The 55th annual Grammy Awards ceremony celebrated the music industry’s attempt to stay afloat with a star-studded, acutely schizophrenic party on Sunday evening.
There were high moments. There were disturbingly low moments. There were performances that bordered on the sublime.
There were others that left one scratching one’s head and muttering “Why, lord, oh why?” as we faded to commercial. There was Jack White and band tearing up the stage as if their job was to prove to the elite pop music one-percenters that rock ’n’ roll is far from dead. And then there was Rihanna taking part in a Bob Marley tribute, for reasons that are unfathomable.
The Grammys are safe, certainly, and Sunday’s show was mostly a middle-of-the-road run-through of the records that sold a ton of copies in 2012. But there were exceptions to this rule. White in particular truly tore it up, offering twisted psychedelic blues with avant garde noise-rock tendencies. The Black Keys, too, brought a torrid take on their “Lonely Boy,” with the help of Dr. John and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, injecting New Orleans soul into a sultry rock stomp.
The best performances – Ed Sheeran and Elton John tackling Sheeran’s “The A Team”; Fun., who would win the “Best New Artist” trophy, turning on the crowd with an enthused reading of the anthemic “Carry On”; Kelly Clarkson ripping up a tribute to the late Patti Page with “Tennessee Waltz”; and Carole King with “Natural Woman” – broke up that rather rote flow of the evening’s events by injecting the genuine excitement of well-played live music.
Then there was Taylor Swift, who opened the show with her “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” The performance boasted a circus theme, with Swift as a ringmaster in top hat and tails, and surrounding dancers and musicians offering some strange melange of carny absurdity. Call it “Cirque de So-Lame.” OMG, Taylor – we are so through!
Justin Timberlake’s much publicized “return to music” was astoundingly good. In his time off, Timberlake seems to have fully immersed himself in classic R&B and soul music, and he sang beautifully, tearing up the newly released “Suit & Tie” with a large band replete with horns and strings.
Of course, Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Kenny Garrett paying tribute to the late Dave Brubeck gave us the deepest, most profound musical performance. These were clearly the finest musicians in the building on this night. Corea won two Grammys Sunday night, too. The group’s “Take 5” was sublime, though way too short.
Some of the presenters stole the show, frankly.
Johnny Depp introducing Mumford & Sons – whose “I Will Wait For You” was well-received, but it sounded a bit like a radio jingle designed to simulate the sound of bluegrass – wins the “coolest looking dude of the night” award.
Dave Grohl, who revealed that Black Keys guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach had won the award for “Producer of the Year” earlier in the day based on his work on Dr. John’s astounding “Locked Down” album, gets the nod for “man who has been the most successful cheerleader for rock ’n’ roll in 2012” trophy.
Rihanna ran away with both the “least in-tune vocal performance” and the “whose bright idea was it to ask Rihanna to take part in a Bob Marley tribute?” prize.
And Sting, during that same tribute, accorded himself well as the “older dude who can still sing way better than all these kids, including Bruno Mars” award.
We should offer a tip of the hat to host LL Cool J, who brought an unflinching optimism to the event. LL’s theme for the evening was one of inclusiveness, as he continually returned to the root, not suggesting that the Grammys were everyone’s night, because this was everyone’s music. This notion might appear absurd to anyone who doesn’t slavishly follow the most popular pop music, but one felt that LL really meant it and that he believed it himself. His perkiness helped the night move along smoothly.
There were no real stunning pests, although it was a bit of a surprise when Fun. – which reminded the crowd that they’d been doing this for 12 years, touring as an underground (and underpaid) indie rock act – took the golden gramophone for “Best New Artist” over Frank Ocean, who was clearly the critics’ pick for the slot.
Gotye taking top honors over Taylor Swift, Frank Ocean, the Black Keys and Kelly Clarkson was not entirely expected, and was therefore refreshing.
When Gotye gave props to presenter Prince while accepting his award? Priceless. His acceptance speech in general was an exercise in what the Grammys could and should be all about – a lesson in being humble, grateful, and appreciative of the opportunity to carve out a life for oneself in music.