Remember when the Grammy Awards used to suck every year? Not so long ago, right? There was that long string of unwatchably tedious disasters in the 2000s, the “Alicia Keys sings duet with Frank Sinatra hologram” years. But over the past few years, the Grammys bash has turned into the awards show that really aims to capture the crackle and sparkle of pop music, in all its demented excess. And last night was full of demented moments. It had R&B crooners and big-cheddar teen smoothies. It had fake lumberjack guys with banjos and bowties. It had Prince brandishing a white cane. Yes, it even had Taylor Swift showing how much she loves to get up and boogie to Bob Marley jams.
Last year’s Grammy show had loads of EDM and Joe Walsh; this year it went heavy on Antiques Roadshow folk music and Elton John. Yet LL Cool J was once again great as the host. He took the Twitter-pimping to comical extremes, especially the way he kept enunciating “hashtag.” But he’s LL. This man can say anything and still seem superhumanly suave. Didn’t he already prove that with “I Need Love?”
Taylor Swift opened with a bizarro version of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” which looked like a lysergic bouncy-castle mix of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and vintage Panic! at the Disco videos. (Haven’t you people ever heard of closing a goddamn door?) Lady Tay rocked a white top hat, tormented a boyfriend tied to a spinning torture-chamber wheel and adopted a faux-Brit accent that might have been a dig at her ex Harry Styles. You know the scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where Hunter S. Thompson’s attorney freaks out on acid in the hotel bathtub, blasting Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit?” And he orders Thompson to throw the tape deck in the tub and electrocute him right when the rabbit bites his own head off? It was like that. Feed your head, Taylor!
It set the tone for a whole night of over-the-top performances. Justin Timberlake made his long-awaited-by-vagina-havers comeback by vamping “Suit & Tie” into a retro Cotton Club big-band routine, switching from black-and-white to color just like Bon Jovi in the “Livin’ on a Prayer” video. Johnny Depp looked confused about why he was introducing Mumford & Sons, but the Mumford boys, along with the Lumineers, brought the BanjoSex/DustSounds vibe.
There was a mighty strange tribute to Bob Marley featuring Bruno Mars and Sting, who evoked fond memories of his “Every Breath You Take” duet with Puffy at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards. I think we can all agree: If Bob Marley were alive today, he would totally want his legacy carried on in the form of Sting howling the Police’s “Walking on the Moon” while the Taylor-cam captures footage of Miss “This Is Exhausting, You Know?” doing her spazziest arms-over-head dance in the audience. Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, indeed.
Miguel sang a ludicrously lovely version of “Adorn,” accompanied by Wiz Khalifa, who wore a BOY cap he must have scored at a Pet Shop Boys garage sale. Rihanna did “Stay” dressed as Stevie Nicks on the back cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, complete with a Lindsey Buckingham beard-alike in backup singer Mikky Ekko. Although CBS issued a much-publicized memo ordering the stars not to dress slutty, presenter Katy Perry deserves respect for openly defying the memo. (Very openly.) Let’s face it – when pop stars at awards shows stop dressing slutty, who loses? We all do.
Jack White did a bang-up rock & roll set, lurching from the mellowosity of “Love Interruption” to the noise-guitar freakcraft of “Freedom at 21.” Since playing loud guitar solos is what he does best these days, it was a shrewd lurch. The Black Keys, deservedly big winners for El Camino, did “Lonely Boy” with Dr. John, whose voodoo headgear was even more impressively preposterous than Rihanna’s hair extensions.
As for the musical soy-bomb of the night, Carrie Underwood came close – but the crown unfortunately belonged to Alicia Keys, who used to possess the radio’s most gorgeous voice until she fried her pipes in the late 2000s. Keys did her best to croak “Girl on Fire,” a song that really doesn’t deserve any better than croaking, trying to deflect attention by playing a faux-Phil Collins drum solo. But who ever thought she could get out-sung by Adam Levine?
There were the annual tributes to the dearly departed, from a Dave Brubeck jazz interlude to a clip of Dick Clark with LL on American Bandstand. Levon Helm was honored by Elton John, Mavis Staples and Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard doing “The Weight.” The memorial montage was full of intelligent touches, like using Spirit’s hippie-funeral lament “Nature’s Way” as a tribute to the late Ed Cassidy.
For the closing hip-hop jam, LL got to leave his host duties behind and rock the bells like he used to, throwing down with Chuck D (fight the power!), Tom Morello (rage against the machine!) and the drummer from Blink 182 (take off your pants and jacket!). Uncle L led a rousing tribute to the late great Adam Yauch, romping through “No Sleep till Brooklyn” with the shout, “MCA forever!” It had the same raucous spirit as Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl and Elvis Costello doing “London Calling” for Joe Strummer on the 2003 Grammys, 10 years ago. Even when the network dumbly faded out early to make room for those final ads, it didn’t kill that buzz. Because you can’t, you won’t and you don’t stop.