The Grammys cast aside their celebratory vibe Sunday to pay tribute to singer Whitney Houston, whose death over the weekend hung heavy over the 54th annual awards show.
Until Saturday, the pre-show drama had focused on Adele and how the six-time-nominee would fare in her first public performance since canceling a tour and having surgery on her vocal cords.
A glowing Adele did not disappoint, nor was she disappointed. She won six Grammys, including the Big Three: song and record of the year for “Rolling in the Deep,” and album of the year for “21.” Earlier in the night, she thanked “the doctors who brought my voice back.” That voice sound a touch raspy at points, but her resolve surged as she powered through “Rolling in the Deep.” Without much more than a few hand gestures and a couple of shy smiles, she commanded the screen like few performers during the 3 ½-hour nationally televised broadcast from the Staples Center in Los Angeles. A great song and a great voice will do that for you.
She described her winning album “21” as being about something “everyone’s been through … which is a rubbish relationship,” and that universality translated to the year’s biggest-selling and now most-acclaimed recording.
Houston’s death in a Los Angeles hotel room Saturday put the Grammys into scramble mode, as they altered the telecast schedule and devised an appropriate tribute to the pop icon. “We’ve had a death in our family,” host LL Cool J said. He offered “a prayer for a woman we loved, for a fallen sister.”
Jennifer Hudson performed a stark version of the Dolly Parton song that Houston made her own, “I Will Always Love You,” on “The Bodyguard” soundtrack. Hudson, one of countless singers influenced by Houston’s pop-gospel sound, played it straight and true, pushing her voice hard in the final turn, the slight cracking exposing the intensity of emotion that underlined this annual music-industry gathering.
“There’s a little bit of a dark cloud … a lot of people are heartbroken,” country singer Miranda Lambert said before the telecast. But “we can let music heal us.”
Bruce Springsteen came not to heal but to incite. He kicked open the telecast with a song that rocked the building, brought a clapping Paul McCartney out of his seat and expressed no small measure of discontent in an election year. “Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?” Springsteen sang on “We Take Care of Our Own,” from his forthcoming album. He was backed up by an orchestra, but the sound that came through was clanging guitars and thundering Max Weinberg drums.
The telecast was rife with curious decisions. Chris Brown, who only three years ago backed out of the Grammys amid a criminal proceeding involving an assault on the singer Rihanna, scored multiple appearances. Yet the Grammys made only passing mentions to the late “Soul Train” founder Don Cornelius and jazz-poet Gil Scott-Heron.
A few other winners, losers, oddities and observations among the 78 Grammy categories:
“This is ridiculous!”: So said Adele after receiving her fifth Grammy. The remark wasn’t directed at Nicki Minaj, who did some serious “Exorcist”-style button-pushing in a Gothic song-and-dance number, but could anyone blame her if it was?
Second-hand James Brown tribute: In gold suit and pompadour, Bruno Mars tried to channel the Godfather of a Soul, but I’m hearing the influence of his old tour mate, Janelle Monae, who makes the James Brown attitude her own. Mars did get off a good line, though, demanding that the audience “get off your rich (behinds) and let’s have some fun.”
Collaborations, some good, some bad: In general, I’m all for the idea that the Grammys want to mix things up and put artists together who might have a certain chemistry. The Bonnie Raitt-Alicia Keys pairing on an Etta James tribute worked because both artists have a feel for blues-based ballads. But Rihanna was dancing and singing up a storm during “We Fell in Love in a Hopeless Place” before an acoustic duet with Coldplay’s Chris Martin prematurely killed her momentum.
Good vibrations – or not: Speaking of gratuitous collaborations … the Beach Boys reunited with Brian Wilson for the first time in decades, but were compelled to share the stage with lightweights Foster the People and Maroon 5. Wilson isn’t what he used to be as a singer or performer, but he and his bandmates deserved the spotlight to themselves if only for the genius of his songs. “Good Vibrations” still sounds futuristic, like a surf song for Martians.
All is forgiven? Chris Brown performed, ending a three-year hiatus from the Grammys. On Feb 8, 2009, he turned himself in to police in connection with an assault on his then-girlfriend, Rihanna, and then withdrew from performing on that year’s Grammys. On Sunday, he came back to shimmy and gyrate in a prime-time performance, but social media was abuzz with stunned responses. “Sorry, Chris Brown, I’m not over it,” tweeted one pundit.
A little dub step, anyone? Electronic dance music has been blasting out of the clubs and into the arenas in recent years, and that transition was marked by three Grammys for dub-step’s DJ-of-the-moment, Skrillex (a k a Sonny Moore). “This is the most surreal day of my life,” he said. I shared similar feelings about the near-riot Skrillex caused at last year’s Lollapalooza festival in Grant Park when his set turned the dance tent into something resembling a swarming ant hill. It’s unusual for the Grammys to be in step with musical trends (as opposed to a few years behind), but the Skrillex hat trick suggests the Recording Academy has more than a few club-hoppers in its ranks.
Take that, Skrillex! The Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, in picking up one of the band’s five Grammys, asserted that he hates pretty much everything that electronic-dance-music maven Skrillex stands for, without mentioning Skrillex by name: “The human element of making music is most important. Singing into a microphone, learning to play your instrument … it’s not about being perfect… It’s not about what goes on in a computer, but what goes on in here and what goes on in here (points to head and heart).” Yet later on, the Foo Fighters participated in a live mash-up with DJ Deadmau5. So are computers cool or not, Dave?
Take that, Russell Brand! Katy Perry turned her performance into a not-so-veiled shot at her ex-husband. She donned a blue wig and flexed an S&M theme as she chirped about “the part of me that you’re never, ever gonna take away from me.” But it’s a big supposition to think that anyone else really cares that deeply about any of it.
And the living artist with the most Grammys is … ? Congratulations if you guessed Alison Krauss. She surpassed Quincy Jones with her 28th Grammy for best bluegrass album.
A public farewell: Glen Campbell, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease and is in the midst of his farewell tour, bid goodbye on the big stage with a performance of “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Campbell clearly enjoyed the moment, and the audience – fully understanding its significance – showered him with adulation. It also made me wish that the great jazz-funk poet Gil Scott-Heron had been able to enjoy a similar privilege before he died last year, in lieu of the brief, posthumous tribute he received.
Another Grammy first! In winning best new artist, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon provided what was likely the first-ever Grammy shout-out to Eau Claire, Wis.
The Chicago story: Kanye West had a great night with four victories, but didn’t show up to claim any trophies. His “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” won for best rap album and “All of the Lights” for best rap/sung collaboration and best rap song. He also shared best rap performance with Jay-Z for “Otis.” Chicago contemporary classical group eighth blackbird won for best small ensemble performance, Steven Mackey’s “Lonely Motel — Music from Slide,” with composer-performer Mackey and actor Rinde Eckert. Jazz harmonica virtuoso Howard Levy shared a Grammy with Bela Fleck for best instrumental composition, “Life in Eleven,” and former Chicago jazz trumpeter Maurice Brown played on the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s “Revelator,” which won best blues album. Nominees R. Kelly, Wilco, OK Go, Kurt Elling, Lupe Fiasco and the Numero Group were among those who came home empty-handed.