Despite strange pairings, show plays it too safe

The Baltimore Sun

With no host and a bevy of performances, the 51st annual Grammy Awards telecast last night tried to position itself as a televised pop music festival, only with more glitter and very expensive, industrial-style staging.

But unlike a pop fest (and previous Grammy shows), there was very little spontaneity - or a sense of fun. The performances were full and lush but still anti-climactic, for the most part. Despite all that, the program ran rather smoothly. But there was an obvious awkward spot early on.

Rihanna, the Bahamian pop superstar, was scheduled to perform but bowed out at the last minute. The Los Angeles Times reported that she had allegedly been assaulted by her boyfriend, urban-pop star Chris Brown, early yesterday morning. As result of her absence, actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Justin Timberlake struggled to fill the void.

British singer-songwriters were some of the most acclaimed in pop music last year. So it came as little surprise that acts from the other side of the pond - namely, Coldplay, Duffy and Adele - picked up awards for song of the year, best pop album and best new artist. The mighty folk-pop-blues duo of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, whose album Raising Sand was a critical smash if not a commercial blockbuster, picked up multiple gold trophies, including album and record of year. Their wins were evident of the Recording Academy's strong conservative bent, even as the nominations this year acknowledged fresher sounds.

U2, the band Coldplay wants to be, opened the show with its new single, "Get on Your Boots." Though the song boasts a fat groove with a slight psychedelic flair, the immediacy of it was undercut by a rather businesslike vocal from Bono.

The unfortunate trend of pairing stars of today with legends of yesterday continued. Justin Timberlake has no business on the same stage with Al Green.

Perhaps the oddest pairing on last night's show was the great Stevie Wonder with the yelping Jonas Brothers. Their performance of Wonder's "Superstition" was an embarrassment for the siblings. The trio's vocal and musical limitations were on full display as the Motown legend and the powerful soul band pummeled the teen heartthrobs.

The Grammys' acknowledgment of teen power had actually begun earlier in the program with a pitch-challenged performance of "15" by Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus. Like the Jonas Brothers, Swift and Cyrus moved millions of albums last year, transcending the tween market and conquering the pop charts, as the industry struggled for relevancy.

It was clear throughout last night's telecast that the Grammys were working hard to appeal to younger pop fans. The nominations were an interesting mix of bankable pop stars and daring indie artists. But the telecast still felt too safe and mannered.

When the Grammys weren't staging incongruous duets, the producers attempted obvious style cross-pollination. Jay-Z delivered a typically nonchalant (but atypically boring) freestyle during Coldplay's performance. The group ended with a faithful but energetic take on "Viva La Vida."

Kid Rock kept the momentum going, infusing bright funk and a dash of gospel into "All Summer Long" and "Rock N Roll Jesus."

Jennifer Hudson, who won the first award of the night for best R&B; album, gave an emotional rendition of her new single, "You Pulled Me Through." She was backed by a gospel choir, which befitted the soaring ballad. Just returning to the spotlight after the murder of her mother, brother and nephew months ago, the singer became emotional toward the song's end. She received one of the night's few standing ovations.

But the momentum returned with a riveting performance by Radiohead. Layered polyrhythmic percussion and strutting horns courtesy of the University of Southern California Trojans nicely bolstered "15 Steps." The usually somber Thom Yorke, sporting a trendy shaggy haircut, was especially animated as he bobbed in time with the beat. The performance rightfully received a standing ovation.

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