The Grammy Awards are known — at least in the minds of people susceptible to corporate branding efforts — as Music’s Biggest Night. But at the 55th ceremony, televised Sunday from Staples Center, it wasn’t the grand production numbers that stood out but the smaller, more intimate moments.
The pleasant-enough British group Mumford & Sons might have won the night’s top award for their album “Babel,” but more memorable was Rihanna delivering her stripped-down ballad “Stay” with eyes closed and hands outstretched. Or Frank Ocean singing his song “Forrest Gump” alone onstage behind a keyboard. Or Kelly Clarkson finding her way into (and then ripping the stuffing out of) "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman.”
In a 3 1/2-hour blur of high-tech spectacle, these performances felt like reaffirmations of core musical values — honest, unaffected, simple.
Except, of course, they weren’t simple at all.
In the case of Rihanna, here was a woman appearing to explain why she can’t live without Chris Brown, the man convicted of beating her. Ocean broke new ground as a mainstream R&B; artist — one nominated for album of the year — singing about his love for another man. And Clarkson raised questions about the value of true singing ability in the aftermath of a national debate triggered by Beyoncé's lip-syncing scandal at the presidential inauguration.
The complications were mirrored by Sunday’s big winners, which evaded any kind of sweeping pronouncement about the state of music today. Fun. was named best new artist and won song of the year for “We Are Young,” its fully hybridized pop-rock hit. Gotye and Kimbra picked up record of the year for another quirky, genre-hopping tune, “Somebody That I Used to Know.”
Yet the Grammy for album of the year went to Mumford & Sons, the proudly old-fashioned folk-rock outfit with little use for modern sounds.
Given that confusion, is it any wonder that the big moments missed the mark?
Taylor Swift opened the show with a Cirque du Soleil-style extravaganza — complete with clowns, stilt walkers and a guy riding a bike with a flamethrower — set to her “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” Like the song itself, which Swift co-wrote with the brilliant Swedish hitmaker Max Martin, the performance demanded your attention. But the singer didn’t appear to be enjoying herself in the middle of all that action; it lacked heart.
Fun. seemed similarly adrift doing “Carry On,” an overstretched number with loads of pomp but no tune. When the band found itself on the wrong end of a special-effects downpour at the end of the song, it only literalized the music’s sogginess.
And Carrie Underwood, wearing a dress with eye-popping visuals projected onto it, looked stuck to the stage, her natural charisma overpowered by a computerized concept.
Some bigger pieces fared better, such as the Black Keys’ appealingly fuzzy rendition of “Lonely Boy,” for which the Ohio garage duo was joined by a pair of New Orleans institutions: Dr. John and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. (“Lonely Boy” won the rock song and rock performance awards, and the Black Keys’ “El Camino” picked up the rock album prize.)
Jack White kicked up even more energy in a bit that featured two separate backing bands: an all-female unit for the goth-soul “Love Interruption” and an all-male crew for “Freedom at 21,” which metastasized from a tidy blues-rock jam to a psych-metal freak-out.
And Justin Timberlake, performing on the Grammys for the first time since 2009, hit a retro-soul sweet spot with a lavish performance of two cuts from his upcoming album, “The 20/20 Experience.” For “Suit & Tie,” the telecast went sepia-toned as a tuxedo-clad Timberlake tapped into his inner song-and-dance man; “Pusher Love Girl” moved the action to Memphis for a Southern-style R&B; workout.
Two tributes further demonstrated the Grammys’ love affair with the past. First, Rihanna hooked up with Bruno Mars, Sting and two of Bob Marley’s sons for a spirited salute to that reggae giant. Later, Elton John, Mavis Staples, Zac Brown and Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes joined forces for “The Weight,” in memory of the Band’s Levon Helm, who died last year.
But none of these displays made the impact of Miguel’s mesmerizing performance, early in the telecast, of his song of the year nominee, “Adorn.” The music was spare, not much more than a ghostly backbeat. But the L.A.-based singer filled Staples Center with his impassioned lover-man vocals.
He stole the show with as little equipment as possible.