With the world watching as it mourned the loss of one of its most renowned singers, the performers at the 54th Grammy Awards faced a challenge: how to balance the grieving process brought on by the death on Saturday of Whitney Houston while still celebrating the ascendance of a new powerhouse, Adele.
Simple: acknowledge her passing, allow individual performers to give their own private shoutouts in their own little ways, and understand that Houston's death would be on everyone's mind anyway, so there's no need to bang us over the head with it (go to CNN and HLN for that particular circus).
But even such circumstances can't completely eclipse a moment that most musicians push toward their entire musical lives, and the Grammy performances on Sunday at their best channeled a spirit that filled the room, one that transcended genres. And taken as a whole, the ceremony's music performances served to illustrate pop music at a turning point, where the young performers channeled electronic dance music's energy while their elders scratched their heads and the more vocal detractors -- Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters -- dismissed music made using new technology by employing the lamest argument there is, that music made on one instrument, the computer, is somehow less valid than music made on "real instruments." It's possible Grohl was being ironic, but if so the joke fell flat, and Foo Fighters' later appearance on the same stage as electronic dance producers David Guetta and Deadmau5 added to the confusion.
On one side were the beats-per-minute breakdowns of Katy Perry, Rihanna, Chris Brown, Nicki Minaj and the aforementioned salute to dance, all of which relied on the four-on-the-floor stomp of dance music, which has spread across the world and has made the notion of regional variation seem quaint.
Absent the local dialects inherent in hip-hop, country and rock, dance music domination and its recent collision with pop music has increased the tempo of hit radio and delivered the message of freedom through dance and repetition, and doing so by harnessing synthetic tools to create new sounds. The best of these was also the weirdest: Nicki Minaj's surreal mega-exorcism stunt that was "Roman Holiday," her new single -- one that seemed designed to negate LL Cool J's benediction. The worst of them, Chris Brown's aerobics workout of "Turn Up the Music," showcased his dancing skills at the expense of the song.
On the other side were the purists, who drew from the wellspring of American music, the kind that's traveled throughout the world but can be traced back to its North American roots. Whether the direct comfort of Jennifer Hudson's version of "I Will Always Love You,' the song that Houston made famous, Bruce Springsteen's opening statement of purpose "We Take of Our Own," Adele's tentative but convincing take on her masterful song "Rolling in the Deep," Taylor Swift's I-told-you-so pause-and-sneer of "Mean," or Glen Campbell's rousing, absolutely inspiring version of "Rhinestone Cowboy," the best moments offered a confidence that comes with full investment in the moment and the song.
Less thrilling were (as usual) the odd medleys and cross-genre collaborations that even the musicians onstage didn't seem to buy into. Whether Blake Shelton's read-from-the-teleprompter rendition of Glen Campbell's "Southern Nights" or the complete failure that was the Beach Boys reunion performance, the awkwardness felt palpable. In the latter, Adam Levine proved that a blue-eyed soul singer can hit one kind of falsetto note perfectly but miss the mark completely when out of his element. An otherwise decent vocalist, Levine brutalized "Surfer Girl," and Foster the People's Mark Foster looked like someone was holding a knife to his throat while he sang "Wouldn't It Be Nice." Brian Wilson, who hadn't stood onstage with his Beach Boys band mates in years, illustrated convincingly why that is: based on this one performance, it may be that he no longer belongs there.
And then there was Adele to bridge the divide with her big-umbrella, popular music, the kind that rings true across genres.
Anyone who's heard, for example, a few of the authorized remixes of "Rolling in the Deep" can appreciate its utility: whether backed by a swinging retro R&B; vibe as on her Grammy-winning album of the year, "21," or within the experimental dance music of label mates the XX, her voice is a uniter, not a divider, her essence is traditional but her energy is new, and this combustible combo on Sunday felt somehow both timeless and completely of the moment.
BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX
Here is a partial list of Grammy winners in major categories, as announced Sunday by the Recording Academy. For the complete list, go to latimes.com/grammys.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
RECORD OF THE YEAR
"Rolling in the Deep," Adele
SONG OF THE YEAR
"Rolling in the Deep," Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth, songwriters
"Walk," Foo Fighters
POP VOCAL ALBUM
"Body and Soul," Tony Bennett & Amy Winehouse
"Is This Love," Corinne Bailey Rae
"My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,"
"Otis," Jay-Z and Kanye West
"Own the Night," Lady Antebellum
COUNTRY SOLO PERFORMANCE
"Mean," Taylor Swift
LATIN POP, ROCK OR URBAN ALBUM
"Drama y Luz," Mana
"Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites," Skrillex
"Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites," Skrillex
"Barton Hollow," The Civil Wars
ALTERNATIVE MUSIC ALBUM
"Bon Iver," Bon Iver
"Paper Airplane," Alison Krauss & Union Station
"Hello Fear," Kirk Franklin
WORLD MUSIC ALBUM
"Brahms: Symphony No. 4," Gustavo Dudamel, conductor (Los Angeles Philharmonic)
JAZZ INSTRUMENTAL ALBUM
"Forever," Corea, Clarke & White
JAZZ VOCAL ALBUM
"The Mosaic Project," Terri Lyne Carrington & Various Artists
"Hilarious," Louis C.K.
SPOKEN WORD ALBUM
"If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won't)," Betty White
PRODUCER OF THE YEAR, NON-CLASSICAL
PRODUCER OF THE YEAR, CLASSICAL