No matter the failings of the Oscars, Emmys, or Tonys, they’re still regarded with a measure of respect and seriousness by those who love the respective artistic disciplines the awards are intended to honor. I’m sure there are music fans that feel the same way about the Grammys; I’ve just never met one.
These days, even the people that run the Grammys don’t seem to care all that much about the actual awards. During Sunday’s broadcast, at least in the early going, trophies were being handed out the glacial pace of once every 45 minutes or so. The emphasis is put, instead, on the music, an approach that’s preferable even on a night when most of the performances (with one big exception) didn’t stick out all that much. What will I remember from my first Grammys telecast in several years? Here are my awards.
Highlight of the night: I’m on the record as being ambivalent about Arcade Fire generally and The Suburbs in particular, but my soul is not made of tinfoil and skunk tails. I’m as thrilled as anybody else that’s ever loved a record put out by AF’s label Merge Records that the Grammys bestowed their highest honor on what must be regarded as the most transcendent indie act of the last decade. What this means, if anything, for indie rock at large remains to be seen—wasn’t everybody mocking these awards right before Barbara Streisand awkwardly handed one to Win Butler?—but the moment where Arcade Fire launched into a seemingly impromptu post-award encore of “Ready To Start” has to stand among the most memorable in Grammy history.
Biggest outrage (though not as big as some might make it to be): Anyone that relishes in bashing the Grammys for being stodgy, bland, and criminally unhip will be frothing at the mouth over pop-country outfit Lady Antebellum winning song and record of the year for “Need You Now” over popular and critical favorites like Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State Of Mind” and (especially) Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You,” which was cringingly referenced throughout the night as “(The Song Otherwise Known As Forget You).” Lady Antebellum certainly was the stodgy, bland, and criminally unhip choice here, but taken on its own merits, “Need You Now” is a solidly written, solidly produced song that will likely be a fixture on radio in multiple formats for the next several years. By the Grammy standard, that makes “Need You Now” the obvious winner.
Biggest outrage (montage edition): Every year at every award show, the pomp and circumstance gets put on pause for a mournful montage of those that we have lost. Inevitably, these well-intentioned tributes leave somebody significant out, and this year, that somebody ended up Gang Starr founder Guru, who died of cancer in April. Within seconds of the montage’s close, Twitter was atwitter with outrage over the snub.
Most impressive performance coming out of an awkward transition: Speaking of that memorial montage, the last artist featured was soul giant (no pun intended) Solomon Burke, who was immediately saluted by Mick Jagger via a spirited take of “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” with Raphael Saadiq. The transition from memorial to upbeat soul revue was a tad too brisk, like a drunken wake erupting at a funeral burial. But Jagger—who first sang the song on The Rolling Stones, Now! more than 45 years ago—was so assured and sincere in repaying his debt to Burke that any discomfort was quickly dissipated.
The “I Eat My Words” Award: In The A.V. Club’s “This Was Pop” column, I once called out pop singer-producer Bruno Mars for producing “wimpy, smarmy trifle” like his monster hit “Just The Way You Are.” I stand by those words as far as that song is concerned, but I quite liked his performance of “Grenade,” a soul throwback that allowed Mars to actually approach grittiness for once. He was even better a few moments later backing the electrifying Janelle Monae on drums as she tore through a crowd-surfing rendition of “Cold War.”
The “I Eat My Words” Award, runner-up: Again, in “This Was Pop,” I once described Mumford & Sons as “hokey cornpone-ographers.” But after enjoying the Brit-folkies’ song “The Cave,” perhaps I should amend that as “hokey but occasionally entertaining corpone-ographers.”
Most indignant reaction to Esperanza Spalding beating Justin Bieber for best new artist: As a nation scrambled to Wikipedia to find out just who jazz singer Esperanza Spalding was—including, I must admit, me—after she won the best new artist Grammy, one industrious Bieber fan decided to add a few lines of protest. (Photo courtesy of twitter.com/tcote)
Two minor consolation prizes for Justin Bieber: The teen idol-in-chief was shut out on Grammy night, no doubt delighting those that love seeing teen idols not win awards they’re too cool to care about anyway. (Those people are gonna be pissed again when the next Kids’ Choice Awards rolls around, so savor this.) Still, Bieber came out ahead in two ways Sunday night. First, he was the first person to play an acoustic guitar on stage (during a brief version of the hit “Baby”), beating out people like Mumford & Sons, Avett Brothers, and even Bob Dylan. Second, he was the first performer to wear a leather jacket, easily beating Eminem by at least an hour. Congrats, kid.
Most effective prop: No doubt, it was B.o.B.’s monocle, which unfortunately didn’t stay perched on B.o.B.’s face for the duration of his performance of “Nothin’ On You,” but was dazzling eyeware nonetheless.
Least effective prop: Cee-Lo Green was poised to have the performance of the night when he came out flanked by some faux-Muppets on “(The Song Otherwise Known As Forget You).” Then Gwyneth Paltrow entered to take away Green’s lead vocal and much of the loopy on-stage energy.
Best Spinal Tap reference: In a 60 Minutes interview that preceded the Grammy telecast, Lady Gaga spoke of being a student of various artistic disciplines, including music, fashion, and “fame,” whatever that means. With that in mind, I’m going to assume she was making an intentional reference to Spinal Tap—or perhaps PopMart-era U2—by entering the stage via a ridiculous egg before launching into her new single “Born This Way.”
Most genuine expression of good fortune: One of my favorite moments of the night was so small and fleeting that it was likely missed by most people. It was when country singer Blake Shelton did a little fist pump when talking about being engaged to Miranda Lambert before introducing her fine performance of “The House That Built Me.” Good to see someone justifiably excited about sleeping with such an unbelievable fox.
Surprisingly funny celebrity Grammy Twitterer: I’m not still not 100 percent sure that the verified Twitter feed for easy-listening Canadian singer Anne Murray is really Anne Murray. But if it is, kudos for comments like the following on Barbara Streisand: “Think I'll tell Barbra how great retirement is.”
Best joke on Twitter about Train winning a Grammy for “Hey Soul Sister”: “I didn't know Howie Mandel was a part of Train,” courtesy of Mr. Kanye West.