When Over-the-Top Hits the Spot: 2010 Grammy Awards

Lady Gaga performs at the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, on Sunday, January 31, 2010. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Overblown set pieces, fiery performances, and category wins that no one saw coming -- yes, this year, the Grammy Awards decided to be interesting.

Hold on a second -- did that just happen? Were the Grammy Awards ... kind of fun to watch this year?

In years previous, the CBS broadcast of the Grammy Awards was always a bit of a chore to slog through. The producers of this yearly glitz-riddled snoozefest frequently matched up unrelated artists together in the middle of a performance to try and make some cool, kitschy collaborations. More often than not though, these onstage mashups fell flat on their faces, leaving the uninspired jokes and Neil Portnow's equally uninspired speeches to pick up the slack, and they rarely -- if ever -- did.

This year, however, the producers tried a new thing by letting the performances be what they are: over-the-top, kind of ridiculous, and extravagant almost to the point of absurdity. The payoff? It was probably the best Grammy telecast in the past five years.

In its opening moments, Lady Gaga was in the middle of a giant "Fame Factory" run by an unnamed "Emcee"-like villain. Of course, being a Lady Gaga performance, the whole thing was powered by gaudy excess and way-too-many dancers onstage at one time, but for Gaga, it totally worked. "Poker Face" still sounded fresh after an entire year's worth of radio play, and the piano duet of her song "Speechless" with Elton John was a surprisingly welcome little surprise, and a helluva way to start off the show. Next thing you know, Stephen Colbert is cracking some actually-funny jokes, Green Day performed "21 Guns" with the cast of their forthcoming American Idiot theatrical show (and got pleasantly upstaged by them), and Beyoncé did a fantastically full-throttled performance of "If I Was a Boy" that merged with a cover of Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know" to great effect (who knew Beyoncé could wail like a rock vocalist?). For the first time in a long time, the performances felt alive, crackling with energy. The telecast wasn't trying to be "great art" -- it was just being what it was: a showcase for pop stars to do entertain us like only they know how.

Unfortunately, there were still a few "forced" moments of drama that wound up getting in the way of the show's wild energy, the Michael Jackson tribute being chief among them. Paying homage to one of the greatest pop performers of all time is no easy feat, and for those who saw This Is It, it was common knowledge that "Earth Song" was a key moment to Jackson's would-be comeback concert. So, instead of airing the 3D film that Jackson was shooting to go along with the track in its entirety (that girl was getting really upset about the destruction of Hometree), the producers instead decided to bring in a group of completely unrelated vocalists to sing along with Jackson's original recording. What does Celine Dion have to do with Michael Jackson, you might ask? That's a good question. You might as well be asking what Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, and Smokey Robinson have to do with MJ, much less why we would need to see them in 3D as well. In trying to make a point, the show's producers wound up making their tribute to the King of Pop remarkably pointless.

This wasn't the only moment to get weighed down by seriousness, either. The overblown cover of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" by Mary J. Blige and Andrea Bocelli (designed to be sold online afterwards to benefit Haiti relief) sounded exactly like you would expect it to sound like, just as how Bon Jovi's setlist of unabashed mainstream concessions were as inoffensive as they were painfully predictable, the online "vote for a song" feature once again proving to be more of annoyance during the broadcast than an actually-cool way to interact with the performers (the live inclusion of Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles during "Who Says You Can't Go Home" was a nice touch, however).

Yet these select moments -- all of which took place in the less-interesting second half of the telecast -- were not enough to weigh things down, as there was still a lot of excitement to be found, even in the handing out of the awards themselves. First off, it was great to see certain "lesser" categories like Best Comedy Album get the full-stage treatment, just as how it was nice to see the major awards get handed out to all sorts of genres, with Beyoncé's ultra-sleek pop gem "Single Ladies" taking home the Song of the Year prize while the Kings of Leon scored a surprise win for Record of the Year for their ubiquitous rock anthem "Use Somebody". There wasn't a Santana-like "clean sweep" this year, and as such, each category held a certain amount of drama to it, as there was absolutely no indication whatsoever of who was going to win what, making Taylor Swift's Album of the Year win all the more surprising (although, judging from her reactions, she was the most surprised out of us all).

At the end of the day, however, we still wind up talking about the performances, and we haven't even covered the best ones yet. For those who thought that the Zac Brown Band's win for Best New Artist was a surprise, the group proved they deserved it by unleashing their home-grown country stylings to an unsuspecting populace, Brown himself soloing on his acoustic like crazy, much to the delight of the frenzied crowd. Dave Matthews Band, meanwhile, offered up a touching, jubilant version of "You & Me" complete with jumping string-sections and a full horn backing, giving a life-affirming performance that would make LeRoi proud. Throw in a stunt-filled Pink ballad (the Cirque du Soliel-styled rendition of "Glitter in the Air") and Maxwell's amazingly soulful take on "Little Wings" (with Roberta Flack in tow), and you have a Grammy Awards Ceremony that was actually ... fun.

(What's even more? There were some nifty in-jokes as well, like how after Taylor Swift tweeted about singer/producer Butch Walker's one-man rendition of "You Belong With Me", she actually invited him onstage to play the "banjolin" during her own performance of it, which both artists seemed to totally relish -- and yes, this thing just got meta.)

So what have we learned from all of this? That in the long run (and at three-and-a-half hours, this telecast was definitely a long run), spectacle triumphs all. Perhaps this isn't necessarily the point that the Grammy foundation wishes to make, but if they really want to make the Grammy Awards a genuine celebration of the music that we all love, then they should do what they did this year and let the performers just do what they do best and let the audience enjoy this night for what it is: overblown spectacle done just right.

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