Sign #1 that your Grammy Awards Broadcast is in trouble: the vintage video clips they show of the Lifetime Achievement Award winners exhibit more soul and honesty than any of the live performances you’ve seen tonight thus far.
As easy as it is to snipe snarky comments at the annual Grammy Awards broadcast—and make no question about it, it is extremely easy (and fun!)—there has always been a mixture of over-the-top, vapid pop spectacle mixed with moments of genuine honesty. Sometimes an entire broadcast could succeed on the strength of just a few of these great performances. Sometimes it could never make up its mind what it wants to be in terms of tone (like last years, wherein the death of Whitney Houston no less than 24 hours prior lead to a sharp revamp of the broadcast and smartly not shying away from the pop icon’s sudden passing). On rare occasions, it was just outright terrible, and as fate would have it, this year’s 55th Annual Grammy Awards were pretty darn bad.
Things started off with an absurd, Lady Gaga-esque spectacle wherein Taylor Swift was ringleader to a Target-commercial-ready band of circus performances and (apparently) tortured boyfriends, starting the evening off an a very awkward note, largely due to the fact that as big as her songs are, Taylor Swift simply never had the same stage chutzpah that a Gaga or a Katy Perry could exude. She made all the right moves and struck all the right poses but she (and her song) just never felt like they were in their proper place, no matter how many stilt walkers and red-gloved mimes the show’s producers threw at her.
Taylor Swift performs at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Yet once Swift’s dull spectacle abruptly ended, it was time for our host, LL Cool J, to take the stage. He did an admirable job last year finding the right tone as viewers were still barely processing Houston’s passing, but Cool J went into full-blown social media shill mode this time out, constantly telling people which hashtags to use (“hashtag Sting!”), reading select tweets on the air, coming out from commercial breaks telling us how he had been reading through each and every one before going up on camera. It was pandering at its finest, and Cool J managed to spend a good deal of his early appearances talking about himself as only the finest of egoists are capable of doing. On top of that, the multiple commercial breaks were telling us which forthcoming performances to be excited for, because that Carrie Underwood performance will be the one that “everyone is talking about tomorrow!” As is always the case, they can never decide which performances will be the ones we’ll remember, as Carrie Underwood failed to impress in her Amazing Technicolor Costume Dress (literally, they put a projector over it and showed a series of colorful video images, turning the bottom of two-thirds of Underwood into your computer’s screensaver).
Instead, the single most impressive performance of the entire evening came from one of the most unexpected sources: American Idol alumnus Kelly Clarkson. No more than 15 minutes prior to her appearance, Rihanna stood and sleepwalked her way through a rather bland take on her own song “Stay” (while some beanie-hatted guy named Mikky Ekko just sat on a stage piece to sing with her ... and curiously remained sitting the entire time), showing that without the aide of spectacle, Rihanna is not much of a force by herself. Clarkson, however, with just a pianist and guitarist by her side, worked through Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz” and Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, and nailed both of them perfectly. She put on the typical vocal histrionics, certainly, but it was all rooted in genuine emotion, and she never overplayed her hand, resulting in what actually was the best performance all evening (toss in her goofy, playful speech after winning Best Pop Vocal Album and it’s fair to say the stock of her public image skyrocketed after this broadcast).
Kelly Clarkson at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Yet one inspired performance does not a Successful Broadcast make, and for this year, the show producers simply thought that a lot of artists could just carry the songs by themselves without the aide of much visual trickery to drive the point home. The truth of the matter is much harsher, however, as very few of them have the magnetism to lift their four minutes out of the silver screen doldrums. Maroon 5’s “Daylight” sounded a lot like Maroon 5 playing “Daylight”, and even with getting her Shelia E. on a bit with some forceful drumming, Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” proved to be decent entertainment but far from enthralling. The much-hyped Justin Timberlake performance of “Suit & Tie” (in sepia tone, no less) and new song “Pusher Love Girl” was relatively complacent, but for a man hitting the hype trail hard for his new album launch next month, it’s frightening how little either track remains stuck in your head long after. Even the mighty Frank Ocean, a gaggle of Grammy nominations to his name already, turned in a relatively awkward take on his own “Forrest Gump”, as his somewhat-visible nerves prevented his vocal tone from fully lining up with the minimalist song in question (although much kudos for the visual aspect of this one, featuring a large video monitor implying his running while singing).
Justin Timberlake and Jay Z perform at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
While the show producers should be given credit for allowing some lesser-known voices to be heard (if you completely ignore Wiz Khalifa’s appearance as Bizarro Where’s Waldo, Miguel did an outstanding take on his unquestionably sexy hit “Adore”), the problem with “Music’s Biggest and Most-Tweeted Night” (thanks for that, LL) is that once again, the music in question is so obviously, forcefully mainstream that it actually does the Grammys themselves a great disservice. While pop, rock, hip-hop and country are all very well represented, jazz is given a measly 50 seconds as Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke & Kenny Garrett work their way through the main portion of “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck only to set up Recording Academy President Neal Portnow, Ryan Seacrest, and Justin Timberlake to take way too much time talking about an actually-great thing (a new program wherein high schoolers can nominate extraordinary music teachers for recognition).
Frank Ocean performs at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Please recall: nine of the 81 awards that were handed out that night were for classical genres, and once again, anyone playing a violin was relegated to background work for either Underwood or Timberlake. All of Latin music was represented by Juanes bilingual take on “Your Song” for those glorious 70 or so seconds that he got to perform it. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s contribution to a rather fiery rendition of the Black Keys’ “Lonely Boy” (with Dr. John in tow) was nothing more than a single note blared over and over and over again, and hell, even during the big Bob Marley tribute, the very first song that was played was Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven”, which was somewhat of a slap in the face to the legend, because as energetic as Mars is, placing his own current hit as the leadoff to a Bob Marley tribute felt wildly disingenuous—a reach at best. Again, for Music’s Biggest and Most-Tweeted Night, you’d think a little bit more diversity might help alleviate the problem of keeping viewers interests during a grueling three-and-a-half-hour broadcast.
From left, Sting, Ziggy Marley, Bruno Mars and Rhianna perform a Bob Marley tribute at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
So when you weren’t snoozing through Miranda Lambert & Dierks Bentley’s wonderful tribute to contemporary boredom with “Over You” and “Home” or actually felt some blood pumping through your system with Jack White’s short two-song set (at the end of which he just violently threw his guitar away because he’s Jack White and why not), there were apparently some awards that were given out. The Grammys occasionally pull this positively annoying cop-out move wherein they re-nominate songs they didn’t get to award the year previous because a new, live rendition of it is now commercially available (a stunt they pulled two years ago in order to give a gong to Train for “Hey, Soul Sister”), which lead to Adele winning for her Live at Royal Albert Hall take of her own chart-topper “Set Fire to the Rain” (although she did deliver another expectedly appealing speech, continuing her never-ending charm offensive on the world to great effect).
Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley perform at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Prince showed up to deliver the Record of the Year Grammy and still won the room with his presence even if he only said no less than 15 words total. The surprise winner for this accolade was Gotye for “Somebody That I Used to Know” and more credit to him—that song sounded like absolutely nothing else on pop radio and still became a smash. Mumford & Sons pulled off an Album of the Year upset over Frank Ocean, Fun. won a couple of trophies which they seemed to be suitably amazed about winning, and Ocean himself seemed to be trying really hard to not rub his own Best Urban Contemporary Album win over Chris Brown, his recent TMZ-spat buddy. Also, props must be given to the Black Keys’ lightning-fast speech for winning Best Rock Performance, their notorious hatred of all things awards-related rivaling that of Louis C.K. Then, if your tolerance for pop stars speaking about their own vapidity wasn’t already at its breaking point, then fret not, Katy Perry is here to tell you that even if you don’t win Best New Artist, you can still be successful because “I have my own eyelash line; take that, Bon Iver.” Perhaps it was meant to be funny, but as with most things Katy Perry, her performance fell flat, and it just made her sound grumpy and unappealing.
Contrast that with Justin Timberlake’s exclamation of “Best Grammys ever!” part way through the broadcast, excited to be performing but failing to experience what it was like for everyone that was watching at home, a glut of blasé pop stars trotted out for us to dance and sing, the colors of the lights changing even as our interest waned, our collective intelligence insulted by LL Cool J’s constant requests for us to hashtag everything. Maybe if this trend keeps up, we can try a new hashtag of our own for next year: #GrammyFail
LL Cool J at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)