Mixing and matching old and new in a manner befitting a semi-centennial, the Grammys continue to somewhat unevenly feel their way into the “American Idol” era — including such stunts as “My Grammy Moment,” allowing viewers to choose the wannabe winner via text messaging. Still, there were several memorable performances within the telecast, from Amy Winehouse’s satellite appearance (after tabloid travails and pre-show controversy) to Beyonce and Tina Turner’s dazzling duet of “Proud Mary.” Then again, with 3½ hours to fill, there damn well better be something to like.
There’s always a bit of awkwardness at the Grammys given the various genres on display (rock alongside rap alongside country), and that dynamic was exacerbated by this year’s heightened emphasis on honoring past figures.
Still, the combinations of performers and presenters proved intriguingly eclectic, from Frank Sinatra posthumously playing with Alicia Keys to Josh Groban’s lovely teaming with Andrea Bocelli memorializing Luciano Pavarotti to an extended gospel section with Aretha Franklin and Bebe Winans. As for nostalgia, that ranged from the sublime (Beyonce’s glittering tribute to classic female singers) to the sweet (Keely Smith crooning with Kid Rock) to the clunky (Ludacris feting Cab Calloway, one of the night’s many lifetime honorees) to the slightly scary (Little Richard wailing along with Jerry Lee Lewis and John Fogerty).
The Grammys’ greatest advantage is that the awards play second fiddle to the performances, and the actual kudos at times seem squeezed in as a time-crunched afterthought. Winehouse’s early victories after her much-ballyhooed absence due to drug problems and a temporarily denied visa added zest, as did Kanye West’s acceptance, in which he powered through an attempt to play him off in order to ramble on and pay tribute to his late mother.
Herbie Hancock employed a similar strategy after his surprise album of the year win, thanking the academy for “courageously breaking the mold” by recognizing a jazz artist and invoking Barack Obama’s campaign slogan in saying, “Yes, we can.”
The producers saved Winehouse till the final hour, and she didn’t disappoint. Looking a trifle unsteady on her stick-like pins, she belted out the infectious hit “Rehab,” then exhibited apparent shock when bestowed yet another honor for record of the year, exchanging hugs all around before burbling out thank-yous infused with a touch of implied defiance.
Some sequences doubtless played better inside the Staples Center than on TV, such as Hancock and Chinese piano virtuoso Lang Lang tackling “Rhapsody in Blue,” or Cirque du Soleil’s messy rendition of the Beatles drawn from their Vegas show “Love.” Tom Hanks set up the section by noting that the quartet’s music “changed the history of our planet,” but it was easy to be distracted from the abundant warmth onstage by Yoko Ono’s top hat-crowned outfit.
The “My Grammy Moment” contest winner joined Foo Fighters outside the arena — a symbol of how Grammy organizers have made pandering compromises hoping to weather ratings erosion. It’s a misguided theory, since the problems plaguing the Grammys are those facing every traditional awards ceremony — namely, a relentless proliferation of such events rendering the term “special” a virtual misnomer.
From that perspective, this year’s 50th anniversary produced some moments unlikely to be duplicated by music-specials-come-lately, which, these days, is perhaps the highest pinnacle to which an awards show can aspire.