Five ways to help solve the Grammys' trouble with tributes

Here’s a surefire way to get your song played on the Grammy Awards: Die.

With only eight trophies handed out over the course of 3 ½ hours, Monday night’s ceremony was clearly emphasizing performances over acceptance speeches. And on its face that would seem to be a good thing, a way to freshen up an event dedicated to celebrating songs that in some cases -- think “Uptown Funk” -- feel like they’ve been with us forever.

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But consider that out of the 19 performances that filled the 58th Grammys, five were tributes to musicians who’d recently left us, including David Bowie, B.B. King and Maurice White of Earth Wind & Fire. Another memorialized the first Grammy win -- at least that appeared to be the idea? -- by the late Michael Jackson. And another paid homage to Lionel Richie, this year’s recipient of the MusiCares Person of the Year award.

Richie, of course, is still very much alive, as the 66-year-old demonstrated by leaping onstage at the end of his salute to belt out “All Night Long.” Yet the vintage tunes in his celebration made “Uptown Funk” sound brand new.

This fixation on the past isn’t an unsolvable problem. As pop music’s most prestigious institution, the Grammys exist at least to some degree as a legacy-maintenance operation. And with so many foundational rock and pop stars reaching old age, we can only expect these tributes to keep coming.

Looking ahead to next year, then, here are five ways to improve them:

1. Provide some context.

Older music fans don’t need reminding why B.B. King or David Bowie mattered. But for younger viewers of the Grammys, this year’s tributes to those legends did virtually nothing to explain their significance. Would it be so hard to put together a minute or two of text and video to show how each influenced their heirs?

Sure, music can talk louder than words, as Chris Stapleton, Gary Clark Jr. and especially Bonnie Raitt demonstrated in their vivid, deeply felt rendition of King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.” But think of the impact that that assured performance might’ve made if it had been properly set up for kids whose only idea of a bluesman is Ed Sheeran.

As for Lady Gaga’s breathless sprint through 10 of Bowie’s best-known songs, it was a feat of stage management, not artistic connection, with zero insight into what Bowie and his music meant to Gaga or anybody else. It would be better to cut some of the wham-bam musical transitions and really get inside one of his songs.

Even the Richie tribute, which was one of the show’s most spirited performances (thanks in large part to Demi Lovato’s full-throated “Hello”), assumed we already knew everything there is to know about the man. Not true.

2. Make the tributes shorter.

Lemmy Kilmister would’ve been the first to tell you that you only need a few rumbling bars of “Ace of Spades” to understand Motorhead’s gloriously straightforward sound. So why were the Hollywood Vampires -- Johnny Depp’s hard-rock super group with Alice Cooper and Joe Perry -- onstage long enough to do “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”?

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3. Make the tributes longer.

On the other hand, sometimes a tribute needs more than 70 seconds to get its point across. That’s how long Miguel had for his truncated rendition of Michael Jackson’s “She’s Out of My Life,” which he sang accompanied by Jackson’s old keyboardist, Greg Phillinganes, to mark the 36th anniversary of Jackson’s taking home his first Grammy. Or was it the 37th anniversary of his album “Off the Wall”? Miguel wasn’t around long enough to clarify.

4. Arrange better matches of performers and honorees.

There’s no doubting that Stevie Wonder was the right man to toast his fellow funk trailblazer Maurice White. But it’s anyone’s guess why he was saddled with the tiresome Pentatonix. As they accompanied Wonder on “That’s the Way of the World,” the a cappella singers looked like they’d never even heard another Earth Wind & Fire song, much less be moved by one in any meaningful way.

5. Give survivors the night off.

Perhaps the most lifeless performance in a show thick with them, the Eagles’ grim rendition of “Take It Easy” with Jackson Browne was in retrospect a clear mistake.

These guys’ former band mate, Glenn Frey, died unexpectedly less than a month ago, and here they were trying to entertain a television audience of millions. You can’t blame them for wanting to honor their friend, but there’s no shame in taking some time to heal before getting back out there.

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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