With music sales and the show’s own ratings — down 12% last year — in free-fall, the producers of this year’s Grammy Awards telecast had no choice but to throw every possible element at the wall. The problem was, no one remembered to add the tiniest bit of mortar to hold the elements together. As such, the telecast was more disjointed than usual, with the decided emphasis on quantity lending a rushed feel — a vibe that countered the sometimes lackadaisical nature of the typical kudocast, but ultimately left little in the way of lasting impressions.
U2 opened the show with a typically savvy multi-media presentation surrounding “Get on Your Boots,” after which Bono introduced surprise presenter Whitney Houston.
The purposeful U-turns kicked in from there, with a hastily constructed, but surprisingly successful teaming of Al Green, Justin Timberlake and Keith Urban filling in for Rihanna and Chris Brown, who pulled out at the eleventh hour under cloudy circumstances.
Carrie Underwood took things a step further, attempting to channel the spirit of Lita Ford during a bafflingly overwrought take on “Last Name.”
Subtlety has seldom been at a premium in recent Grammy history, but only a handful of this year’s performers swung for the fences as set pieces. Katy Perry’s bubblegum erotica was showcased charmingly in an Alice-in-Wonderland take on “I Kissed a Girl.” while an all-star hip-hop ensemble — including nine months pregnant M.I.A., performing on her due date — brought a rat pack motif to “Swagger Like Us.”
Producers largely shied away from the customary fish-out-of-water presenter pairings, instead bringing together duos with palpable connections — like Green and Duffy, who engaged each other with an affable if off-key impromptu duet on “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Pitch was even more of a problem for Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus, whose ostensibly rehearsed take on Swift’s “15” lurched off the rails in dramatic fashion.
Harmonizing came quite a bit more easily to Adele and Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles, who were rather incongruously tossed together for a sharp version of “Chasing Pavements” on which both dodged the pitfalls of singerly one-upmanship. The same could be said for a Four Tops tribute on which Smokey Robinson, Jamie Foxx and Ne-Yo joined original Top Duke Fakir for a medley that was long on soul and thankfully short on shtick.
Lil Wayne stepped out of character by delivering one of his more serious songs, “Tie My Hands,” in front of a backdrop of his hurricane-ravaged hometown of New Orleans — then handing things over to Allan Toussaint and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Weezy even played nice and easy for his rap album acceptance speech, which name-checked God and family as readily as any gospel performer might’ve — in keeping with the tenor of a program during which no one seemed interested in rocking the boat.
Lifetime achievement awards, interspersed throughout the evening, provided short-but-sweet homages to legends like Dean Martin and Hank Jones, but affording more than 30 seconds per honoree would’ve been welcome. Then again, precious little time was set aside for handing out the current year’s awards, making for an evening that seemed less like a celebration of the year’s best than a slightly updated version of the Midnight Special.
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