Bored This Way: The 54th Annual Grammy Awards

If the 54th Annual Grammy Awards broadcast taught us anything this year, it’s that there’s a profound difference between the deeply personal and the overproduced.

Hours before the broadcast began, people were wondering just how the show was going to address the elephant in the room: no less than 24 hours prior to taping, Whitney Houston — the definitive pop diva — was found dead in her hotel room at age 48. The world was shocked by the abruptness of the announcement, and before long, questions emerged as to how the glitzy, overblown spectacle that was the yearly Grammy Awards was going to handle such a delicate subject.

LL Cool J presents a tribute to Whitney Houston at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

At first, it seemed as if the Grammys would proceed as if nothing happened as without any true introduction to speak of, Bruce Springsteen went out on stage and busted out a classic-sounding E Street tune (“We Take Care of Our Own”), playing it with pomp and gusto, sounding more alive here than he has in years. It then quietly segued over to host LL Cool J, who has never been known for being one with enough charisma to host a stadium-sized awards show. What was amazing, however, was his opening speech, addressing the passing of Houston before asking the entire audience in Los Angeles’ Staples Center to join him in prayer. Everyone quietly complied. Given the show’s history for over-the-top, highly visual performances that often signified nothing, this opening prayer proved to be a remarkably understated gesture, and one that was 100 percent fitting to what was going on in everyone’s mind. LL Cool J genuinely spoke from the heart, set up the tone of the evening perfectly, and showed that it was possible to be classy, respectful, and even lightly celebratory in the wake of such a profound tragedy.

Bruce Springsteen performs at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

As the evening wore on, however, viewers got to see the truly hit-or-miss nature of “music’s biggest night”: most of the performances existed simply for the sake of their own big budget spectacle, all sound and fury while signifying pretty much nothing. It was those other performances though — those moments that actually meant something to the performers — that proved to be the real highlights of the evening, leaving a far more lasting impression than any of Deadmau5’s digitized mouse faces ever could.

Deadmau5 performs during the 54th Annual Grammy Awards. (Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Things started off promising enough: Bruno Mars, dressed with his band in golden tuxes while yellow lights shined all around him, wanted to show the world that his new old singer fixation of the week was James Brown, giving a lively rendition of “Runaway Baby” that served as a decent pace car for the show, Mars’ love of performing shining through each and every foot stomp (touring with Janelle Monaé has obviously upped his game a bit). Alicia Keys & Bonnie Raitt, meanwhile, did a perfectly passable, stripped-down rendition of “A Sunday Kind of Love” as tribute to the late Etta James. A few awards were handed out as well, but not many people really seemed to give much notice (over the course of the three-and-a-half-hour broadcast, a measly nine awards were presented).

Chris Martin performs at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

At that point, however, the broadcast began to devolve into the kind of empty spectacle that has become the festering carcass of a calling card that the Grammys have become known for. Chris Brown danced around a lot on a big colorful series of boxes to perform “Turn Up the Music” and “Beautiful People”, but the only person that wound up truly impressing was the lighting designer for that segment. Jason Aldean & Kelly Clarkson walked around what appeared to be the set of Hugo while blandly working their way through “Don’t You Wanna Stay”, and the Foo Fighters went outside to bore everyone with that song that played over the closing credits to Thor. Rihanna — capturing the “slutty Tina Turner” look perfectly — did a dry, unimaginative take on her current hit “We Found Love” before trying to duet with Coldplay, which soon lead us to all cringe in unison as we heard Chris Martin having a hell of a time finding the right key to sing “Paradise” in. In short, despite the numerous colorful video screens that helped make every performance seem grander than it actually was, there was barely a single memorable moment during this particular stretch of the show.

Rihanna performs at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

As is often the case, commercial genres were represented well at the awards (country, pop, rock, rap), while genres of equal renown (classical, blues, jazz, world) were slighted if not completely ignored (one could argue that Diana Krall got to show off her chops backing Paul McCartney as he warbled through “My Valentine”, but the performance was so generic and bland that all anyone really remembered about it was the weird buzzing sound that kept coming through at the beginning of the song, which was either a technical problem with Joe Walsh’s guitar or an avant-garde instrumentalist who was using a broken egg timer to spice things up a bit). Also in Grammy’s perpetual bag of tricks was a drawn-out speech by Recording Academy President Neil Portnow, who once again addressed whatever issue was facing the music industry this year (which in this case was a off-handed mention of the SOPA/PIPA controversy and the need for better anti-piracy laws).

Paul McCartney performs during the 54th Annual Grammy Awards. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Yet even while Taylor Swift worked her way through “Mean” (on a set which apparently was made to look like a production of Les Miserables as staged by a bunch of orphans) and Katy Perry once again gave a Grammy performance that was all substance and no soul (which seems to be all that she’s capable of, having delivered painfully unimpressive turns at previous Grammy broadcasts), some genuinely heartfelt moments managed to shine through. Lively country duo The Civil Wars comically thanked “all of their opening acts” before breaking into a lively voice-and-guitar take of “Barton Hollow” that, even at 60 seconds in length, proved to be one of the most soulful things in the broadcast up to that point. The Band Perry & Blake Shelton, meanwhile, did the best that they could do covering Glen Campbell songs, but when the man himself came out to play “Rhinestone Cowboy”, he flooded the stage with more energy and charm than all of the reunited Beach Boys (and Maroon 5 along with a nervous-looking Foster the People) combined.

Katy Perry performs at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

If one were to sum up the night in one word, however, it would be “Adele” (heck, you could even change the name of “Grammy” to “The Things Adele Keeps Winning”). The 60 Minutes broadcast prior to the show’s start gave a humanizing look at the big-voiced British girl who has already sold over five million copies of her album 21 in the U.S. alone, as she was funny, up-front, and remarkably charming, laughing herself silly when Anderson Cooper showed her the SNL sketch based entirely around people crying to “Someone Like You”. Her acceptance speeches at the ceremony were funny and quirky (and frequent, as she won everything she was nominated for, including Album of the Year), and her performance of “Rolling in the Deep” laid waste to every other person who walked on stage that evening: she was direct, her voice was in perfect form, and without the aid of any gimmicks (like the atrociously insane Nicki Minaj performance of “Roman Holiday” which may have very well been directed by Julie Taymor) she brought the house with a flawless rendition of her dynamite song, even going as far as to laugh at the very end of her very last note, as if amazed that she got through it without a hitch. Much as with Jennifer Hudson’s near-flawless imitation of “I Will Always Love You” (and make no bones about it: it was a direct imitation that none-the-less worked due to Hudson’s own personal conviction behind it), Adele’s genuine thrill of performing shone through each and every moment she was on stage. While many can argue that other performances were on a technical level greater in their own way, you can never fake sincerity (people, regardless of intelligence level, call always tell when a performer is being disingenuous), and it’s obvious that the world’s honeymoon with Adele is far, far from over.

Adele performs at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

While often times its easy to call how effective a particular Grammy broadcast is — one year its seemingly-random collaborations simply fall apart, another the improved sense of overwhelming spectacle works on a variety of levels — we are here dealing with a broadcast that is very much hit or miss, at times heart-renderingly honest, at others as vapid as pop music can possibly get. Many people took note of Dave Grohl’s acceptance speech for when the Foo Fighters won Best Rock Performance for “Walk”, wherein he passionately spoke as to how “the human element of music is what’s most important.” He continued to say “It’s not about being perfect, it’s not about being correct, it’s not about what goes on in a computer,” shouting “Long live rock & roll!” over an LMFAO song that played him off stage. While some may call the playing of such a tune over Grohl’s impassioned words an ironic move, shutting down a true rock artist with overproduced dance fluff, it should be noted that no less than an hour later, the Foo Fighters again took the stage, this time collaborating with Grammy-nominated dance producer Deadmau5, strobe lights ablaze and techno beats blaring as Grohl sang “Rope” in perfect tandem with the man who was DJing while wearing a gigantic digital mouse helmet. Here, the irony was lost on absolutely no one.

Foo Fighters perform at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards, during the outdoor concert at the Nokia Theater next to the Staples Center in Los Angeles. (Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times/MCT)