To the surprise of no one, Adele was the big winner at the 54th annual Grammy Awards, taking home trophies for the top three major awards—Album, Record, and Song Of The Year—and six overall. Also, LL Cool J invited us all to pray, Nicki Minaj was possessed by the devil, and Dave Grohl would not leave the stage already. As usual, it was a weird, weird night. Here are eight things I took away from it.
1. The “authenticity” narrative: When Adele was handed her Record Of The Year trophy for “Rolling In The Deep,” she said something sort of funny, totally wrong, and yet seemingly sincere: “It’s not really a pop record,” she insisted of “Deep,” immune to all the evidence (including the Grammy in her hand) suggesting that the biggest selling song of 2011 is the epitome of pop music at the present moment. What Adele really meant is that she (along with many other people) sees herself as the antithesis of what’s perceived to be the epitome of contemporary pop. (Which, as Adele said in her 60 Minutes interview before the Grammys, is personified by “some skinny mini with [her] tits out.”) But if having the most popular album in years and sweeping the Grammys doesn’t make you the defining pop artist of our time, what does?
That question hung over an evening that attempted to once again shift the paradigm for what the Grammys are supposed to signify. There was Bon Iver winning Best New Artist over competition with arguably stronger commercial firepower: mega-selling R&B superstar Nicki Minaj, the likeable country-pop trio The Band Perry, rapper J. Cole, and annoyingly popular dubstep kingpin Skrillex (who was awarded three pre-ceremony Grammys but none during the actual broadcast). Vernon’s speech was gracious, but those inclined to backlash against Bon Iver media overload were left to quibble over his “when I started to make songs, I did it for the inherent reward of making songs” wishy-washiness over winning the award. But as last year’s Album Of The Year win for Arcade Fire showed, the Grammys are now interested in rewarding artists not normally inclined to care about Grammys (at least not publicly), in the hope that this sort of shrugged-shoulder authenticity rubs off on the otherwise doddering Recording Academy.
Which is interesting, because “authentic” music at the Grammys still means classic rock (or new rock and R&B influenced by classic rock). In a telling change-up from last year, when Arcade Fire was allowed to play songs before and after winning the night’s biggest award, Adele was guided off-stage after being recognized for 21 so that Paul McCartney could jam on side 2 of Abbey Road—2011’s best-selling vinyl release!—with an ad-hoc, new-fangled version of the Traveling Wilburys rounded out by Bruce Springsteen, Joe Walsh, and, in the Tom Petty role, Dave Grohl, who was all over the show tonight, performing two songs with Foo Fighters (and sounding mostly fantastic) and taking home five awards.
Whether any of this will give the Grammys more cred is debatable, though I’d bet against it. While old-school rock and soul rules the Grammys, the truest metaphor for rock’s place in the current landscape came when Grohl, as his acceptance speech for Foo Fighters winning Best Rock Album was drowned out by a bleating LMFAO song, exclaimed “Long live rock ‘n’ roll!” I appreciate the sentiment, Dave, but rock just got shouted down by “Party Rock Anthem.”
2. The Whitney issue: Whitney Houston’s death on Saturday cast a pall over the evening, though this was acknowledged only occasionally and, at times, rather awkwardly. Host LL Cool J to his credit didn’t ignore the elephant in the room, walking out after Springsteen’s spirited show-opening performance of his new single “We Take Care Of Our Own” and immediately referencing “a death in the family.” Then, in a blatant disregard of church and Grammy separation, he led this gathered group of exhibitionist pop stars and two-timing record industry executives in a prayer. His heart was in the right place, but the prayer felt wrong, like opening the bar and serving up a hearty round of milk. A more fitting tribute came later in the show, when Jennifer Hudson gave an emotional performance of “I Will Always Love You.” In many ways it was a no-win situation for Hudson, whose big voice still is no match for Houston. And, truth be told, she hoofed her way past a few tough notes that Houston once sailed through effortlessly. But the performance was certainly heartfelt, and given how quickly it came together, Hudson deserves props for the guts and heart she displayed.
3. Dispiritingly non-controversial “controversial” moment: The music industry has been home to various rogues, deadbeats, and out-and-out scumbags for years. But the public’s righteous indignation before the Grammys centered on Chris Brown, whose well-publicized battery of ex-girlfriend Rihanna somehow didn’t put an abrupt end to his career. To the contrary, Brown is bigger than ever, particularly on urban radio, where he’s been a dominating presence with both his own songs and as a guest on other artists’ tracks. Proving once again that success trumps basic human decency in the entertainment industry (among other places), Brown was alarmingly well-received at the Grammys, performing the mediocre new single "Turn Up The Music" and the hit “Beautiful People” and getting a standing-ovation for his trouble. (He even got invited to perform again later in the evening.)
Another accused domestic-abuser, country-music legend Glen Campbell, got an even warmer reception than Brown, perhaps because people today aren’t as familiar with Tanya Tucker as they are with Rihanna. Campbell also is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, and is currently in the midst of a farewell tour in support of his fine, supposedly final album, Ghost On The Canvas. A tribute to Campbell featuring The Band Perry, Blake Shelton, and Campbell himself was one of the night’s highlights, though the exclusion of “Wichita Lineman” was a disappointment. (Adele could’ve murdered that one.)
4. “Controversial” moment that might actually end up being controversial: The “WTF”-worthy spectacle cooked up by Nicki Minaj for her new single “Roman Holiday” was the “November Rain” of Grammy performances: There was symbolism, a dash of cinematic pretension, nightmarish imagery, a guy dressed as a priest, and not one whit of logic in the whole operation. It was the greatest, most awful, incredible, and terrible moment of the night that will probably piss off some Catholic organization somewhere that really ought to know better.
5. Trainwreck of the night: The Grammys sort-of embrace of electronic music this year—typified by honoring Skrillex but keeping it off-camera—came to a head during an odd and poorly conceived mash-up of Foo Fighters and Deadmau5 that seemingly contradicted Grohl’s (here’s that word again) authenticity rap earlier in the evening about how music is “not about what goes on in a computer.” The performance wasn't unprecedented—a Deadmau5 remix of "Rope" came out last year—but combining Foo Fighters and Deadmau5 at the Grammys was a compromise bound to irritate fans of both sides of the equation. Deadmau5 backers have a legitimate beef with the Grammys making one of the biggest names in electronic music perform with a meat-and-potatoes rock band that hates what he represents, and Foo Fighters supporters probably wondered who the hell that guy in the stupid bunny hat was supposed to be.
6. Surprisingly not trainwreck-y moment of the night: I should’ve hated Maroon 5 and Foster The People singing Beach Boys songs, but “Surfer Girl” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” are just that wonderful, I guess. (And, to be fair, Foster The People actually did okay with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”) As for the reunion of the Beach Boys (minus two of the late and vital Wilson brothers, as well as John Stamos on bongos), that sounded decent, too, though the quality of the harmonies was due at least a little bit to the backing of the Wondermints. (Brian Wilson, meanwhile, looked terrified as usual.)
7. This year’s “Grammy bump” goes to …: The Civil Wars did their patron Taylor Swift a solid by introducing her performance of “Mean,” but the Wars’ own smoldering, too-short 60-second take of “Barton Hollow” stole the heat right out from under her. Lots of people who didn’t know The Civil Wars before surely went out and downloaded the group’s very good 2011 album (also called Barton Hollow). If not, they should have.
8. The annual death montage diss: The “we forgot to include you in our montage of deceased celebrities” diss is a tradition as old as time at the Grammys. Last year it was Nate Dogg who was left out of the roll call of fallen artists. This year, it was Soul Train’s Don Cornelius, who got what appeared to be an extemporaneous shout-out from LL Cool J and ?uestlove after the commercial break.
In the end, the Grammys were all about Adele, whose stormy performance of "Rolling In The Deep" had a definite "fuck you to my ex" edge to it. Not that she has any reason to be angry at this point—starting today, the government will be deploying the Coast Guard to forcibly issue copies of 21 to anyone who doesn't own it yet.