The Grammys Were a Little Too Smooth

Plagued by tepid medleys, the Grammys didn't pack much of a punch

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Six minutes into Wednesday's 8 p.m. Grammy telecast, Santana's "Smooth" was cued up as background music for the opening credits. At 8:43, CBS teased viewers to stick around for upcoming performances by Santana. At 9:30, Rob Thomas and songwriting partner Itaal Shur won the first televised Santana award for "Smooth." And at 10:45, Santana finally ripped through a triumphant take on his now signature song.

So no, as far as dramatics go, the 42nd Annual Grammy Awards, in which Santana went home with eight statues (not counting the Song of the Year award which went to Thomas and Shur), did not pack much of a punch. Viewers channel surfing during commercial breaks caught more drama in a three-minute snippet from NBC's West Wing than they saw during the entire three-hour Grammy telecast.

That's not to say the show did not come with surprises. After all, who would have laid down money that the Backstreet Boys, Ricky Martin and Britney Spears, the pinup pillars who defined mainstream pop music in 1999 and sold over 20 million albums along the way, would walk home empty-handed? Or that Macy Gray, Phil Collins and Andy Williams would make a random joint appearance together onstage?

In a telecast in which Arista Records founder Clive Davis received more podium thanks than God, the two biggest surprises, if you don't count Jennifer Lopez's barely there dress, came when Sting beat out an all-Latin lineup and took home Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, and when Christina Aguilera snatched Best New Artist right out of the hands of pop "veteran" Britney Spears. (Is the sadistic stylist responsible for Britney stage bodysuit last night the same person who fitted TLC in their dreadful space outfits? Joan Rivers is going to have a field day with those duds.)

So with the Grammy gift-giving following a strict Santana storyline, the show had to sink or swim based on its star performances, which turned out to be wildly uneven.

Note to the Grammy producers: Kill the medleys. Yes, stars love them, since they give them a chance to flog two or three singles to a worldwide audience of one billion viewers. But they make for crummy performances and bad TV. The acts who concentrated on a single song for the most part knocked them out of the park, while acts busying stitching two or three songs together delivered less rather than more.

On the plus, non-medley side, Marc Anthony came through with an exuberant performance of "I Need to Know," powered by a swinging pop percussion. Faith Hill completed her career crossover from country dame and suburban sex kitten with a powerful performance of "Let Me Let Go" (try to find the country chord in that number), and not to mention a memorable slinky, form-fitting dress that could have made even Shania blush. Even Sting's mediocre "Desert Rose" managed to catch fire onstage with the aid of world vocalist Cheb Mami. And Santana's "Smooth," a class act from first note to last, was matched only by Carlos' eloquent acceptance speeches.

Two of the biggest disappointments were performances by Dixie Chicks and Ricky Martin. With his Cirque Du Soleil-style circus production, Martin was trying way too hard to recapture the magic of his performance at last year's Grammys when he stunned the crowd and the country with a career-defining "Cup of Life." And would it have killed Martin to sing "Livin' La Vida Loca" one more time, instead of opting to plug is new, sub-par single "Maria"?

As for the Dixie Chicks, who rightfully went home with a Grammy for Country Album, the trio botched things badly by having a video, which CBS at times cut to directly, of "Goodbye Earl" airing on a larger-than-life screen as they performed the song live. Did the Chicks think the song's narrative about a wife's revenge against an abusive husband was so weak that viewers had to follow along with a video at home? If the Chicks wanted to shill their new clip, they should have taken it to CMT, not the Grammys. Besides, the video, featuring NYPD Blue's Dennis Franz as the doomed Earl, was in incredibly bad taste, playing the song's tale of murder for laughs, and by taking that light-hearted route the Chicks belittled the serious plight of battered women.

As for the medley mistakes, they included tepid run-throughs by Will Smith (again, is it too much to ask him to play his hit, "Wild Wild West," instead of trying to prop up his newer "Freakin It"?) Whitney Houston and TLC, whose halting dance steps sure didn't look like they came from a team who just spent months on the road. Britney wasted time flogging her forgettable ballad, "From the Bottom of My Broken Heart." After a shaky vocal performance there, suddenly (miraculously?) she was pitch-perfect for her run-through of the more demanding "Baby One More Time."

The less said about the Backstreet Boys' night on stage the better. What could have been a triumphant performance of their by-now classic single, "I Want It That Way," was instead wasted on a medley of covers (the group managed to make Boyz II Men's dreadful "I'll Make Love To You" sound even more vanilla than the original), and, of course, the band's new single, "Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely." The group returned as uninspired and overpaid backup singers for Elton John's feel-good take on "Philadelphia Freedom."

The one act who avoided the medley pitfall was Kid Rock. Opening with "Only God Knows Why," the Detroit bad boy's rewrite of Bob Seger's "Turn the Page," Rock lit up Los Angeles' Staples Center, literally, with "Bawitadaba," before segueing into a vulgarized reworking of Grand Funk Railroad's "We're an American Band" ("We're coming to your town/To pull your panties down"). On this otherwise predictable night, it was a tasteless, terrific and welcomed spectacle.