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Performances at the Grammy Awards tell story as an era ends

The 58th annual Grammy Awards Ceremony sure seemed like it was going to be the usual round-up of the usual suspects doing the usual thing in the usual manner, a furthering of the industry’s long history of giving itself the pat on the back it deserves less and less with each passing year.

It ended up being something else entirely. Call it a real-time documenting of the ending of an era – the era of Taylor Swift and pop-country and overemoting pseudo-soul singers – and the rebirth of art that challenges, stretches boundaries, and paints a far more realistic portrait of a world in very real turmoil.

The performances told the story.

Things commenced with Swift offering a perfunctory, if bombastic, run through of “Out Of the Woods,” proceeded with a frankly lame pairing of Sam Hunt’s “Take Your Time” and Carrie Underwood’s “Heartbeat” that sounded like something “American Idol” judges would have to think long and hard about passing on to the next level, and found The Weeknd offering a medley of a pair of his own Michael Jackson-influenced pop-R&B tunes.

The theme of the evening proved to have a theme, and that theme was the dreaded medley. Artists who were allowed to perform on their own performed abbreviated versions of several songs, while even less fortunate performers found themselves paired with partners they had little in common with, musically speaking.

Ellie Goulding and Sandra Day attempted to find some common ground, but came across as stiff in their interplay, despite attempting to interject some soul into the proceedings by over-singing. (It didn’t work.)

The tribute to MusiCares Person of the Year Lionel Richie started strong, with John Legend tackling the lovely “I’m Easy,” but soon devolved into a train wreck, as Demi Lovato, Luke Bryan, Tyrese and Meaghan Trainor proved themselves incapable of tackling Richie’s memorable melodies without adding unnecessary coloratura of their own.

The first true high point of the evening came when Stevie Wonder strode onto the stage with Pentatonix and offered an incendiary a capella tribute to the recently deceased Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire. Jackson Browne and the surviving members of the Eagles paying tribute to the late Glen Frey with a stirring “Take It Easy” came across as mellow and easygoing as it should have.

Lady Gaga’s highly touted tribute to David Bowie was a pure disgrace, however. Though she has long claimed to have been influenced by Bowie, who died Jan. 10, her tribute was garish and displayed an insensitivity to the true scope of Bowie’s art. At times, it almost seemed like Gaga’s desire was to parody Bowie, or to cover his tunes as covered by Liza Minnelli.

This was a major disappointment, and a serious disservice to Bowie and his legion of fans. Awful.

Earlier, Adele – whose performance was clearly meant to be the centerpiece of the Grammys – sounded hoarse, straining for the notes during a less-than-stellar take on “All That I Ask.” Again, Like Swift before her, Adele’s performance fell flat.

So the night belonged to Kendrick Lamar, not just because he took home an armload of trophies, but because his performance was so incendiary as to make all of the other’s seem not just unnecessary, but outdated. With a three-song suite that included “The Blacker the Berry,” “Alright” and “Hiii PoWer,” Lamar and his musicians altered the original arrangements to create a stirring piece of musical theatre with equal emphasis on both music and theatre, Lamar proved himself to be one of the most dynamic and arresting artists of the past decade.

In future years, it’s likely that we will be discussing Grammy performances in terms of pre- and post-Kendrick Lamar.

The era of the pop diva has lasted far too long. On Monday, Lamar banged what may prove to be the final nail into its coffin.