Whatever happened to the splashy awards-show production number?
Once upon a time — say two or three years ago — high-concept spectacle was the default mode for a live television event like the Grammy Awards. You get the chance to play that stage, on what we're constantly reminded is "music's biggest night," you elevate your presentation (and therefore wow an audience of tens of millions into submission).
Yet apart from a few exceptions, the 57th Grammys, broadcast on CBS Sunday night from Staples Center, felt defined by rawer, less elaborately conceived moments.
The event wasn't without bombast, of course. Though AC/DC opened the 3-and-a-half-hour show on a stage cleared of virtually all decoration, the veteran hard-rock band was brandishing super-sized guitar riffs and drumbeats made to bludgeon. And let's not forget the vaguely satanic phantasmagoria Madonna devised for the performance of her new single, "Living for Love."
But most of the nearly two dozen acts appeared to be after something different from the shock and awe of yore. At a time of widespread turmoil — war, racial strife, domestic violence — they wanted to connect, to offer something of themselves to viewers.
Some were more successful than others.
One of pop's most expressive (and polarizing) figures, Kanye West was transfixing in "Only One," circling around a single column of light as he delivered lyrics he's said he was channeling from his late mother.
Yet if the song was revealing a vulnerability West so often hides beneath a gruff exterior, he wasn't doing away with that facade entirely. Later he joined Rihanna and Paul McCartney for a bare-bones version of "FourFiveSeconds," their new single about going wild on someone foolish enough to provoke them.
Paired for what the Recording Academy proudly refers to as a "Grammy moment," Annie Lennox and the young Irish singer Hozier were equally convincing in a stark, soulful mash-up of his "Take Me to Church" and "I Put a Spell on You," which Lennox sang with a growl in her voice and a possessed look in her eyes.
Eric Church put across a similar seriousness of purpose in "Give Me Back My Hometown." The country song addresses an ex-girlfriend, but here he reached for something deeper, playing before a video screen flashing protest images.
Songs about romance weren't off-limits. Sam Smith teamed with Mary J. Blige for a stately version of his "Stay With Me," which won song and record of the year. Beck, who claimed the album of the year prize for "Morning Phase," summoned an effective tenderness in "Heart Is a Drum," with an extra helping of sensitive-guy vocals from Chris Martin of Coldplay.
And Usher created one of the night's simplest — and loveliest — moments in his performance, accompanied only by a harpist, of Stevie Wonder's metaphysical "If It's Magic."
Slow-and-low is a risk, though, as Adam Levine and Gwen Stefani demonstrated in a dreary take on Maroon 5's "My Heart Is Open" that felt like a total waste of Stefani's natural effervescence. The same went for Tom Jones and Jessie J's drab "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," which capitalized on neither singer's enormous voice, and Ariana Grande's "Just a Little Bit of Your Heart," which sacrificed her bubbly charm in an attempt to summon Mariah Carey-level power.
A little spectacle would've helped any of those performances, as indeed it did Sia's "Chandelier," basically a live version of the song's dance-focused music video (with the addition of a very game Kristen Wiig wearing the clip's familiar nude leotard), and Pharrell Williams' unexpectedly disturbing "Happy," which reconfigured the bouncy funk-pop tune as a dramatic meditation on police violence.
You expected a bit more of that — of the old Grammys grandiosity — from Beyoncé, pop's biggest star, who closed the show as part of an extended sequence that also featured John Legend and Common's song "Glory."
Dressed more or less as an angel, Beyoncé sang the gospel standard "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," surrounded by men in white suits holding their hands up. The moment felt pregnant with meaning, completely ready to burst.
But it never did. Beyoncé simply sang the hymn — sang the stuffing out of it, actually — while her face beamed an expression of pain. Or maybe it was hope. She seemed to want you to decide.