The Grammy Awards may be "music's biggest night," to quote the Recording Academy's dogged branding effort, but they no longer represent its center.
You got a firm sense of how haphazard the awards can seem, particularly as the record industry continues to fragment, during the cobbled-together concert that surrounded the announcement of this year's Grammy nominations Friday night at the Nokia Theatre in downtown Los Angeles.
Hosted by LL Cool J, "The Grammy Nominations Concert Live!" aimed to drive public attention to an often-baffling list of nominations that include an album of the year nomination for Sara Bareilles' tepid piano pop, Led Zeppelin's nomination for best rock performance and Ed Sheeran's spot in the best new artist category — despite the fact his tune "The A Team" was nominated previously for song of the year.
But the hourlong concert, broadcast on CBS, made its own claim on incoherence.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, the hit-making Seattle rap duo, opened the show with "Thrift Shop," their self-congratulatory renunciation of hip-hop opulence.
But then Taylor Swift, beamed in from Australia, followed "Thrift Shop" with an excerpt from the lush-life pageant that is her current arena show.
Neither act — both up for album of the year — persuasively argued its position.
Nor did Katy Perry, really, who appeared on video from Canada to perform "Roar," her smash-hit testimonial about picking oneself up after experiencing a hardship. ("Roar" was nominated for song of the year.)
On the radio, where it's been blasted more or less nonstop since the summer, the tune's durable production gives Perry's message real power.
Yet here she did it as a kind of semi-acoustic campfire ditty; it felt small, dangerously diminished.
Per long-standing Grammy tradition, Friday's concert featured a perfunctory tribute to a late cultural hero (in this case, Nelson Mandela), as well as bizarre pairings of artists young and old.
Country star Keith Urban and L.A.-based soul singer Miguel joined not-exactly-simpatico forces for a rather yowly rendition of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine."
What did it mean? There was no telling. (Perhaps the two men were simply using a well-worn classic to distract viewers from the fact that Drake, who had been scheduled to perform, dropped off the show at the last minute Friday morning.)
Robin Thicke, enlisting members of Earth, Wind & Fire for the former's slick soul-funk jam "Blurred Lines" — nominated for record of the year — made more sense, at least on paper. But at the Nokia, the song felt queasy and tense, as though you could hear Thicke trying to hang on to the perch he established for himself over the summer.
And then, like a ray of focused energy from an entirely different show, there was Lorde, the 17-year-old New Zealander whose song "Royals" is one of the biggest — and most unlikely — pop hits of the year.
Thematically similar to (but distinct in tone from) "Thrift Shop," it's about not being able to relate to the pleasures of conspicuous consumption.
But where Macklemore seemed to be trying to persuade us to join him in that experience — not unlike the ratings-hungry Grammys themselves — Lorde couldn't appear to have cared less about our approval, an exciting provocation on a glitzy awards show.
She sang her lyrics over a strenuously stripped-down beat, glaring into the camera like a young Kate Bush, challenging us to accept her seriousness. And then she stormed offstage, her job completed.
"Royals" earned a nomination for both record and song of the year Friday, which felt like a bit of course correction for the head-scratching inspired elsewhere.
But in typical Grammy fashion, Lorde was passed over for a best new artist nomination.
Don't try to figure that one out — you'll only grow more confused.
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