Cue the Prince Face — it was gloom night at the Grammys. Prince greeted the crowd last night with a magnificent smirk, cutting through hours of sanctimonious blather with one baby-I’m-a-star eyeroll. It summed up the whole night. After last year’s excellent Grammy bash, which was full of musical peaks — Beyoncé opening with “Drunk in Love,” Paul and Ringo jamming on “Queenie Eye,” Taylor Swift’s hair windmills in “All Too Well” — this one was a somber affair. Lots of lectures. Lots of frowns. So many dreary ballads. Beyoncé sang “Precious Lord” beautifully at the end, but admit it: wouldn’t you rather hear Bey sing about boning in the bathtub than going to church?
The music got off to a feeble start with AC/DC, who began with a new song — a surprisingly self-indulgent mistake from the normally business-savvy Angus Young. If you’re an AC/DC fan, their performance was tragic to witness, from the wheezy anthem (“In rock we trust/Rock or bust”) to the flubbed high notes in “Highway to Hell.” Also, AC/DC have a new album called Rock or Bust, yet the album cover doesn’t depict anyone’s bust. I guess you can’t count on anything these days. Consolation: It got worse when Tom Jones and Jessie J did their shriekingly, pointlessly, why-is-this-happening-ly awful “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” — the ugliest version since Top Gun.
Introduced by Miley and Nicki as “our bitch Madonna,” the queen did a powerhouse version of “Living for Love” with a lavish bullfighters-from-Hades number. Apparently, poor Madonna still hasn’t gotten over that heartless matador from the “Take a Bow” video. She had one of the night’s best quotes on the red carpet, explaining what her performance was all about: “Bullfighting, love, romance, heartbreak.” Rihanna, Paul McCartney and Kanye debuted “FourFiveMinutes” as a Wings-like trio, with Kanye in the Denny Laine role. Rih always rules in goth rock-goddess mode — who could forget her “Shut Up and Drive” with Fall Out Boy at the 2007 VMAs?
ELO played with Ed Sheeran, which almost made up for last year’s Robin Thicke/Chicago “Thickago” debacle. ELO scored the funniest crowd-dancing shots of the night: Paul McCartney was on his feet rocking out to “Evil Woman,” until a nosy camera guy shamed Macca into sitting back down with that “busted rocking out to ELO” look we’ve all worn. Beyoncé stood up by herself, clapping along with “Mr. Blue Sky” a little forlornly, while Nicole Kidman twitched with Keith Urban. Best of all, the Haim sisters did some jazz-hands choreography in the row right behind Taylor. We all could have used more of the Haim-and-Tay-cam all night.
Smokey Robinson and Nile Rodgers presented Beyoncé with the Best R&B Song award, leading to the priceless moment when Smokey offered his arm to help Bey up the stairs. Barry Gibb gave a shout out to his late brothers in the Bee Gees, Maurice and Robin — and added, “Of course, little Andy.” Amen. Miranda Lambert brought some badly needed rock energy with “Little Red Wagon,” which sounds exactly like the Syndicate of Sound’s Nuggets classic “Little Girl” and perhaps augurs a revival of the Y2K garage-rock revival.
Annie Lennox played air harmonica during a perfunctory rehash of a classic blues song that deserves much better than to have its name mentioned in a sentence that includes either “Hozier,” “50 Shades of Grey soundtrack crap” or “air harmonica.” Usher sang Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic,” with a harpist and a fleeting moment of Stevie’s actual harmonica; alas, Usher didn’t dance and Stevie didn’t sing. Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga dueted “Cheek to Cheek,” which sounded less embarrassing when Tony did it with Sanjaya on American Idol in 2007.
The big winner was Sam Smith, who took Best New Artist and went on to announce, “It’s the best night of my life.” Congrats, Sam — those are the same words Christopher Cross told the crowd on his big rookie night in 1980. He also gave a memorable update of Adele’s “rubbish relationship” speech in 2012: “I want to thank the man who this record is about, who I fell in love with last year. Thank you so much for breaking my heart, because you got me four Grammys.” Mary J. Blige joined him for “Stay With Me,” which Tom Petty has accused of sounding like a Tom Petty song, which probably means it sounds like some Stones song from the Sixties, since that’s what those bogus pseudo-plagiarism Petty complaints always mean.
There was a laughable speech about copyright that hailed artists “from the Turtles to Taylor Swift,” a dippy dig at De La Soul. (The Turtles sued De La Soul for sampling them in 1989, only one of many excellent reasons to hate the Turtles.) The anti-hip-hop vibe was pretty rich on a Grammy telecast that was full of ads for the N.W.A movie, but contained barely any rap beyond LL Cool J’s opening snippet of “Going Back to Cali” and that doggie-snacks commercial featuring the rapping corgi.
Prince made his climactic cane-twirling entrance to present the Album of the Year, announcing, “Like books and black lives, albums still matter.” As for the Album of the Year controversy. . .are you seriously claiming you care who wins the Grammy for Album of the Year? Didn’t think so. This year’s clear-cut sure-thing winner got upset by a Nineties comeback, just like last year. But hoping for awards shows to reward artistic achievement is expecting way too much out of life, kind of like expecting Kim Kardashian’s husband to act like he’s not eleven. (Beck and Beyoncé made two of the best records of 1999, and what won Album of the Year then? The Santana album with “Smooth” on it.)
One all-too-brief highlight: There was an ad with 3/5 of One Direction, promoting some new CBS show, with Harry Styles uttering the three words, “Hi, I’m Harry.” An extremely welcome glimmer of actual pop flash — refreshing on a sluggish Grammy night like this. Smirk us home, Prince.