It started with mumbled thunder. Perpetually bland host LL Cool J was barely able to get his voice to pierce through the crowd roar as AC/DC took the stage at the top of the 57th Annual Grammy Awards. As the legendary rock outfit played, even Brian Johnson proved unable to conquer the squall himself, his muzzled bark hampering would could’ve been one of the easiest Hall of Fame openers to “Music’s Biggest Night”.
It was only in retrospect, however, that viewers were able to properly appreciate what the band was trying to do by bringing some energy to the stage, as this year’s three-and-a-half-hour-plus broadcast turned out to be one of the most boring, ballad-heavy, and staunchly self-important television events of recent memory. The evening took on a weighty and serious tone that it rarely diverted from, making things like a Madonna-by-numbers performance of her upbeat new single “Living for Love” absolutely pop out in contrast to a never-ending slog of downbeat and mid-tempo numbers. Pharrell even performed a new Hans Zimmer-assisted version of his (Grammy-winning) hit “Happy” by adding in what sounded like the spoken-word intro to Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” and the drumline from Radiohead’s “15 Step”, because that’s exactly what a feel-good summer hit like “Happy” needed: dramatic orchestral bombast.
Pharrell Williams performs with Hans Zimmer at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Hell, even the music they chose to play off during people’s (a.k.a. Sam Smith’s) acceptance speeches proved to be a minor-key dirge, something that viewers got very used to given that they played it at nearly every opportunity they could during the half-dozen award presentations that actually made it to broadcast, the smallest number of actual televised recognitions to date. As if to add insult to injury, they even discontinued the tradition of at least flashing the names of “non-televised” winners in other categories during lead-in to the commercial breaks, thereby leaving it up to the public to find out the 78 other category winners on their own. (Which is a real shame, because otherwise you’ll miss curious little victories like avant-electronic composer Aphex Twin winning Best Dance/Electronic Album for Syro).
For those wondering how you fill up a 220-minute awards broadcast where only six gongs are handed out, the answer is simple: with a never-ending slog of performances that fail to be memorable in any significant way. There was no overarching theme to the evening, or even a unifying event like the tragic passing of Whitney Houston to pull such a decadent ceremony’s intentions into sharp focus. In fact, the lack of such out-there disasters like Nicki Minaj’s staging of “Roman Holiday” from a few years ago meant that viewers were left with nothing but one inoffensive pop performance following another. At one point, the broadcast ran close to 90 minutes between award presentations.
Sure, it was a treat to have Jeff Lynne pop out a pair of songs for Electric Light Orchestra, with “Mr. Blue Sky” getting a nice little assist from Ed Sheeran. Yes, Eric Church lived up to his hype by delivering arguably the best country performance of the evening with a straightforward, no-frills rendition of “Give Me Back My Hometown”. Church’s turn rivaled the lively Rihanna/Kanye West/Paul McCartney acoustic pop misnomer that is “FourFiveSeconds” in terms of quality. For that tune, the addition of a few loud-in-the-mix electric guitar parts greatly embellished RiRi’s bare-bones number with real musical muscle. The trio’s live take proved to be, strangely, one of the night’s most satisfying performances.
Eric Church performs at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Yet these modest pleasures were few and far between. The rest of the evening featured renditions that were either bland (see: Ariana Grande retreating into her Fortress of Solitude to deliver the snoozer “Just a Little Bit of Your Heart”), surprisingly unmemorable (see: Miranda Lambert setting a neon clamshell on fire for “Little Red Wagon”, which sounds far more memorable on paper than it did in action), or too downright expected to actually be effective (see: Mary J. Blige joining Sam Smith on his hit “Stay With Me”, both parties doing pretty much what you would predict them to do without any flash or real purpose informing their performances). Even Sia, who continues to stretch her “don’t look at me while I sing” gimmick to its breaking point, managed to do nothing more than give us another “live” music video with pint-sized dance phenom Maddie Ziegler, one-upping her Ellen performance of same by adding in Kristen Wiig but, with its time as the cultural zeitgeist having long since passed, it’s still the SNL parody with Jim Carrey that remains most prominent in our memories.
Perhaps what was most puzzling of all about the broadcast was the evening’s need to have Barack Obama televise a message about preventing violence against women, followed by the testimony of Brooke Axtell, a domestic abuse survivor herself. There is nothing wrong with using a widely-viewed broadcast such as this one to deliver an important message, but the abrupt shift in tone unfortunately recalled the time when Al Gore swung by the 2006 MTV Video Music Awards to talk about melting glaciers. Although Gore and Obama presented a fine and important subject, their presentations nonetheless proved remarkably ill-fitting of a lavish awards show. Social media mavens were quick to also note how the anti-violence message was somewhat diluted in the multitude of nominations Chris Brown had received this year, which, when coupled with Katy Perry’s only tangentially-related performance of “By the Grace of God”, made for one ideologically inconsistent block of television.
Prince congratulates Beck for his Grammy win for Best Album of the Year at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
The only real surprise of the evening came from Beck winning the Album of the Year Grammy over expected favorite Sam Smith, upon which Kanye ran on stage to jokingly interrupt Beck’s acceptance speech before backing down. Beck soon called him back up, but to no avail. Curiously, Album of the Year was the third-to-last award handed out of the evening, with the all-encompassing Record of the Year (i.e. best overall song) category now serving as the show-closing headliner, perhaps a product of the Grammy Awards realizing that album sales have been so down as of late that Billboard has now began attributing “Streaming Equivalent” and “Track Equivalent” unit sales to overall album totals, thereby making 10 individual people’s purchase of Mark Ronson’s Bruno Mars-assisted chart-topper “Uptown Funk” count towards one single Mark Ronson album sale.
This subject, of course, was something that was skirted by the broadcast wholesale. Recording Academy President Neil Portnow used his allocated time to talk about forthcoming legal action on songwriting royalty rates in the age of “Streaming Equivalent” album sales. Still, no single award win or presentation topped the amount of applause Prince received for just walking out on stage, which perhaps said more about the listless direction of the broadcast than it did anything else.
In an evening of heavy subject matter and low BPM, leave it to Beyoncé to help close out the evening with a spirited, actually-impassioned rendition of the gospel staple “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” before segueing over to John Legend and Common closing out the show in fine form with their Oscar-nominated song “Glory”. Unlike Beck and Chris Martin languishing over “Heart Is a Drum” or Brandy Clark and Dwight Yoakam doing little to make Clark’s own “Hold My Hand” even remotely memorable, Beyoncé managed to send chills down everyone’s spine with a performance that was rooted in the kind of vocal histrionics that actually work in a gospel context, not only playing into her own upbringing performing in churches but also giving spotlight to a genre that is rarely featured in mainstream broadcasts such as this. When you couple this with Juanes’ serviceable rendition “Juntos (Together)”, you realize just how little genre recognition there was outside of the usual pop/R&B/country template. Whole categories like jazz and classical were completely ignored despite the broadcast running time being more than accommodating for even the briefest of detours.
Don’t forget: AC/DC opened the telecast with a song called “Rock or Bust”, a prophetic ultimatum that was answered all too quickly by a cavalcade of performers who seemed to be tripping over themselves to see who could be the most uninspiring of them all. There were exceptions to this, but far from enough to justify the bloated behemoth of blandness that the annual Grammys telecast has become.