Even yesterday, I kept forgetting that the Grammys were about to be on. I can’t remember another year that these things have been less anticipated: an Album of the Year category so depleted that three of the five nominees (including the winner) were weird tokenistic fill-ins, a level of starpower so low that the producers still announcing performers days before the ceremony, a writers’ strike that made it unclear whether the ceremony could even take place until a couple of weeks ago. And then there’s the big elephant in the room: The music business is dying a long and agonizing death, and so an annual show as self-congratulatory as this one feels even more off-key than usual. This was the 50th year of the Grammys, and people kept talking about “Here’s to another 50,” but, I mean, come on. All that said, this was a way more entertaining and better paced show than anything I could’ve foreseen, with some weird upsets and a few genuinely moving moments.
8:00: The awkward self-impressed failed glamor starts early, as Alicia Keys duets with a creepy black-and-white Sinatra hologram, which sort of malfunctions halfway through, becoming even creepier as the background disappears and we get Frank standing in a field of blackness. Alicia is trying to work the vintage Hollywood thing as hard as possible: hair all piled up, old-looking dress, not a good look for her at all. When she murmurs, “Sing it, Frank,” at the hologram, it reminds me of the first couple of scenes from The Phantom Menace, where Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor heroically tried and failed to interact naturally with green-screen nothings. Alicia does a pretty good job switching up her vocal style and ditching the runs, but this whole thing is just unbearably forced and weird. Bridget: “Is she even playing that piano? I don’t hear any sound coming out.”
8:05: And the frontloaded starpower continues! Carrie Underwood performs with, um, Stomp? Really? She’s sings “Before He Cheats” with dancers behind her make a big, clanking racket pounding on fake car-bumpers. This whole thing is incredibly silly. If Einsterzende Neubaten were dead, they would definitely be doing backflips in their graves. I should also note that Underwood is dressed like a Bond girl with a big mid-60s hair-swoop and a black vinyl daisy-dukes catsuit, which, seriously, damn.
8:08: Prince, presenting, looks as impeccably badass as ever. He hands Best Female R&B Whatever to foregone-conclusion winner Alicia Keys, as the Grammy producers pull out all stops to keep her onscreen as often as possible. I have to imagine that if “No One” had come out a week earlier it would’ve swept this thing instead of getting relegated to a couple of token categories. The song absolutely deserves its win here, if that counts for anything.
8:17: Jimmy Jam, who holds some sort of ceremonial Academy title, is out to say something, but it turns out that he’s just setting up the original-members reunion of Morris Day and the Time. The sight of these guys back out makes my heart sing. Morris Day, it should be noted, looks exactly the same as he did in Purple Rain. The bit where Jerome holds a giant mirror for him still kills, and “Jungle Love,” it turns out, flows surprisingly well into “Umbrella” as Rihanna makes her big non-surprise surprise-guest appearance. She might not be able to sing like either of them, but Bridget’s right to point out that Carrie Underwood and Alicia Keys could both learn something about holding a stage by watching Rihanna; she isn’t getting blown offstage by Morris Day, which is a real accomplishment. Still, I’m not sure why she needs all those cheeseball backup dancers when Morris Day and Jerome are standing right there. Rihanna goes from “Umbrella” to “Don’t Stop the Music” as the Time’s still-nasty Minneapolis funk sometimes peeks its head through Rihanna’s robo-dance backing track. And then it’s back into “Jungle Love” as Rihanna kind of stiffly does all the Time’s dances with them. The fact that this wasn’t the best moment of the night is pretty amazing.
8:23: Tom Hanks is starting the old-people tribute part of the night early. Hey, did you know that the Beatles were an important band? They were! It’s true! And to prove it, we’re now going to show mimes dancing to their songs!
8:25: Honestly, what the fuck am I supposed to say about the Cirque du Soleil “Day in the Life” thing? That it’s embarrassing just to watch? That the Sergeant Pepper ringmaster guy is now going to haunt my nightmares? That there appears to be some sort of story unfolding here but I have no idea what it is? I’m not sure I’m capable of expressing in written English just how hokey this whole shit is. Carrie Underwood with Stomp now looks like a model of poise and restraint.
8:30: Part two of the Beatles tribute turns out shockingly well. I didn’t see Across the Universe, but apparently it involves a kid with a really pure and clear voice leading a gospel reworking of “Let It Be” which totally works. Now wasn’t that enough? Why did we have to watch the dancing clowns again?
8:33: Cyndi Lauper clearly makes copresenter Miley Cyrus very, very nervous. Amy Winehouse wins Best New Artist, and Cyndi is amped. It’s weird that they’ve got Winehouse set to perform live via satellite later in the show but they can’t show her accepting the award. Aren’t the cameras all there already?
8:36: Jason Bateman is announcing the contest for which violin player will get to perform with the Foo Fighters, and I can’t tell whether he’s being intentionally unctuous and fake or whether he just acts like a bad Johnny Carson impersonator in real life. Either way, the way he pronounces “Foo Fighters” is pretty hilarious.
8:45: When this Kanye West tour finally starts, I can only hope it’ll have the same ridiculous lights and pink flame-jets as his performance tonight. This is some great spectacle right here. Kanye, still wearing those stupid white glasses and now with “Mama” shaved into the back of his head, has developed some serious stage presence, and he just rips through “Stronger.” Halfway through, holy shit, the giant pyramid behind him opens up and reveals Daft Punk sitting there. They’ve got a camera in there with them, and now we get to see what they’re actually doing with their hands. Turns out they’ve got some crazy space-age touch-screen shit going on, which is basically what I would’ve hoped. This whole thing is just awesome.
8:49: Oh shit, and now Kanye is singing “Hey Mama” over a delicate little string arrangement and nothing else. This is some serious throat-lump action; I almost can’t believe it when Kanye makes it to the end of the song without breaking down. Awards-show appearances don’t get much more iconic than that.
8:52: So how do we go from that directly into Fergie and John Legend duetting on some tinkly hotel-lounge cocktail-jazz bullshit? Fergie is looking extra-busted tonight. Fergie and Legend also give Best Soundtrack to Love, as the Grammys’ continued Beatles fawning reminds me of the Democratic Party’s inability to move past the Kennedys.
9:03: For whatever reason, Cher introduces Beyonce introducing Tina Turner. Beyonce, who’s put some weight back on and who looks incredible, has chosen to make this introduction through the miracle of modern dance, striking goofy poses and naming all the women in music who aren’t as good as Tina Turner, apparently. Tina’s appearance is making a pretty good case for why Botox should be outlawed. She’s dressed like a femmebot, with disturbingly evident nipples. And I’m probably going to hell for even thinking this, but she also sounds really pinched and sheeplike, and she should absolutely not under any circumstances be trying to keep up with her choreographed dancers. Still, “Better Be Good to Me” is a pretty great song and a refreshingly non-obvious choice. And when Beyonce joins her for the inevitable run through “Proud Mary,” both of them seem totally comfortable and happy; I especially like the obvious relish Beyonce takes in her Tina imitation on the intro. Nobody mentions Ike.
9:13: Hey, here’s Nelly Furtado, Andy Williams, and some chick from Without a Trace, all here to talk about Burt Bacharach! That makes sense. Furtado also gets to display some visible dislike as she announces Amy Winehouse winning Song of the Year.
9:20: The world takes in a collective breath as Jason Bateman announces that the winner of the Foo Fighters violin contest is: the one hot chick! Didn’t see that one coming. She gets to play about 0.2 seconds’ worth of violin solo before the Foos get around to proving why they had no place being nominated for Album of the Year. Their run-through of “The Great Pretender” isn’t good or bad; it’s just sort of there.
9:32: George Lopez says that America is the only place where a black man and a woman can run for President of the United States, which I guess is true. He also tells some horrible jokes and introduces Brad Paisley. Paisley is really on his DragonForce shit tonight; this version of “Ticks” seems arranged specifically to let him solo as much as possible. Paisley only looks happy at awards shows these days when he’s either winning or soloing.
9:37: Chris Brown, Akon, and Solange Knowles (two big stars and somebody’s sister) show up to present Best Rap Album, and it looks like they’re competing to see who can look the most ridiculous. Brown is wearing a red-on-white tux that can probably be seen from space, Akon is dressed all Matrix, and Solange is basically wearing plastic grocery bags. Kanye wins, obviously, and he gets pissed while the band tries to play him off as he’s talking about his mother.
9:43: Aretha Franklin and Bebe Winans lead a fast, fun, all-over-the-place gospel-choir onslaught that makes me wish I knew more about gospel. The amped-up trombone players are my favorites. But why does a white guy with a fauxhawk get to stand behind Aretha? Shouldn’t someone have kept that from happening?
9:56: The mom-friendly dinner-party indie takeover starts here as Feist does a timid, hesitant version of “1 2 3 4,” for some reason forcibly removing any starstruck whimsy from the song by giving it a Beirut gypsy-jazz makeover. It’s official: gospel is better than indie-pop.
10:00: Yeesh, Kid Rock sings “That Old Black Magic” with old Grammy lady Keely Smith, who only seems vaguely aware where she is. This did not need to happen. They also give Best Rock Album to a frighteningly grinny Foo Fighters. Dave Grohl is starting to look like Tom Cruise. This can’t be a good thing.
10:12: Hey, it’s Alicia Keys again! “No One,” a song I still haven’t gotten sick of hearing, gets a Coldplayish makeover that does it no favors. It also gets John Mayer, who makes guitar-solo faces and adds nothing. Still, this is better than the Sinatra thing.
10:17: Ringo Starr and Dave Stewart from Eurythmics are country fans, apparently. They give the Best Country Album award to Vince Gill’s four-disc monster. Gill makes a Kanye joke! He knows who Kanye is! That’s cute.
10:26: The Grammy producers figure out a way to collapse their momentum-killing obligatory nods to jazz and classical into one performance, as Herbie Hancock and Lang Lang go dueling pianos on “Rhapsody in Blue.” This is less boring than usual, especially with the overhead camera-shot of both of them, but I can still see why this was buried in the show’s last hour. Also, why the constant closeups on the goofy-looking clarinetist?
10:33: This thing with Taylor Swift and Juanes presenting a rap award is hilarious. “Umbrella” wins the syntactically mangled Best Rap/Sung Collaboration award. Jay-Z has gone back to the 96-era shaved-head look, which he should keep. He and Rihanna have good award-show chemistry, as she makes the thank-you speech and he interrupts constantly.
9:41: Amy Winehouse is in London, looking almost shockingly together, though she could still stand to eat a couple of sandwiches. The Grammy presenters have been hyping this performance all weekend, possibly because of the all-too-real possibility that she could completely fall apart or at least pull a Britney, but this is still a pretty powerful moment. She’s got a serious intense stare, and she manages to vocally fuck around with the two good songs on her album without lessening their impact. A Ghostface run-in on “You Know I’m No Good” would’ve made my night, but no.
10:49: Tony Bennett trips over his lines in presenting Record of the Year, and it’s almost reassuring that that guy is finally showing some signs of aging. Winehouse wins, and her freaked-out reaction-shot makes me wish I actually liked her.
10:57: The Academy CEO guy manages not to hector viewers about downloading, but you can just tell he want to. He does brag about his lobbyists, which I guess is the same thing. He also introduces a 20-year-old piano player, since more pianos are exactly what this show needed.
11:02: Other than Pavarotti,, the only big cheer during the dead-people segment comes for Dan Fogelberg. Huh? Really, hardly anyone makes a peep during the whole thing, not even for Lee Hazlewood or Pimp C.
11:03: Andrea Bocelli and Josh Groban do their Pavarotti, tribute, and I just don’t get these guys at all. Is it like middle school when everybody’s parents bought that chanting monks CD?
11:13: It’s time for the depressing old-people segment of the show with John Fogerty, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis. The camera keeps showing Fogerty’s drummer, who looks like an extra from a circa-99 movie about raves. Jerry Lee Lewis looks a whole lot like Larry Flynt. He doesn’t play piano with his feet. Actually, he looks like he couldn’t stand up if he tried. Anyone who spent any time watching network TV in the 80s or 90s has seen Little Richard play “Good Golly Miss Molley” a million times, but it’s still fun. This time, Fogerty gets to do some shredding on top of it. Jerry Lee, true to form, looks absolutely disgusted that he has to share a stage with these guys.
11:25: Yee, Will.I.Am rapping about “all the dope jammys at the Grammys” over “Mack the Knife” and “Don’t Worry Be Happy” and “Beautiful Day.” Whose idea was this? And could the Grammys have possibly found a more embarrassing way of paying tribute to themselves? Here’s to the next fifty.
11:27: Quincy Jones lets us know that Mark Ronson won Producer of the Year; Rhymefest must be amped. And Album of the Year goes to: Herbie Hancock? What the fuck? I guess I have to listen to that thing now. How could his have happened? Did Kanye and Winehouse split the paying-attention vote? Are Grammy voters explicitly saying fuck you to the kids who don’t buy music? I was only dimly aware that the album existed until the nominations came out, and it’s absolutely the last one I would’ve thought had a shot at winning. Herbie’s overcome, as he should be.
11:40: More Cirque du Soleil over the closing credits, which I guess makes an appropriately mystifying way to end this show.