The Grammys, unlike the Oscars, put entertainment first, awards second. Last night’s show, a tiring and tedious event brightened by only a few memorable moments, was lacking in both categories.
The show opened with an AC/DC medley of the new “Rock or Bust” and their 80’s hit, “Highway to Hell”. It was an out-of-place, out-of-touch way to start the night, a much blander opening than last year’s “Drunk in Love”. The band successfully proved Angus Young’s vocal chords aren’t what they once were, while setting the tone for the following uneventful 200-something minutes.
The show’s first half was largely dominated by bloated spectacle and over-inflated performances. Madonna performed a new song, “Living for Love”, accompanied by a posse of half-clothed bull-men for no good reason. Then again, that kind of extravaganza should be expect from Madonna. Pharrell’s reworked “Happy” performance, meanwhile, came out of nowhere. He began by solemnly speaking lyrics from the song (echoed in other languages), looking like he was about to cry. Later, he was joined by violinists, piano virtuoso Lang Lang, and some awkward guitar-work from Dark Knight composer Hans Zimmer. The performance earned points for “originality” or “weirdness” (take your pick) but a joyously meaningless song like “Happy” doesn’t really need such over-the-top operatics.
In fact, the Grammys didn’t really need a lot of things. Many of the cross-generational “Grammy moments”, as host LL Cool J likes to call them, were either slightly embarrassing or instantly forgettable, and too often both. There was Tom Jones and Jessie J doing an uncomfortable duet on “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, Ed Sheeran and friends playing some bland guitar-based pop, Tony Bennet and Lady Gaga performing their 2014 collaboration “Cheek to Cheek”, and Adam Levine and Gwen Stefani playing…I don’t even remember.
Still, the show wasn’t without some great moments. In one of the night’s best performances, newcomer Hozier performed his hit “Take Me to Church” and was joined by Annie Lennox and her muscular singing. Backed only by Paul McCartney’s gentle keyboard-playing, Kanye West sang his heartfelt new single “Only One”. Later, West joined Rihanna and McCartney for their recent collaboration “FourFiveSeconds”. For once, it was a fine pairing of artists: Rihanna’s wonderfully soulful singing meshed well with Kanye’s swaggering confidence. McCartney’s microphone, however, seemed to be turned off (not how you treat a Beatle). And, with three superstars on one stage, why on Earth didn’t the Grammys have them perform another song? Same goes for Beck and Coldplay’s Chris Martin who only played one song (one of the weakest) from Beck’s gorgeous new album.
Oh, and the awards? For the most part, it was a surprise-free night. Of the nine prizes dolled out at the live show, Sam Smith mopped the floor with four: Best New Artist, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Pop Vocal Album. His “Stay With Me” smash is a lovely, gospel-tinted pop ballad, but I wasn’t disappointed when he lost Album of the Year, contrary to what I and many others had predicted. Instead, Beck won for his folk-rock throwback “Morning Phase”, which didn’t get the attention it deserved upon it’s February 2014 release. I probably listened to that album more than any other last year, but the backlash against the win is partly understandable. In recent years, the Grammys have awarded the big prize to Arcade Fire, Mumford and Sons, and U2, instead of chart-topping pop stars. But calling the show a hopelessly old-fashioned rockist snooze would make more sense if Beck’s album wasn’t as perfect as it is. Not everyone thought that, though. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-moment of sheer-selfishness, Kanye stepped onto the stage while Beck was accepting the award, and then quickly stepped off. Later, the rapper told the Grammys that”when you keep on diminishing art and not respecting the craft and smacking people in the face after they deliver monumental feats of music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration and we, as musicians, have to inspire people who go to work every day and they listen to that Beyoncé album and they feel like it takes them to another place.” He said Beck should’ve given his award to Beyoncé. What did Beck say? “[West] deserves to be onstage as much as anybody. How many great records has he put out in the last five years, right?” He humbly continued “I thought she was going to win. Come on, she’s Beyonce! . . . You can’t please everybody, man. I still love [West] and think he’s genius. I aspire to do what he does.”
Did Beyoncé deserve to win? Her album, with it’s slick hip-hop beats, feminist messages, and singular pop-star personality, certainly represents the best of current pop. But she has won twenty times and, with 53 total nominations, is the most nominated woman in Grammy history. Beck was due for some gold.
After all the awards had been handed out, the Grammys ended a lackluster night with two urgent, timely, and beautiful performances. First, Beyoncé sang Civil Rights standard “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and showed off her indomitable range. Then, John Legend and Common took the stage to close out the night with their Oscar-nominated “Glory”, from Selma. The song combines Legend’s shattering pipes with Common’s rhythmic rapping to great effect, but the lyrics, which touch on Ferguson, MLK, and the continuing struggle for equality, couldn’t be more thoughtfully poignant. In a night of snoozers, it was a moment of timely beauty.