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How Brandi Carlile Stole the Grammys

What beats winning some awards on a show? Winning an awards show. There’s no trophy given out for what Brandi Carlile did on the Grammys Sunday, bringing down the house and raising the social media roof with “The Joke.” But she should leave an empty space on her mantle in honor of this moment anyway.

The proof was in the breakfast pudding. Just as Carlile was launching into her performance at Staples Center, “The Joke” sat at No. 83 on the iTunes digital songs chart. By the time the west coast prime time re-broadcast ended around midnight, it was up to No. 2, where it still sits a day later, trailing only Lady Gaga’s “Shallow.” Her album, “By the Way, I Forgive You,” has also been hovering in the Nos. 2-3 slots on iTunes since the telecast, and sits in the No. 1 spot on Amazon’s digital downloads and CD sales charts. None of this had anything to do with the three trophies she won, which were all presented in the pre-telecast ceremony. It was all about the power of one four-and-a-half-minute performance to induce an altar call that ends at a digital retailer’s communion rail.

Needles were moved, souls were shaken, jaws were slackened, goosebumps led to sales bumps, re-votes were seriously considered, and there was great rejoicing and delighted cussing in the Twittersphere.

As Anna Kendrick put it upon the completion of Carlile’s turn at the mic: “So.” [Pause for double spacing.] “I am changed.” [Another double space, for pregnant effect.] “My jaw is on the floor. Holy shit.”

Carlile was not the only performer to see immediate benefits from a standout segment on the show. Kacey Musgraves’ album of the year-winning “Golden Hour” also moved up and played tag with Carlile’s on the aforementioned digital album charts. Country duo Dan + Shay’s song “Tequila” was cited by Shazam as the most searched of the night on that service. H.E.R, Lauren Daigle and the “A Star is Born” soundtrack all got boosts back up the charts

But it took “The Joke” to give America the musical sucker punch we all long to be flattened by. Carlile quietly sang her opening verse about a bullied boy, as the message was literally spelled out on a giant screen, with lyrics rendered in handwritten script. And then the belting kicks in, and octave changes, and we’ve all been hit by enough manipulative uses of these things to land us in the pop hospital for the rest of our lives, but there is still nothing like an honest octave change. Is there? And the chorus repeated the ancient admonition that the first shall be last, and the last will be first, and tormentors will fall away and pain redeemed, even before getting to a second verse in which displaced refugees and victims of sexism all became part of Carlile’s misfits’ gospel train to glory. And even if you hadn’t been reading along with the LED lyrics, all you needed to hear were those final, wordless high notes to know that a day of reckoning and healing for the underdog was at hand.

When amazing chops meet pure emotion, and that combination tangles with unexpected melodic twists, there can be chills enough to turn the entire Staples Center into the world’s largest haunted house.

It would count as a “star is born” moment, if Carlile hadn’t already spent the last 14 years becoming a star big enough to have just put tickets on sale for Madison Square Garden. But the music culture of the 2010s is fractured enough that hardly anybody has already heard of anybody — and so, yes, it was a “star is born” moment, for someone who’s already star-is enough. No guilt-tripping the newcomers, all right?

But if Carlile owned the show, this was a year when there was at least a struggle for custody. Musgraves won big-time, in her own way, by being as subdued with “Rainbow” as Carlile was soaring with “The Joke.” Cardi B offered an all too brief glimpse of the supper club of our dreams, shaking the tail feather to end all tail feathers. Janelle Monae brought her elastic “Lovesexy” funk and still more giddy choreography. Besides her, there was H.E.R., and also St. Vincent and Sofi Tucker, all shredding away in separate lead guitar flourishes. Annie Clark and Dua Lipa had such diva-on-diva chemistry that no one dared shout “Get a room,” because they already had a room, and it was the Staples Center. The show had Camila Cabello finding her lost Cuban heart in an all-star, culture-encompassing production medley. It had Andra Day as Aretha. And Dolly as Dolly.

Did the Grammys step up by bringing all these women together in one program, as an act of mass tokenism and contrition? Or would most or all of these performers probably have been assembled and ruled in a 2019 telecast anyway, through their own sheer, domineering merit?

That is a chicken-or-the-egg question we may never know the answer to, but what matters is that they all conquered. And Carlile most of all (yes, we know art isn’t a contest, but still). Because, as effective as all those patented “Grammy moment” collaborations can be, there’s nothing like a Grammy moment where one singular talent seems to be performing a spirit- and mind-meld on a happily paralyzed audience. So, please, God — because the cosmic talent pipeline really isn’t up to Ken Ehrlich, in the end — can we have more than one of these galvanizing mass-discovery epiphanies a generation?

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