[27 January 2014]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
The ads were brash: expect a big reunited Beatles celebration! The remaining Highwaymen getting back together! Robin Thicke performing with the band Chicago for some reason! It was another spectacle-filled event for what is often billed as Music’s Biggest Night, but unlike the last two years—which were more gestations of empty noise than they were a celebration of actual talent—this year, despite a few obvious duds, ran at a pretty decent clip, and sometimes against its own will, the 2014 Grammy Awards actually turned out to be somewhat entertaining at times (imagine that).
The show opened with a somewhat-decently-kept secret in the form of Beyoncé performing “Drunk in Love” with Jay-Z, and her simple striptease/vocal fireworks display served a better opener than, say Lady Gaga‘s confused start of last year’s VMAs. There wasn’t too much over-decoration on stage: it was just Yoncé & Jay (Bey-Z?) running through the song, willfully avoiding confusing gimmickry to instead just be more about the performance than anything else. It was a smart move, and before long, the show got underway with host LL Cool J delivering his same casual level of charisma-free pap. Although he absolutely knocked his inaugural gig out of the park with a well-mannered and celebratory tone following the sudden passing of Whitney Houston, here, he just carted out faux-inspirational speeches about the power of music before being mercifully tucked away for a majority of the evening, perhaps jotting down the name of Pharrell’s hat retailer for future reference.
What really thrilled, however, was the set that came just shortly after LL’s opening salvo: Lorde performing her chart-topping (and later Grammy-winning) hit “Royals”, where the already-minimal song was given an even sparser arrangement, lots of practiced pauses and unexpected acapella moments making for a surprisingly evocative experience, the arrangement doing most of the work for her, as her voice and stage presence are still very much developing before our eyes. For now though, she can stake claim to one of the better Grammy performances of recent memory, because doing anything minimal in such a gargantuan setting is actually something that will garner notice.
After that, however, the festival of blandness began its weary march deep into our collective consciousness: the young Hunter Hayes continued to pad his reputation as one of the most generic songwriters and performers of his generation, Robin Thicke & Chicago collaborated on the most watered-down Steely Dan rendition of “Saturday in the Park/Blurred Lines” you could possibly imagine, and Katy Perry one again confused over-the-top-theatrics with real talent, performing “Dark Horse” with what appeared to be a stripper-friendly version of The Crucible, complete with a cameo from the Knights Who Say Ni. With numerous surface-level award show performances already under her sparkly belt, you’d think that Perry would’ve by now learned that schtick can only go so far. Some would argue that part of the appeal of Perry is her larger-than-life persona, but on the fundamental basics of performance, you strip away her high-budget entrapments and you’re left with song showcases that leave you feeling hollow.
Imagine Dragons and Kendrick Lamar perform. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
While awards were occasionally handed out (and boy let me emphasize the word “occasionally”), the main focus and (let’s face it) biggest draw of the evening was the performances. Pink’s acrobatic, live-sung take on her moody hit “Try” actually made for quite a compelling sight, although her Nate Ruess-assisted iteration of “Just Give Me a Reason” never quite took hold, Reuss’ voice scraping the upper range of his register in a somewhat painful fashion. While the hyped Beatles moments ultimately landed with a resounding “meh” (“Photograph” is fine, but bringing out Ringo to only back McCartney on his new song “Queenie Eye”, which isn’t even the best thing off of New?), the half-reunited Highwaymen (which consisted of Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Blake Shelton) croaked their way through an absolutely atrocious rendition of “Okie from Muskogee”, with no one on key and the song itself seeming to meander the more it went. Although they are called the Highwaymen, it’s obvious the fellas have been taking a few too many toll roads as of late.
Merle Haggard, left, in performance with Blake Shelton. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
In fact, outside of some pretty solid moments (Kacey Musgraves’ nice “Follow Your Arrow”, Sara Bareilles & Carole King’s trade-off of “Beautiful” & “Brave”, the better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be Everly Brothers’ tribute by Billie Joe Armstrong and Miranda Lambert), actually keeping songs in the right tempo proved to be a real big problem for a lot of performers, whether it be Imagine Dragons turning themselves into a painfully-bland proto-rock group backing up Kendrick Lamar or Daft Punk‘s ill-conceived “Get Lucky”/“Le Freak”/“Another Star” mashup with Stevie Wonder. The shifting rhythms—most of them feeling unintentional—led to these performances lurching in strange, unpleasant ways, and leaving much to be desired.
Yet, the ultimate display of award-show publicity stunts was carried out by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, who performed their extremely emotional same-sex marriage anthem “Same Love” with help from Mary Lambert and Madonna (inexplicably dressed as Boss Hog), and right in the middle of it, Queen Latifah helped officiate the wedding of some 30-odd couples, gay and straight alike, for a mass ceremony that took less than a minute, right there in the middle aisle of the live Grammy audience. What’s perhaps most surprising about this, though, was that this gesture actually kept in spirit of the song itself, was tastefully done, and actually served the entire performance effectively. “Same Love” is assuredly as big a “message song” as there could be last year, but to have a staged moment like that actually resonate, albeit in glitzy award-show fashion, is a testament to some considered planning and, ya know, actually recognizing what the song is about.
Couples are wedded as Macklemore, pictured, and Ryan Lewis, Mary Lambert, Trombone Shorty and Madonna perform “Same Love”. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
As is the case last year, Recording Academy President Neil Portnow has learned that he is not one for public speaking, so he kept his perennial speech focused on the Grammy Foundation’s new initiative to have people nominate incredible music teachers across the country. Given that was the only thing his speech focused on (thanks for not trying jokes this year, Neil), his oft-droll turn actually made for a celebration of people really making a difference in music, and encouraged even more people to nominate music educators in the future. As mentioned last year, this is a great idea and one of the best high-profile things the Recording Academy does, instead of spending far too much time discouraging downloaders as it has in the past.
As for the big prizes, a Lorde win for Song of the Year is hard to argue against, and while the Album of the Year nominees were all forward-thinking in their own way (save for Sara Bareilles’ inexplicable nod), few people should have been surprised by Daft Punk’s overall victory, as their Random Access Memories disc was an album that very much took great consideration into disco’s storied past, revitalizing and recontextualizing it in an exciting modern way, and that’s exactly the kind of thing that Grammy voters eat up in droves. Additionally, the big prizes (Record and Album of the Year) serve as a coronation for Daft Punk, a duo who have long been seen as some of the most innovative voices in dance music, only just now coming into their own realm of mainstream acceptance (and, to their credit, they wore their helmets and did not speak once during the ceremony—talk about commitment).
Steven Tyler and Smokey Robinson on stage. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
The thankless role of closing the show was this year given to Nine Inch Nails and Queens of the Stone Age (the former of whom made his displeasure of being cut off by a Delta advert very well known). But truth be told, once you cut out the melodramatic Taylor Swift songs, terrible presenters (‘cos Julia Roberts presenting a piece on the Beatles makes perfect sense to whom now?), and just focus on the awards and performances that were not cluttered by technicolor ephemera, the Grammys can actually turn out to be a decent broadcast and a half-way admirable celebration of many, many genres of music. Was this a great broadcast? It hasn’t been for years. But quite frankly, the Grammy Awards may very well turn into a consistently solid event if they just focus on the performance styles that work and slightly retool their format. Keep it up, and they might just get lucky.
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Splash Photo: Pharrell Williams, Daft Punk duo, and Nile Rogers on stage to accept the Grammy for Record of the Year at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center in Los Angeles on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)