Veering away from their stated mission "to honor artistic achievement... without regard to album sales or chart position," the 52nd annual Grammy Awards instead embraced the "American Idol" pop mainstream Sunday during one of the longest but least substantial nights in its history.
Broadcast live from the Staples Center in Los Angeles and clocking in at an interminable 3 1/2 hours, most of the show was given over to variety show-quality live performances and pointless speechifying, with a mere nine prizes actually given out on air. A larger number than ever of the 109 total Grammys were handed out during the un-televised ceremony that preceded the broadcast.
The biggest winner was Beyoncé, who claimed four golden gramophones early on (best female R&B vocal performance, best traditional R&B vocal performance, best R&B song and best contemporary R&B album), then added best pop vocal performance ("Halo") and the prestigious song of the year honor for "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)."
But Beyoncé was denied a sweep of the biggest honors when they unnaturally radiant Taylor Swift took album of the year for "Fearless," adding to wins for best female country vocal performance, best country song and best country album.
Increasingly ubiquitous and increasingly annoying, Swift performed a medley where the centerpiece was a head-scratching duet with Stevie Nicks on "Rhiannon." Sorry, but I think Kanye West was right about Swift being undeserving of all the hype when he bum-rushed her acceptance speech at the much more entertaining MTV Video Music Awards.
Inexplicably surrounded by a phalanx of space-age storm troopers, Beyoncé performed a histrionic rendition of her own "If You Were a Boy" that, just as inexplicably, also included a bit of "You Oughta Know" by Alanis Morrissette.
Of the other key prizes, best new artist went to bland country bumpkins the Zac Brown Band, who opened their performance with an a cappella rendition of "America the Beautiful." And, briefly derailing the pop express, Kings of Leon claimed a surprising victory for record of the year for "Use Somebody." The all-in-the-family Nashville rockers also won best rock performance by a duo or group with vocals and best rock song.
Multiple nominee and entertaining button-pusher Lady Gaga, who arrived on the red carpet looking like a psychedelic tooth fairy, won two prizes: best dance recording and best electronic/dance album.
Claiming one more honor to bolster her standing as the new Madonna, Gaga opened the show with an elaborate production number on "Pokerface" that found her simultaneously providing the quintessential 2010 pop moment and mocking the superficiality of the star-making machine as she was literally fed into the foundry amid a burst of flames. She resurfaced, a little crispier for her troubles, to duet with Sir Elton John on her own "Speechless" and his chestnut "Your Song."
It was the highlight of the show, but unfortunately, there still were 200 minutes to go.
Also heavy favorites throughout the night: cartoon hip-poppers the Black Eyed Peas, who went into prime time carrying three prizes: best pop performance by a duo or group with vocals, best pop vocal album and best short form music video.
Continuing the show's futuristic theme with a troupe of robot dancers, pop's answer to the X-Men performed an underwhelming medley of "I'm a Be"--complete with audio drop-out during the cuss words--and the effervescent "I Got A Feeling."
Other winners included Eminem (best rap album, "Relapse"), the French dance-pop band Phoenix (best alternative album, "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix"), Green Day (best rock album, "21st Century Breakdown") and Northwest grad and Second City album Stephen Colbert (best comedy album, "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!"), who made the night's best acceptance speech quip when he said, "It was a Christmas album, so obviously I should thank Jesus Christ."
With most of the categories featuring local artists decided before the telecast, it was not a good night for Chicago. Though he was nominated for six awards--all of them in relatively minor categories, with his brilliant "808s & Heartbreak" overlooked for the best album nod it richly deserved--West claimed only two: best rap song and best rap/sung collaboration for "Run This Town," his jam with Jay-Z and Rihanna.
Local jazzman Kurt Elling won best jazz vocal album for "Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music Of Coltrane and Hartman." But soul and gospel legend Mavis Staples, alternative-country chanteuse Neko Case, the genre-defying Wilco, veteran rapper Common and gospel great Smokie Norful were among the local nominees who lost out in their respective categories.
In a "jump the shark" moment from which they likely never will recover, aging pop-punk heroes Green Day performed "21 Guns" with the cast from the new Broadway musical, "American Idiot," reducing a great song to a pompous, bombastic, "Up With People" meets "Rent" sing-along. (Can this possibly be the same band that once gave us "Dookie"?)
Pink crooned "Glitter in the Air," an atypically demure and saccharine ballad, while indulging in some Cirque du Soleil acrobatics and wearing what amounted to a yard or two of white ribbon. Lady Antebellum was pleasant but snooze-inducing, and just as sleepy was the obligatory Haiti benefit performance of "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" by Andrea Bocelli and Mary J. Blige.
Veteran hair-hoppers Bon Jovi rocked it like it was 1986, the Dave Matthews Band was more bloated than ever thanks to the addition of strings, choir and marching band on "You & Me," pairing best R&B album winner Maxwell with legendary diva Roberta Flack was an idea that sounded better on paper than onstage and the Jamie Foxx-led, Slash-augmented hip-hop jam was the epitome of sloppy overindulgence.
Later on, another all-star hip-hop performance by Lil Wayne, Eminem and Drake (with Blink 182's Travis Barker for some reason on drums) was so rife with nasty language that more of the audio was silenced than broadcast.
But by far the most over-the-top moment during a night in which subtlety was an alien concept was the mismatched all-star sing-along to Michael Jackson's mawkish "Earth Song," featuring Celine Dion, Smokey Robinson, Carrie Underwood, Usher and Chicago's Jennifer Hudson.
The King of Pop definitely deserved a better tribute. Then again, I never made it to Target to pick up my "3-D Grammy Glasses" to experience the video as Jackson intended--though I suspect a pair of ear plugs would have been handier.