Here’s a surefire way to get your song played on the Grammy Awards: Die.
With only eight trophies handed out over the course of 3 ½ hours, Monday night’s ceremony was clearly emphasizing performances over acceptance speeches. And on its face that would seem to be a good thing, a way to freshen up an event dedicated to celebrating songs that in some cases -- think “Uptown Funk” -- feel like they’ve been with us forever.
But consider that out of the 19 performances that filled the 58th Grammys, five were tributes to musicians who’d recently left us, including David Bowie, B.B. King and Maurice White of Earth Wind & Fire. Another memorialized the first Grammy win -- at least that appeared to be the idea? -- by the late Michael Jackson. And another paid homage to Lionel Richie, this year’s recipient of the MusiCares Person of the Year award.
(Robyn Becl / AFP/Getty Images)
Richie, of course, is still very much alive, as the 66-year-old demonstrated by leaping onstage at the end of his salute to belt out “All Night Long.” Yet the vintage tunes in his celebration made “Uptown Funk” sound brand new.
This fixation on the past isn’t an unsolvable problem. As pop music’s most prestigious institution, the Grammys exist at least to some degree as a legacy-maintenance operation. And with so many foundational rock and pop stars reaching old age, we can only expect these tributes to keep coming.
Looking ahead to next year, then, here are five ways to improve them:
1. Provide some context.
Older music fans don’t need reminding why B.B. King or David Bowie mattered. But for younger viewers of the Grammys, this year’s tributes to those legends did virtually nothing to explain their significance. Would it be so hard to put together a minute or two of text and video to show how each influenced their heirs?
Sure, music can talk louder than words, as Chris Stapleton, Gary Clark Jr. and especially Bonnie Raitt demonstrated in their vivid, deeply felt rendition of King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.” But think of the impact that that assured performance might’ve made if it had been properly set up for kids whose only idea of a bluesman is Ed Sheeran.
The Weeknd kisses one of his Grammys. He won for R&B performance and urban contemporary album.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Taylor Swift cradles her Grammys for album of the year, pop vocal album and music video backstage at the 58th Grammy Awards at Staples Center in Los Angeles.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Alabama Shakes hold their Grammys for alternative music album, rock song and rock performance steady.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Chris Stapleton displays his Grammys backstage for country album (“Traveller”) and country solo performance (“Traveller”).(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Meghan Trainor is all about that Grammy for best new artist.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Producer Mark Ronson, winner of the pop duo/group performance award for “Uptown Funk,” poses in the press room. He would also win record of the year for that megahit single.(Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images for NARAS)
Metal performance winners Ghost backstage at the Grammy Awards.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Angelique Kidjo balances her Grammy for world music album.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Pentatonix members, from left, Ben Bram, Mitch Grassi, Scott Hoying, Avi Kaplan, Kristin Maldonado, and Kevin Olusola, share the Grammy for arrangement, instrumental or a cappella for “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy."(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Muse’s Matt Bellamy, left, and Dominic Howard won the rock album Grammy for “Drones.”(Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images for NARAS)
Kirk Franklin, right, winner of the Grammy for gospel performance for the song “Wanna Be Happy?”(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell won the Grammys for Americana album (“Something More Than Free”) and American roots song (“24 Frames”).(Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images for NARAS)
Tobymac won the contemporary Christian music album Grammy for “This Is Not a Test.”(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
As for Lady Gaga’s breathless sprint through 10 of Bowie’s best-known songs, it was a feat of stage management, not artistic connection, with zero insight into what Bowie and his music meant to Gaga or anybody else. It would be better to cut some of the wham-bam musical transitions and really get inside one of his songs.
Even the Richie tribute, which was one of the show’s most spirited performances (thanks in large part to Demi Lovato’s full-throated “Hello”), assumed we already knew everything there is to know about the man. Not true.
2. Make the tributes shorter.
Lemmy Kilmister would’ve been the first to tell you that you only need a few rumbling bars of “Ace of Spades” to understand Motorhead’s gloriously straightforward sound. So why were the Hollywood Vampires -- Johnny Depp’s hard-rock super group with Alice Cooper and Joe Perry -- onstage long enough to do “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”?
3. Make the tributes longer.
On the other hand, sometimes a tribute needs more than 70 seconds to get its point across. That’s how long Miguel had for his truncated rendition of Michael Jackson’s “She’s Out of My Life,” which he sang accompanied by Jackson’s old keyboardist, Greg Phillinganes, to mark the 36th anniversary of Jackson’s taking home his first Grammy. Or was it the 37th anniversary of his album “Off the Wall”? Miguel wasn’t around long enough to clarify.
Terry Crews arrives at the Warner Music Group Grammy Awards After Party at Milk Studios on Feb. 15, 2016, in Los Angeles.(Rich Fury/Invision/Associated Press)
Model Miranda Kerr arrives at the Warner Music Group’s celebration for the 58th annual Grammy Awards at Milk Studios on Feb. 15, 2016.(Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images)
Actress Garcelle Beauvais arrives at the Warner Music Group’s celebration for the 58th annual Grammy Awards at Milk Studios on Feb. 15, 2016.(Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images)
Musician Dwight Yoakam arrives at the Warner Music After Party on Feb. 16, 2016.(Tibrina Hobson / AFP/Getty Images)
Musician Raphael Saadiq arrives at the Warner Music After Party on Feb. 16, 2016.(Tibrina Hobson / AFP/Getty Images)
Singer Andra Day arrives at the Warner Music Group’s celebration for the 58th annual Grammy Awards at Milk Studios on Feb. 15, 2016.(Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images)
Musician John Taylor of Duran Duran, left, and fashion designer Gela Nash attend Warner Music Group’s annual Grammy celebration at Milk Studios Los Angeles on Feb. 15, 2016.(Charley Gallay / Getty Images for Warner Music Group)
Chairman and CEO of Epic Records L.A. Reid and recording artist Janelle Monáe attend the Sony Music Entertainment 2016 Post-Grammy Reception at Hotel Bel-Air.(Larry Busacca / Getty Images for Sony Music Entertainment)
Model Chrissy Teigen and recording artist John Legend attend Sony Music Entertainment 2016 Post-Grammy Reception at Hotel Bel-Air.(Larry Busacca / Getty Images for Sony Music Entertainment)
Recording artist Miguel and New Artist Grammy-winner Meghan Trainor attend the Sony Music Entertainment party.(Jesse Grant / Getty Images for Sony Music Entertainment)
Country singer Carrie Underwood is flanked by recording artists, from left, Scott Hoying, Kevin Olusola and Mitch Grassi of Pentatonix at the Sony Music Entertainment 2016 post-Grammy party.(Larry Busacca / Getty Images for Sony Music Entertainment)
Actress Hailee Steinfeld and a guest attend the Republic Records Grammy Celebration at Hyde Sunset Kitchen & Cocktail in Los Angeles.(Angela Weiss / Getty Images for Republic Records)
Sir Paul McCartney attends the Republic Records Grammy celebration, presented by Chromecast Audio, at Hyde Sunset Kitchen & Cocktail.(Imeh Akpanudosen / Getty Images for Republic Records)
Actress Brandy and singer Zendaya attend the Republic Records Grammy celebration.(Joshua Blanchard / Getty Images for Republic Records)
President and COO of Republic Records Avery Lipman, left, Scott Borchetta, CEO of Republic Records Monte Lipman and recording artist Taylor Swift attend the Republic Records post-Grammy party at Hyde Sunset Kitchen & Cocktail.(Angela Weiss / Getty Images for Republic Records)
Members of the musical group DNCE, from left, -- Jack Lawless, left, Cole Whittle, JinJoo Lee and Joe Jonas -- attend the Republic Records Grammy celebration.(Randy Shropshire / Getty Images for Republic Records)
Producer Mark Burnett and actress Roma Downey attend the Universal Music Group 2016 Grammy After Party at The Theatre at Ace Hotel in downtown L.A.(Jason Kempin / Getty Images for Universal Music Group)
Singer Camila Cabello of 5th Harmony, TV personality Frankie J. Grande and singer Mya attend Universal Music Group’s Grammys after party.(Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
Ron Jeremy and Herbie Hancock attend the Red Light Management Grammy after party, presented by Citi, at the Mondrian Hotel.(Jerod Harris / Getty Images for Red Light Manag)
Musicians Mark Ronson, left, and Florence Welch attend the Absolut Elyx Hosts Mark Ronson’s Grammy’s Afterparty at Elyx House Los Angeles.(Tommaso Boddi / Getty Images for Absolut Elyx)
4. Arrange better matches of performers and honorees.
There’s no doubting that Stevie Wonder was the right man to toast his fellow funk trailblazer Maurice White. But it’s anyone’s guess why he was saddled with the tiresome Pentatonix. As they accompanied Wonder on “That’s the Way of the World,” the a cappella singers looked like they’d never even heard another Earth Wind & Fire song, much less be moved by one in any meaningful way.
5. Give survivors the night off.
Perhaps the most lifeless performance in a show thick with them, the Eagles’ grim rendition of “Take It Easy” with Jackson Browne was in retrospect a clear mistake.
These guys’ former band mate, Glenn Frey, died unexpectedly less than a month ago, and here they were trying to entertain a television audience of millions. You can’t blame them for wanting to honor their friend, but there’s no shame in taking some time to heal before getting back out there.