Last year's Grammys came pre-loaded with plenty of drama, from the return of Adele after some precarious throat surgery to the death of Whitney Houston just a few days before the ceremony. This year, the only pre-show drama was around a prim CBS memo advising attendees to keep themselves covered on the red carpet.
The ceremony Sunday night didn't exactly relieve the drama drought.
As the Recording Academy transitions from a boomer-centric, Steely Dan-awarding demographic into a younger, playlist-shuffling voting body, the Grammy ceremonies are becoming as diverse and catholic as the nominations. Sunday's performances during the marathon three-and-a-half-hour show, broadcast on CBS from the Staples Center in Los Angeles, spanned a dozen genres but lacked a big talking point or an overall stunning moment.
The Black Keys edged ahead of the awards pack, taking four and sweeping the rock categories. The show began with six leading contenders for six awards each -- Kanye West, Jay-Z, the Black Keys, Mumford & Sons, Frank Ocean and the band fun. -- but the rock duo was the only act to hold its luck through the show, winning best rock song and rock performance ("Lonely Boy"), and rock album ("El Camino"), with guitarist Dan Auerbach also named producer of the year (non-classical).
Belgian-Australian singer Gotye pulled off a couple of upsets, winning three Grammys on the strength of his omnipresent 2012 single "Somebody That I Used to Know." The album that generated the song, "Making Mirrors," beat out Fiona Apple, Bjork, M83 and Tom Waits for alternative album. Then Gotye spoiled fun.'s nomination sweep of the top four Grammy categories when "Somebody" took the award for record of the year.
fun. wasn't sad, though. The pop band was named best new artist -- even though, as singer Nate Reuss noted in his acceptance speech, "You can see our faces and see that we are not young" -- and nabbed the prestigious song of the year award.
West and Jay-Z kept their "Throne" collaboration alive through three Grammys, too, for rap performance and rap song ("N****s in Paris") and rap/sung collaboration ("No Church in the Wild," with Ocean).
Ocean came into the ceremony as a critical favorite, but other than sharing the above award with West and Jay-Z, the only other Grammy he picked up was the inaugural award for urban contemporary album.
The one awards stunner of the night came once again at the end. Despite only winning one other award all day (for long-form music video), folk-rock band Mumford & Sons landed album of the year -- almost as much of a last-minute shocker as Arcade Fire's left-field win two years ago.
The performances: meh
As usual, the telecast was a long sprint because it's built on a lot of performances -- the occasionally genuine and the mostly manufactured.
Because apparently no awards telecast would be complete without her, Taylor Swift opened the show with her latest, biggest hit, "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," the song she closed the MTV Video Music Awards with five months ago. Dressed in a white circus ringmaster's costume and surrounded by marionette-like dancers -- and one seriously creepy clown rolling back and forth -- Swift warbled through the tune in her typically shaky, pitchy style. (You know, I try not to pile on, but her every performance on television is significantly under par. I don't understand the consistent bookings.)
The much-ballyhooed comeback of Justin Timberlake was about as underwhelming as the release of his new single, "Suit & Tie." Timberlake appeared sporting a tux to sing that song fronting a very large band with horns, strings and bandstands that read "JT & the Tennessee Kids." For the telecast, the performance was shown in black-and-white -- and seemed just as old and tired. Timberlake sounded good, but stuck behind a mike stand, he barely danced. Jay-Z stepped up from his Jack Nicholson seat in the front row to add his rapped contributions.
Timberlake then performed the entirety of a new song, "Pusher Love Girl" from his forthcoming album "The 20/20 Experience," and though the telecast returned to color it wasn't quite as exciting as arriving in Oz. This classic, adult edge to Timberlake's comeback looks stale, uninspired. He's pretty much America's Robbie Williams now, and I predict a songbook album within a few years.
Frank Ocean's moment on the stage was almost as highly anticipated, but he blew it. With a terrible song choice -- "Forrest Gump" lacks melody and showcases Ocean's least-compelling lyric writing -- Ocean attempted to present a multimedia event, combining projection screens behind him and on his piano. But an unsure delivery and vocals that kept slipping under the key left the arena and most of the viewing audience scratching their heads and wondering what all the fuss has been about.
Perhaps the most surprising and enjoyable performance of the night came from Rihanna -- not in the way it shocked or rocked or pushed boundaries but in its elegant understatement. Singing "Stay," a cool, aching ballad, Rihanna provided ample reasons to reassess her as a vocalist. Maybe not quite an Adele moment, it was still wonderfully graceful and dignified. No one knew who the guy was singing with her (obscure Louisiana singer Mikky Ekko, who guests on and co-wrote the single), which was fine -- it kept the focus on RiRi.
Elton John joined popular strummer Ed Sheeran for a simple, sweet performance of Sheeran's "The A Team," a perfectly beautiful song about a drug-addicted prostitute, with. With Sheeran playing a small acoustic guitar and John beside him on piano. Thank heavens the performance didn't segue into "Philadelphia Freedom" -- though John has shown similar impressive restraint in previous Grammy duets with Eminem and Lady Gaga.
fun. took its moment in the Grammy spotlight to perform a palpitating ballad, "Carry On." It's not the most fun song, but singer Nate Ruess belted us into emotional submission. The band then capped off the performance by singing in the rain -- somehow, the Staples Center's indoor stage was drenched by a downpour.
The pairing of rising R&B star Miguel and rapper Wiz Khalifa was as troublesome as expected. Miguel opened the performance working through the title of "Kaleidoscope Dream" before slipping into his sexy hit "Adorn." The young, fresh-faced, clearly confident new star literally ran rings around Khalifa, who had little to do other than muttering a few the lines he phoned into the single's remix. The triumphant moment ended with the most awkward awards segue ever: Miguel finished killing it and said, "And now, the nominees for best country solo performance..."
Alicia Keys and Maroon 5 turned in one of the more forced joint efforts. The band started with "Daylight," with singer and TV talent judge Adam Levine looking bored and sounding flat. "This is our last night," he sang. (If only.) Keys appeared behind a double drum kit, bringing a Sheila E. vibe to her "Girl on Fire."
Other performances included the gritty and genteel Mumford & Sons scraping out a determined "I Will Wait"; a pairing of Dierks Bentley and Miranda Lambert for plain readings of Lambert's "Over You" and Bentley's "Home"; Kelly Clarkson sang a lovely "Tennessee Waltz," in tribute to the late Patti Page, plus other selections; a time-filling tribute to Bob Marley that included Bruno Mars and Sting; the Lumineers performing "Ho Hey," the only song anyone has and will hear from them; and a star-studded tribute to Levon Helm that, as it should, gave Chicago's Mavis Staples the last word, which was, "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" -- and the audience agreed.
Chicago's early stars at Sunday's Grammys were contemporary music ensemble eighth blackbird, whose "Meanwhile" album (on local label Cedille) won for best chamber music/small ensemble performance. A 17-minute piece from that recording, Stephen Hartke's "Incidental Music to Imaginary Puppet Plays," also won the Grammy for best contemporary classical composition.
The sextet also performed during the pre-telecast ceremony -- when the bulk of the 81 Grammys are dished out -- and earned raves for their frenetic strings-and-piano experience.
Otherwise, it was an off night for Chicago Grammy contenders. R. Kelly, Lupe Fiasco, Shemekia Copeland, the Heritage Blues Orchestra, Kurt Elling, Kathy Griffin, Kaskade, Donald Lawrence, Anita Wilson and even Michelle Obama missed out in their categories.