Pop provocateurs Lady Gaga and Eminem may have brought more compelling career stories to the 53rd annual Grammy Awards, but on a shocking night the big trophies went home Sunday with Southern trio Lady Antebellum and Montreal indie-rock band Arcade Fire.
Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now," a harmony hit of closing-time yearning, was named record and song of the year (the former is for best overall track; the latter is specifically for song writing), while the best album honors went to Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs," the third studio album from the seven-member band led by the married couple Win Butler and Régine Chassagne.
FOR THE RECORD:
Grammy Awards: An article in the Feb. 14 Section A about winners of the 2011 Grammy Awards said that the line "You think I give a damn about a Grammy?" came from rapper Eminem's first single, 1999's "My Name Is." The line comes from "The Real Slim Shady" in 2000. —
A dizzying string of envelope surprises at Staples Center began with perhaps the biggest shock of all: Esperanza Spalding, the 26-year-old jazz bassist and vocalist from Portland, Ore., was named best new artist, beating out far more famous nominees, among them kid-pop sensation Justin Bieber and rapper-singer Drake.
Spalding is the first jazz artist to win the coveted best new artist award, but her win recalled the 2008 show when Herbie Hancock took home the album of the year honors.
"I take this honor to heart so sincerely, and I'll do my damnedest to make great music for all of you. It's such an honor, and God bless," said a shocked Spalding, who released her third album, "The Chamber Music Society," last year.
Taken collectively, the honors for Spalding, Arcade Fire and Lady Antebellum were vivid reminders that the 13,000 voters of the Recording Academy aren't marching to the same beat as music consumers or even music critics.
The Antebellum victories — they won in five of the six categories in which they were nominated — show the consolidated power of the industry's country-rooted constituency that has powered major category upsets in recent years for the Dixie Chicks, Taylor Swift and the twang-informed duo of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.
Formed in Nashville in 2006, the trio of Hillary Scott, Dave Haywood and Charles Kelley saw a bookend quality to their Staples Center success on Sunday. As they pointed out during their acceptance speech, their performance of "Need You Now" on last year's Grammy Awards was a key turning point in the single's success.
"We just cried our eyes out backstage," Kelley said.
The audience at Staples Center seemed incredulous as the winners were announced — these days most award shows are the stuff of predictable ritual, not roller-coaster surprise — and there will be considerable debate whether the academy's choices were boldly out of the box or blatantly out of touch with the hip-hop generation.
The night continued a grim Grammy tradition for Eminem, who has won 13 of the trophies in his career but none in the top four categories despite seven nominations. The rapper may now be regretting a spiky lyric from his first single, "My Name Is," in 1999: "You think I give a damn about a Grammy?"
There were plenty of other unexpected moments during the show. The CBS broadcast was marked by silences enforced by network censors when performers such as Cee Lo Green and Eminem dropped F-bombs during their songs and also when Gaga let loose with an especially ripe exclamation of surprise when accepting one of her three awards from her album "The Fame Monster."
Presenter Seth Rogen, famed for his bong-hit films, veered off his scripted teleprompter patter to make a joke about smoking pot with Miley Cyrus backstage and, far more upsetting, a dancer fell hard from a riser during Bieber's number with Usher and Jaden Smith. By all appearances, the performer appeared only temporarily dazed by the tumble; he continued performing after his fall.
In a couple of other historic benchmarks, a Grammy for the first time went to a composition written for a video game: Christopher Tin's "Baba Yetu," which was named best instrumental recording; and the version of Train's song "Hey, Soul Sister" that won best pop performance by a duo or group was from the iTunes Session EP, the first time iTunes original content has won a Grammy.
The Grammy show is billed as "music's biggest night," but the next-day discussion will be just as much about the visuals — Cee Lo decked out like a funky peacock and surrounded by puppets, Bieber dancing with stackable ninjas and Gaga's show-stealing stage arrival inside something resembling an intergalactic egg and then performing her song "Born This Way" while wearing a yolk-yellow outfit.
As far as performances, the show was a mix of major stars of the past, present and, perhaps, the future. All five nominees in the best new artist category performed, and three icons whose recording careers date to the early 1960s took turns at the microphone: Bob Dylan sang "Maggie's Farm," Barbra Streisand performed "Evergreen" and Mick Jagger tore through a version of "Everybody Needs Somebody" as a tribute to the late Solomon Burke.
The show opened with a squadron of siren voices — Christina Aguilera, Yolanda Adams, Jennifer Hudson, Martina McBride and Florence Welch — performing a medley of hits associated with Aretha Franklin, the soul queen who has been ailing in recent months. A video message from Franklin followed the number, and the 68-year-old said she hoped to make it to the show in person "next year."
The final surprise was an unprecedented encore at the end of the show. After their acceptance speech, Arcade Fire members returned to their instruments and launched into "Ready to Start," their second number of the night. Some in the audience thought that it was a punk-spirited coup of the microphone, but Grammy executive producer Ken Erhlich said in recent days that he would let the band do an extra song if the show was running ahead of schedule.
Times staff writer Jessica Gelt contributed to this report.