for yourself. Here are just a few of the dubious pleasures TV viewers miss that make attending the Grammy Awards such a mixed blessing:

BEFORE THE SHOW Did you know that the Grammy ceremony actually begins at lunchtime, at 12:30 p.m. PST? Even if you skip the three-plus-hour pre-show (you know, the "in ceremonies held earlier" nonsense they zip through at points during the big broadcast), attending the Grammy Awards takes up a whole day. Before you even begin navigating the Los Angeles freeways and one-way streets like a rat in a maze to get to the venue, you have to get dressed. In evening wear. At lunchtime. Sure, you could wait a little later — but you have to allow time for traffic. And the backup at the parking lot. Because you have to be there no later than 4:30, when the doors are locked and no further guests are allowed in.

But once you arrive, and safely stow your chariot, then the magic begins. As you stroll down the red carpet, stars flank you on either side … not! The famous people have to run a gantlet of press — corralled in tiny pens like cattle — waiting impatiently, waving microphones and cameras in their shiny, Grammy-nominated faces, while the rest of the ordinary ticket-holders are hustled into the building. Nobody with a platinum record is going to sidle up and ask where you got your shoes; they're too busy spouting sound bites.

SENSE OF SCALE The Grammy Awards are not held in a charming art deco theater in Hollywood. This year, they took place at the Staples Center — which also hosts basketball games. Which means it's not only much, much bigger than an airplane hangar but also that there are Pizza Hut counters and pretzel vendors everywhere. Great for impromptu snacking but not exactly conducive to the classy atmosphere that the Grammys project from the other side of the TV screen. Alas, none of this year's winners accepted a trophy oblivious to a blot of tomato sauce in the corner of his or her mouth.

Thanks to flattering camera angles, there are no short people onstage at the Grammys — just the occasional giant (Vince Gill) flanked by some folks of average height. But even from the cheap seats, it's hard to overlook the fact that Sisqo is a small man. Smaller than this year's host, Jon Stewart — who at least gets to stand on a box for some of his intros. In real life, Lil' Bow Wow could probably take both of them down single-handedly — and he still has growth spurts to look forward to.

Regardless of their physical dimensions, many Grammy performers seem to shrink even smaller when they hit the stage for their big number. Instead of turning in the sort of dynamic showstopper that makes the folks in the house forget how uncomfortable their dress shoes are, lots of stars play almost exclusively to the loving gaze of the cameras. (Thanks, MTV!) This is why U2 deserved to walk away with so many prizes: Bono may be small in stature, but "Beautiful Day" was the only song that reached the farthest ring of cheap seats without aid of pyrotechnics, confetti, or Elton John's Day-Glo suit.

THE AUDIENCE Not everyone borrows their outfit from Versace or Prada. You thought 'N Sync's costumes looked stupid? You should see what passes for "black tie" among Los Angeles' music-industry denizens. Clown suits! Castoffs from Edward Scissorhands! But TV viewers don't see — or hear — the average Grammy audience member. They see celebrities (essentially, just the first 20 rows of the floor seating) congratulating each other with hugs and air kisses. They do not see one of your Wall of Sound correspondents almost clock the crazy mom who called her kids on a cell phone during 'N Sync's performance to give them a blow-by-blow commentary.

But then, maybe your correspondent was punchy from low blood sugar. While the A-list on the ground floor can drink and snack to their heart's content — because lord knows, we wouldn't want Kid Rock to be without a Budweiser for five minutes — if you're not a nominee, or sitting in a private box, food and drink are forbidden in the auditorium. Early in the evening, this gives the proceedings a bloodthirsty edge, heightening the excitement of competition, like in an ancient Roman coliseum; toward the end, it just gets ugly. As if staying awake during that stupid Chopin piano etude wasn't hard enough. No wonder people started bolting for the doors like rats on a sinking ship as soon as the Eminem-Elton John duet concluded — they were desperate to grab some dinner. (Or did they just know the Album of the Year fix was in for Steely Dan?)

BEHIND THE SCENES What does a bird's eye view of the drama taking place between commercials and the action waiting in the wings reveal? Not much. The members of Destiny's Child hold hands and pray just before going on — like that's a big surprise; they always thank God when they win. Somebody had to hoist Christina Aguilera's skinny ass up into the rafters before she could make her big entrance in the floating orb. And honestly, without the colorized special effects, 'N Sync's number looked like a high-school production of Our Town.

Audiences at home were also denied the mystery of wondering about those 14 people milling about in magenta Beatle wigs before Macy Gray's song. And TV viewers couldn't see desperate stagehands scooping up garbage bags full of shiny mylar tinsel after Blue Man Group's admittedly thrilling number with Moby and Jill Scott; those poor cameramen down in front — it looked like they'd been caught in a Christmas tree explosion.

AFTER THE SHOW Following all these trials (the less said about the Poseidon Adventure-like vibe as people scrambled to escape the Staples Center, and the interminable wait to exit the parking lot, the better), everyone is eager for some libations and a chance to let their hair down. What awaits guests attending the various after-parties? Well, more lines, for one — unless you arrive by limousine and have a handler to whisk you past the keepers of the guest list.

That said, once inside one of these shindigs, you're closer to some of the biggest music stars than you'll ever get without making a hit record of your own. Within minutes of arriving at the Warner Bros. fête, Wall of Sound's spies were within spitting distance of Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, and members of Depeche Mode and De La Soul. Plus Hugh Hefner and a clutch of bleached-blond Playboy bunnies — or was that just his bid to assemble a prefab girl group?

Most importantly, a feeling of relief augments the air of celebration. Whew, it's over! At the Virgin Records party, members past and present of Hole (no, not her) and Nirvana hobnobbed around the swimming pool at the Hotel Figueroa. A kick-ass DJ cut and mixed more great songs in 15 minutes than were heard in the entire Grammy broadcast. And did someone say "open bar"?

This was exactly the sort of star-studded bacchanalia you expect when you hear the words "Grammy Awards." And it only takes 10 hours, a handful of interminable performances (was Paul Simon dull or what?), traffic, and an attack of hypoglycemia to find it.