Emotions ran higher than usual Saturday night at Clive Davis’ pre-Grammy gala, and not just because the stars in attendance were venting their frustrations with an unpopular new president.
The veteran record executive’s annual party at the Beverly Hilton is known as a marathon of music-business backslapping, with lengthy toasts by Davis and the Recording Academy’s Neil Portnow and performances that can seem arranged to remind everyone how smart Person X was to sign Artist Y to Label Z.
By the end of the night, you can forget that music is about more than leveraging valuable copyrights, to use one of Davis’ favorite words.
Yet this year, a wave of real feeling went through the room when Davis saluted his friend Joni Mitchell, who was making a rare public appearance after suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015. Hundreds in the audience of A-listers — which included Stevie Wonder, Jane Fonda, Lena Dunham, Ringo Starr, Michael Keaton, Kris Jenner, Max Martin and Courtney Love — rose to give Mitchell a standing ovation.
Later, the R&B singer Maxwell silenced schmoozers with a deeply tender rendition of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” in which he changed a lyric to mark the fifth anniversary of Whitney Houston’s death. Jennifer Hudson inspired a similar reaction with her complicated, gospel-style adaptation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
And then there was Mary J. Blige, who greeted the crowd by revealing that she’s “going through some horrible stuff right now.”
“It’s called a divorce,” she added before tearing through her songs “Thick of It” and “No More Drama.” The latter ended with Blige lying on the stage, her voice raw with pain.
Warmer but no less vivid were two young artists using the language of religion to sing about the experience of growing up: Chance the Rapper, who got the audience clapping along to “Blessings,” and the country singer Maren Morris, who belted “My Church” with confidence beyond her years.
For some, the passion on display Saturday had an expected political edge.
Introducing her performance of Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” Judy Collins described the day after Donald Trump’s election as the beginning of “the dark ages.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), a familiar presence at Davis’ party, asked if folks had seen recent pictures of former President Obama on vacation, then joked that Obama “is the only person who’s happy Obama isn’t president.”
And in her speech accepting the Recording Academy’s Industry Icon Award, BET Networks chief Debra Lee described the need to fight discriminatory “bans and walls.”
The line triggered a big response from a crowd that later seemed to hold its applause when Davis thanked Jon Voight, the actor and vocal Trump supporter, for coming to his event.
But Davis isn’t the type to let a moment like that hang in the air, which is why the show ended with Neil Diamond leading a full house through several choruses of “Sweet Caroline.”
There’s a copyright with some value left in it.