Nobody swung from an actual chandelier, but the 57th Annual Grammy Awards were a three-and-a-half-hour emotional roller coaster, shifting from moments that were thrilling (AC/DC’s pyrorific opening set) to sober (President Obama’s message about domestic violence) to historic (Paul McCartney taking the stage with Kanye West and Rihanna). Legends like Annie Lennox stepped in to raise the bar, while West threatened to step onstage and cause a scene when Beck grabbed Album of the Year from Beyoncé — this time he was kidding (mostly). After Taylor Swift finished shaking it off in the front row, we were left with these 21 moments that best summarize the night’s beautiful highs and embarrassing lows.
It was once the most daring, adventurous thing in music. Kanye West — one of music's few monocultural icons under the age of 40; rap's master of prog-centric, Hawaii-recorded, 9-minute epics — was stripping his performances bare. Doing "Blood on the Leaves" as a silhouette at the Video Music Awards or wearing a mask to Bonnaroo, West took the very idea of celebrity and reduced it to a stark shadow. Thing is — we've seen it. His performance of "Only One" was all heartbreak with no 808s, performing on a steamy porthole in the type of fuzzy suit that Rev. Run wears around the house. Later, he teamed with Rihanna and Paul McCartney, assuredly three of the richest people in the room, for a performance in front of a white square and some cloth. They rehearsed for that? What was once a unique way for West to subvert these giant award shows is no longer noteworthy. Blank space just seems more and more like an empty gesture.
The very minimalism that hurt Kanye became a real benefit to Usher and his harpist, who performed Stevie Wonder's "If It's Magic" with two spotlights and nothing else. Unlike Kanye's stylized AutoTune croon, Usher went with nothing but his naked voice and a smooth suit — and didn't need much more to wow a crowd. But even more impressive with the idea of raw talent wowing a crowd was Stevie himself, who played, like, four bars of harmonica and stole the whole thing.
After the show, Kanye West vented to E!'s Khloe Kardashian, admonishing the Grammys for "diminishing art and not respecting the craft" of Album of the Year nominee Beyoncé. While the performer might have lost the award to Beck, her subsequent performance left no one doubting the craft. Backed by an all-male gospel choir arranged to form an X, she sang "Take My Hand Precious Lord" (MLK's favorite song) and hit every note — then hit those notes again and again.
Last year Madonna popped up during Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' gay-marriage-themed moment on the Grammy stage, but the Queen is always at her best when she can realize her own full vision. "Living for Love" was a snapshot of the imaginative, athletic performances she dreams up for her brilliant tours. Debuting her first Rebel Heart single live, she echoed the song's video, arriving in a matador's cape while masked, muscled minotaurs swarmed the stage. She tangled with her dancers for nearly five minutes — lifted, tossed and spun above their shoulders in front of a massive screen — before she pulled out the last stop and brought out a red-robed gospel choir. Promising "Love's gonna lift me up," she exited the stage in equally dramatic fashion: hoisted up and away, out of the frame as the audience was left stunned beneath her.
While the memoriam montage remains one of the more poignant moments of the Grammy ceremony, it never fails to bring sharp focus to musicians left off the reel. This year that meant Stooges drummer Scott Asheton, Gwar's Oderus Urungus, Mars Volta/Jack White keyboardist "Ikey" Owens, footwork pioneer DJ Rashad, Survivor singer Jimi Jamison, Primal Scream guitarist Robert "Throb" Young, Jethro Tull bassist Glenn Cornick, Static-X's Wayne Static and DJ E-Z Rock of "It Takes Two" fame, among others. However, perhaps the biggest memoriam oversight was Joan Rivers, who, earlier in the day, posthumously won the Best Spoken Word Album Grammy for her Diary of a Mad Diva.
By this time last year, Sam Smith and Mary J. Blige had both appeared on Disclosure records but otherwise had little in common. They've since collaborated, offered mutual inspiration and now, performed together on the Grammy stage. And where those Disclosure records showed how naturally both singers could align themselves to a groove, these five minutes proved what they can do when given the chance to let loose. Smith, who readily admits his love for R&B singers like Blige, seemed to tremble for a moment, but from there he showed no sign of nerves, adding a delicate touch to what is now the best alternate version of "Stay With Me." Sorry, Darkchild.
On a night when every performer, presenter and attendee seemed obsessed with themselves, Sia remained firmly committed to being invisible, letting her music speak for itself. In a total removal of ego, she never appeared in the onscreen graphics showing each category's nominees (the box reserved for her smiling face simply showed a blond wig) and performed her entire Record of the Year-nominated "Chandelier" with her back to the audience as Maddie Ziegler, the 12-year-old dancer who appeared the song's video, pranced and cavorted with an identically outfitted Kristen Wiig. The anxious, desperate, visceral choreography said it all. Wiig beautifully portrayed the intense desperation of a party girl attempting to escape her demons as Ziegler jerked and swooped by her side, showing her an alternate reality — and love. The SNL vet, a surprise addition to Sia's performance, was remarkably limber, emotional and free. There was plenty of skin onstage last night, but Sia managed to execute the only truly naked — and perfect — performance.
What a blessing and a curse to have the great Annie Lennox as the special guest of your Grammys performance. Still-emerging Irish newcomer Hozier teamed with the Eurythmics songstress for a hair-raising medley of his breakthrough hit "Take Me to Church" and the Screamin' Jay Hawkins' classic "I Put a Spell on You" (covered by Lennox on her latest album, Nostalgia) which gave a night opened by AC/DC it's biggest jolt of electricity. But who was talking about Hozier after the smoke cleared? Lennox stole the performance that stole the show. She belted out that husky "Sweet Dreams" voice, sounding more powerful and ferocious than ever. She danced with the rolling hips of the sexiest-scariest 61-year-old in a sparkly shirt on the planet. She played an invisible harmonica. She ended with eyes ablaze, clearly more entranced by the moment than every audience member in the palm of her hand.
It's difficult to spoil a commercial break, but this year, Target and Imagine Dragons rose to the occasion. Though Grammy producers spared us from the Vegas band's White Man Group drum assault, Target purchased an entire ad block and filled it with a clip from what appeared to have been a recent hometown gig. The entire endeavor set a weird precedent: With the right campaign and corporate sponsor, any performer can literally buy their way into music's biggest night. As the ceremony ended, a press release trumpeted the "first live concert experience to air during a
Dressed in boots, leather pants and a vest straight out of The Road Warrior, Miranda Lambert delivered a sassy, pyro-heavy version of Platinum's "Little Red Wagon" that could make Kiss' makeup run. With her whole band playing crimson instruments — including the steel guitar of Spencer Cullum Jr. — it was impossible to miss the "red" theme, but the lack of subtlety is what made it impossible to look away. Lambert boasted about her "backyard swagger," swatted away her bangs like flies and shot a seemingly endless stream of looks at the camera. And in an especially rock & roll turn, Lambert warranted the only seven-second delay of the evening, with CBS censors silencing her "I do all the shit you wanna do" rant.
Katy Perry's performance of "By the Grace of God" was prefaced by two very important messages, the first coming from none other than President Barack Obama. Via a video message taped in the White House, Obama made a brief but powerful statement directed towards the stars in the room, encouraging them to take a stand against sexual assault and domestic violence. Citing statistics on how many women have been victims of rape and domestic violence, Obama was a great intro to the impassioned spoken word of domestic violence activist and survivor Brooke Axtell. While Perry's performance was strong and poignant in its own right, nothing compares to hearing the POTUS take such a strong public stance against violence against women just before a woman had a platform to deliver her experiences in her own words.
Don't call it a comeback. LL Cool J, hosting the Grammys for the fourth time, has got this down to a science. He got in one great joke ("I'm goin' back to Cali… I –I – guess so…") before announcing — up front — that he was avoiding a monologue ("for your safety and mine"). He got the the right balance of "promote social media" and "not sound like a dad" ("hashtag to your heart's content") and gave props to 89-year-old Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein without being treacly ("Everybody say, Hi George!"). Even if the Grammys aren't going to actually air rap awards, at least the whole thing gets to be hosted by one of its greatest performers.