Even before the death of Whitney Houston the day before, the 54th annual Grammy Awards were poised to be a performance-packed soap opera.
Adele's back after throat surgery! Rihanna and Chris Brown are in the same room together! Lots of people have died, and sweet ol' Glen Campbell's saying goodbye!
But Sunday night's Grammys were telenovela-free and performance-focused. The actual gramophones, per the Recording Academy's strategy to battle declining award-show ratings, were barely a sideshow to the three-and-a-half-hour ceremony's 18 performances by more than 30 artists.
The specter of lost talent loomed over the show from the beginning. Bruce Springsteen and what remains of his E Street Band -- minus saxman Clarence Clemons, who died last year -- opened the show with his new single, the politically sharp but ho-hum strummer "We Take Care of Our Own."
Then LL Cool J, the Grammys' first host in seven years, attempted to set the tone for mourning Houston -- and move past it. "There is no way around this," he said, "we've had a death in the family." He then led the packed Staples Center in a prayer "for a woman we loved, for our fallen sister, Whitney Houston," and all those heathen music industry heads bowed. Classy, LL.
That sufficed, and the rest of the show was pretty bright.
Of course, Jennifer Hudson's tribute was more than enough. At the end of the requisite memorial reel, Hudson appeared under a single spotlight in a beautiful, sparkly black gown. With no musical backing at first, the Chicago star began singing Houston's signature hit, Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You." It was the perfect match of voice for voice, power for power. Twitter fell relatively silent in awe.
Hudson opened a cappella for effect, but Adele did it to declare that her voice was indeed back. In her first performance since vocal cord surgery (not long after she performed in Chicago), the beloved young star breezed through "Rolling in the Deep" and bowed to the night's longest and most sincere standing ovation.
While everyone in the back of their mind Sunday night was mourning the loss of a singular vocal talent, here were two fresh ones ringing brightly.
As expected, Adele ruled the awards, winning six trophies including record of the year for "Rolling in the Deep" and album of the year for "21." Back on stage for the final award, she cried tears of joy and said, "It's been the most life-changing year!"
Chicago rapper Kanye West seemed snubbed by a lack of nomination for album of the year, but he won four Grammys -- sweeping the rap categories: rap album ("My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy"), rap song and rap/sung collaboration (both for "All of the Lights" with Rihanna, Kid Cudi and Fergie), and rap performance ("Otis" with Jay-Z, from their collaboration "Watch the Throne"). He was not present to pick them up.
Other lost artists were remembered. In the pre-telecast ceremony -- where 68 of the 78 Grammy Awards were announced -- the late Amy Winehouse won a Grammy for her duet with Tony Bennett, "Body and Soul." As a presenter, Chicago rapper Common gave a shout-out to Gil Scott-Heron, and Alicia Keys and Bonnie Raitt served up a supple reading of "A Sunday Kind of Love" in tribute to Etta James. (No love, though, for "Soul Train" creator Don Cornelius.)
That began a parade of the Grammys' annoying habit of maximizing star power by shoving artists together in "collaborations" that are awkward at best if not outright disastrous.
No one could justify indie-rockers Foster the People and worn-out pop-soul band Maroon 5 sharing the stage with the freshly reunited Beach Boys, yet there they were. Maroon's Adam Levine strained toward the high notes in "Surfer Girl," Foster the People stood stock still and survived "Wouldn't It Be Nice," then the creaky, vacant-eyed Boys themselves -- Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks -- shuffled through "Good Vibrations" with little energy and even less relevance.
The juxtaposition of the Band Perry and Blake Shelton in front of what is likely Glen Campbell's farewell TV performance, singing "Gentle on My Mind" and "Southern Nights" respectively, was more logical and successful. Campbell -- nearing the end of his Goodbye Tour, which recently stopped in Joliet, after announcing an Alzheimer's disease diagnosis -- paced the stage belting out "Rhinestone Cowboy" as the camera followed Paul McCartney as he clapped and sang along.
The mix of Rihanna and Coldplay didn't help Coldplay. After Rihanna sang a bit of "We Found Love" and joined Coldplay's Chris Martin for "Princess of China," Martin's voice wavered and quavered and was left to limp through the band's "Paradise." It was a showstopper -- as in, it slammed the evening's momentum to a halt.
Indie-folk act Bon Iver declined a Grammys mash-up gig, with Justin Vernon telling The Hollywood Reporter last week, "We wanted to play our music" instead of someone else's. But when Vernon accepted Bon Iver's Grammy for best new artist (complete with a holla to his native Eau Claire, Wis.), he measured his contempt, acknowledging the difficulty in accepting the award -- any award -- because "when I started to make songs I did it for the inherent reward of making songs."
McCartney's double-breasted grace added a touch of class to the proceedings with "My Valentine," an original song from his new album of mostly '30s and '40s standards. (Yes, that was Joe Walsh on classical guitar.) Macca then closed the evening at the piano for "Golden Slumbers"/"Carry That Weight"/"The End."
Other performances included a blue-haired, Aeon Fluxed Katy Perry (debuting "Part of Me"), Chris Brown ("Turn Up the Music," "Beautiful People"), Taylor Swift ("Mean"), Tony Bennett and Carrie Underwood ("It Had to Be You"), and a bizarre "Exorcism" parody by Nicki Minaj.
Notable in performance and awards: Dance music finally got its Grammy due Sunday night. Brown, Deadmau5, Foo Fighters, David Guetta and Lil Wayne romped through a frenetic salute to DJs, and earlier in the day Skrillex. The DJ (aka Sonny Moore) capped off his "insane year" winning three awards.
In a shed outside the Staples Center, the Foo Fighters blasted through a lackluster performance of "Walk," after the album had earlier won Grammys for hard rock/metal performance and rock album.
But Grohl got in the evening's one rock and roll moment. As the band later hit the arena stage to accept the rock performance award for "Walk," Grohl gave a heartfelt acceptance speech about making music simply and honestly: "It's not about being perfect, not about being absolutely correct. It's not about what goes on in a computer. It's about what goes on in here," pointing to his head and heart.
In a telling moment about the Grammys' priorities, Grohl's mike was then silenced, the stage went dark and some ridiculous LMFAO music blared as filler. But Grohl managed to put an exclamation point on his statement. Before cutting away, we heard him shout loudly, "Long live rock and roll!"