An E for effort. You can't say the Grammy Awards aren't ambitious. It's no small feat serving multiple gods—bringing in the youth, honoring the past, creating buzzed-about fun moments, and exhibiting a social conscience. But last night's 57th edition of the awards was proof that when the Grammys try to be everything to everyone, it feels overstuffed yet unsatisfying. At least, unsatisfying to anyone not named Sam Smith. "Music's Biggest Night" felt bigger than ever, but not in a good way, just a bloated one, and it wasn't for lack of star power—just about every major name in pop had some time on the Staples Center stage. It was more a lack of fresh ideas. Here's a rundown of what happened.
Sam Smith Racked Up a Ton of Grammys
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First and foremost, bottom line–wise, are those millennials. There is nothing worse in 2015 than being irrelevant to the kids. On the other hand, this being the Grammys, if you can get mom and dad to take notice, so much the better. No one served that dual purpose more than the man who ruled the night, Sam Smith. Not since George Michael has there been a more highly touted male voice in pop, and going into this year's Grammys, the sad-sack British balladeer with the golden pipes was considered a gimme for Best New Artist. But hardly anyone expected him to take not only that award, but three of the four top prizes, including Record and Song of the Year? Smith's total of four gramophones was a coronation on the order of his countrywoman Adele, who took home six in 2012—proof once again that there is nothing the Recording Academy likes more than a "new classic" (sorry, Iggy).
Madonna Showed She Can Still Do It
With each passing year, though, the Grammy telecast becomes less about the awards tally, and more about the performances, and no artist had more riding on Sunday night's show than Madonna. She long ago surpassed the need to prove anything to anyone, and yet the doyenne of pop lives forever in the here and now. And of late, thanks to a series of inexcusable leaks of her upcoming 13th album, Rebel Heart, a live performance of lead single "Live for Love" was considered in some quarters a make-or-break moment. Unsurprisingly, she delivered. Although the normally steely perfectionist showed unexpected signs of nerves, her recreation of the minotaur-filled music video, bathed in red and black, was spot on. Though some of her hardcore fans would have liked to have seen her dance more in those high heels and writhe less, M was once again on point.
Kanye Is Still Kanye
One of the more happy surprises of the night was a newly genial Kanye West. The famously prickly one has had every reason to have beef with the Grammys, after the academy denied him Album of the Year three times, and didn't even nominate him for the superb My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus. But this year Kanye decided, for whatever reason, to bury the hatchet. Not only was he uncharacteristically approachable on the red carpet, but he performed twice: a stark, moving rendition of "Only One," and an appearance alongside Paul McCartney and a sublime, stripped-down Rihanna for "FourFive Seconds," perhaps the live highlight of the night. Still, Kanye being Kanye, the man did momentarily bum-rush the stage to rep for Beyoncé when Beck took Album of the Year, recalling his 2009 interruption of Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards. On this night it played as parody, although in a post-show interview, Kanye said he thought Beck should give his Grammy to Beyoncé.
Beck Won Album of the Year
While on paper, Beck's win for Morning Phase—a solid record, but hardly the jaw-dropper that was Beyoncé—might have been the biggest shocker of the night, serious Grammy watchers can't have been that surprised. As recent Album of the Year winners Arcade Fire (2011) and Mumford & Sons (2013) bear out, there is enough of a rock contingent within academy voters that—if there is enough competition in the pop/R&B arena—will win out. Beck was typically gracious in his acceptance, but truth be told, more telling was the placement of the award. Despite presenter Prince's declaration that "albums… still matter," the fact that what is traditionally considered the top Grammy Award was given out before Song and Record of the Year contradicted that idea. In 2015, it's apparently the single that counts.
The now tried-and-true Grammy tradition of pairing newcomers with vets played out again, in combinations that seemed both inspired and forced: Ed Sheeran and Jeff Lynne's ELO on the latter's "Mr. Blue Sky"; Hozier and Annie Lennox on a mash-up of "Take Me to the Church" and the blues chestnut "I Put a Spell on You"; and Jessie J and Tom Jones, on a truly head-scratching cover of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." One cross-generational combo that seemed perfectly natural, though, was Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett, doing the title track from their jazz revival album Cheek to Cheek, which had already won a Grammy earlier in the night.
The Grammys Got Political
The toughest turn for the Grammy Awards on this night was when they got socio-political. It's nothing new—a highlight of last year's ceremony was a mass same-sex wedding celebration—but this time around, it was almost too much. The specter of Ferguson and the idea that black lives do indeed matter was evoked by Pharrell and Prince; a no-frills, all-white Katy Perry turned her Prism track "By the Grace of God" into a musical commentary about domestic abuse. That followed a taped statement on the topic from President Obama and a spoken-word piece from abuse survivor Brooke Axtell—a segment that, important as it was, threatened to grind the show to a halt.
But then, along came Beyoncé. She had stayed on the sidelines for most of the night, taking to the podium once to accept the Grammy for Best R&B Performance. But when the time came, she was there. A show that for three hours-plus had hoped to say something meaningful about the uncertain, often fucked up times we live in, finally succeeded when Bey took the stage. In stark contrast to her sexed-up opener of "Drunk in Love" with Jay Z at the 2014 Grammys, this time she closed the show on a spiritual note. Backed by an all-male choir raising their hands as if to say "Hand Up, Don't Shoot," she delivered a glorious take on "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," a gospel favorite she first learned from her mother. She may have been robbed of Album of the Year honors, but on this night, Beyoncé had the last, most important word.
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