The 15th Latin Grammy Awards started off with ... President Obama's immigration speech. The Univision network delayed the telecast of the Latin music awards show for nearly 20 minutes so that the audience could watch the president announce his executive action that will potentially allow millions of those in the U.S. illegally protection from deportation.
As soon as the speech was done, the Latin Grammys got down to the glamorous business of giving awards — to salsa singer Marc Anthony, Spanish pop crooner Enrique Iglesias and Mexican balladeer Pepe Aguilar, among others.
But mostly the show was about performances (19 by my count). And in what has become the Grammy formula, in both English and Spanish, these were mostly an array of medleys by gaggles of performers teamed up for no other reason than it makes for good headlines. Consider the befuddling combination of Pitbull with Santana, or reggaeton singer Wisin with Chris Brown and Pitbull again. Then there was Anthony and the Canadian act Magic! singing the reggae-fusion band's "Rude." Because when one thinks Marc Anthony, one thinks Canadian reggae.
No Grammy Awards show — be it in Spanish or English — can be accused of being a platform for creativity or experimentation. Everything is scripted, down to host Eugenio Derbez's jokes about selfies and plastic surgery. But Obama's speech did provide a thought-provoking launch pad to what is generally a pretty ho-hum proceeding.
The speech was screened inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, where the awards were held, to a jam-packed audience of Latin pop stars, rock bands and Mexican regional groups. If anyone wants to know how the Latin Grammys are different from the Grammy Awards besides language: Well, here you go. It's hard to imagine another awards telecast being interrupted by a policy speech, much less one about immigration.
A rousing performance by Puerto Rican hip-hop duo Calle 13 kicked off the actual awards show with the Irish-inflected tune "El Aguante" ("The Endurance"), a song about enduring difficult circumstances. It was the perfect segue from Obama's talk, which was all about the hardships faced by immigrants in the country illegally. Toward the end of René Pérez Joglar's performance, the singer ripped off his jacket to reveal a T-shirt that read "Ayotzinapa Falta 43" ("Ayotzinapa is Missing 43"), a reference to Mexico's 43 disappeared students, believed dead at the hands of a drug gang after they were detained by police on the orders of a local mayor.
From there, the show assumed a steady pace that consisted of roughly two performances for every award handed out, with too many pop-infused medleys to count.
The solo acts were the stand-outs. Panamanian singer Ruben Blades brought the house down with a confidently languid performance of his seminal salsa hit "Pedro Navaja" ("Pedro the Knife") sung as a tango. Aguilar gave a heartfelt rendition of "La Ley del Monte," complete with a stately sweep of the sombrero.
Anthony took the trophy for best salsa album for his critically acclaimed "3.0." Iglesias and Cuban singer Descemer Bueno accepted their award via satellite from France for "Bailando" ("Dancing"), which won song of the year. And Colombian singer Carlos Vives dedicated his award for best contemporary tropical album to an unlikely source of inspiration: the U.S. president.
"This award," he said with a smile, "I dedicate especially to President Obama."
One of the more dissonant aspects of the Latin Grammy Awards is that the show doesn't necessarily reflect who won. Most of the small golden gramophones were handed out before the telecast even began. This included trophies for Calle 13, who won for best urban music album and best alternative song, the Mexican group Molotov for best rock album, and the Colombian singer Juanes, who got the prize for best pop/rock album. None of these performers had that thrilling moment of the win televised. Instead, viewers got a performance by Ricky Martin, who wasn't nominated in any category (and who appeared to be reprising his dance moves from his appearance at the 1999 Grammys).
Still, there were a couple of surprises. The audience seemed generally stunned when Spanish Flamenco singer Paco de Lucía was awarded album of the year. De Lucía died in February and the category was filled with strong contenders, including Calle 13 and Anthony.
Likewise, low-key Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler received the award for record of the year for "Universos Paralelos," a collaborative effort that featured Chilean hip-hop star Ana Tijoux. When Drexler took the stage to claim his award, he seemed nonplussed.
"Are you sure?" he asked with a confused grin.
All of this left the two Mexican regional acts for the end of the show: La Arrolladora Banda El Limón de René Camacho and Banda El Limón De Salvador Lizarraga. Though Mexican regional music is a big seller, the Latin Grammys generally give it short shrift. This year was no different. And rather than a bouncy polka or brassy cumbia, the show's producers had them play languid ballads.
Overall, the awards played like a weird, disjointed variety show: an endless array of pop medleys studded with a tango here and a reggaeton there, all book-ended by a rousing political anthem and Mexican regional. Is it representative of Latin music today? Not even close. It's more like an array of made-for-TV moments that cease to be memorable seconds after you've seen them. In that way, the Latin Grammys and the regular Grammys couldn't be more alike.