My Day at the Grammys with Hunter Hayes

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We arrived at Staples Center, where Hayes and his team peeled off for rehearsal. Awards shows run through a word-for-word full performance; if you think three and a half hours is a long time, imagine hosting it twice in a row, which poor LL Cool J did. Staff members in work clothes play the role of musicians for their acceptance speeches. (Winners are announced like this: "And the winner, for this rehearsal only, is . . .") Hayes' own schedule, with his three potential awards and his performance, was plotted out to the minute.

The Grammys give some fans day passes to watch the rehearsal. I took a seat as Sting joined Rihanna, Ziggy Marley and others for their unexplained tribute to Bob Marley.

A Grammys rehearsal is uninspiring; with sparse attendance and regular lighting, the spectacle is hugely diminished. Only by watching the big-screen monitors does it at all resemble the larger-than-life event as I've consumed it onscreen over the years, when the simulacrum replaces reality. In person, the musicians look like regular human beings, small bodies on a nearby stage.

Hayes flawlessly delivered his performance and introduction of Carrie Underwood, for whom he is currently opening. The key line in the chorus to "Wanted" tells you something about the earnestness and sublimation of his songwriting: "I wanna make you feel wanted." Compare that to other classic lines of desire, such as Cheap Trick's famous "I want you to want me," or the Ramones' "I wanna be sedated" (or "I wanna be your boyfriend").

At two o'clock I left rehearsal, crossing paths outside with Ryan Seacrest in a golf cart. I met Hayes' publicist at the holding pen for the red carpet, which was just heating up and where Hayes would be shortly arriving. When he arrived, in a tuxedo and his leather Converses, I followed his crew, and two volunteer talent escorts, onto the carpet itself, where musicians mingled with industry players and their guests.

A gauntlet of TV crews buttonholed any celebrity who walked by. My facial recognition of music stars extends only to the super-famous or those who were entrenched in the mainstream before, say, 2003; when Bruno Mars walked past me later, I had no clue who he was until his performance. (I must not have been watching him carefully during the motley-crew Marley tribute rehearsal.) My rule of thumb was that the less job-interview-appropriate the wardrobe, and the more visible the tattoos and piercings, the more likely the person was a musician.

Eric Church, Hunter Hayes Leads Academy of Country Music Awards Nominations

Hayes interview-hopped, answering the same questions he had fielded from Access Hollywood. After 10 minutes, I looked down the receiving line; he had about 20 more stops to go. He seemed to enjoy himself most with Sophia Grace Brownlee, an eight-year-old singer discovered by Ellen DeGeneres, and her five-year-old cousin Rosie. The girls dispensed heart-shaped candy to him. I thought about asking for some myself, having eaten only a handful of blackberries that morning after four hours of sleep on an air mattress following a cross-country flight.

At the end of the red carpet, celebrities must endure a fusillade of photos in front of bleachers full of screaming fans. Hayes scored an especially warm ovation from the crowd. I trailed him and his people through a garage and up to the tucked-away talent entrance, a long red-carpeted tunnel covered in transparent plastic. When we reached the metal detectors to the arena, my credentials no longer provided me access. I left, but hung out unmolested around the opening of the tunnel along with some cops and a few Grammy staff. Away from the spotlight, most acted like normal human beings, but – blind item! – which well-known singer arrived in a terrifying convoy of a dozen hangers-on, stalking into two Navigators that screamed out of the garage without much regard for pedestrians, then returned 15 minutes later on foot, marching with the heavy footsteps of a brigade?

If you're still reading this, it means you probably watched the show, so I won't say much about the event itself except that attendees were still scrambling for their seats as the live broadcast began; that we were instructed to "applaud for the Grammys" at the end of each commercial break, a helpful imperative in case you'd forgotten where you were; that a large cookie and bottle of water at the concession stand cost me eight dollars; that the line for the gift bag at the official afterparty was too long to investigate, but the savory mushroom bread pudding made up for it; and that Hunter didn't win any of his categories, yet nailed his performance and betrayed no sour grapes. Bieber, on the other hand, hosted Saturday Night Live the night before to promote his new album and to distract his fans from his lack of nominations, and then attempted to set up a live-stream concert during the awards (he hit some technical snags). He also catalyzed the cyber-bullying of the Black Keys' drummer, who made an innocuous comment about Bieber after the show.

Later that night, Hayes tweeted to his 400,000-plus followers, "Had a fantastic night. Got to play one of my own songs on the GRAMMY's and watch a seriously awesome show! #thankyou!!! Wicked cool:)"

It won't be Hayes' last Grammys. It'll probably be mine.

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