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 over-emoting 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 Music Cares 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 Meghan Trainor proved themselves incapable of tackling Richie’s memorable melodies without adding unnecessary coloratura of their own. When the camera panned across the crowd during the Richie tribute, the look on solo artist and Kendrick Lamar bassist Thundercat said it all. He looked mildly appalled, or at the very least, deeply confused.
Little Big Town tackled their “Girl Crush” in an inspired format, with a sparse string arrangement allowing plenty of room for the vocals to shine through. This was the first great vocal performance of the evening, and might serve as a bit of advice for fellow Grammy performers: If you write a string melody from the get-go, and then sing it as written and in tune, it can then be adorned by vocal harmonies and fleshed out into a dramatic piece of music.
Though Little Big Town delivered the goods, the first true high point of the evening came when Stevie Wonder strode onto the stage with Pentatonix and offered an incendiary a cappella 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 Glenn Frey with a stirring “Take It Easy” came across as mellow and easy-going as it should’ve.
[Read why Miers thinks the Grammys are bad for music]
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 on 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 if they were by Liza Minnelli. This was a major disappointment, and a serious disservice to Bowie and his legion of fans. Awful.
The Grammys would not have felt complete this year without some sort of tribute to Lemmy Kilmister, the mastermind behind highly influential hard rock powerhouse Motorhead, who died in December. Introduced by Dave Grohl, the Hollywood Vampires – Alice Cooper, Joe Perry, Johnny Depp, Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum – doffed their cap to Lemmy with a torrid take on “Ace of Spades,” prefaced by their own tune, the Motorhead-ish “Bad As I Am.” This served as the sole representation of heavy rock ‘n’ roll during the broadcast.
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 others seem not just unnecessary, but outdated. With a three-song suite that included “Black of the Berry,” “Alright” and “Hiii Power,” Lamar and his musicians altered the original arrangements to create a stirring piece of musical theater with equal emphasis on both music and theater, Lamar proved himself to be one of the most dynamic and arresting artists of the past decade.
That Swift took the Album of the Year trophy over Lamar does not change this fact. It only served to underscore the fact that true art in pop music has bypassed the Grammys.
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.