To Adele or Bruno, is the awards-show question

Bruno Mars embodied Prince in a tribute to the Purple One at the 2017 Grammys.
(Getty Images)

There are, broadly speaking, two ways to posthumously honor legends at an award show (and without award shows, as Tina Fey reminded us, how would we know which dead people to care about?)

There’s a way to evoke the late star themselves. Or there’s a way to honor the personality by giving them the most stellar tribute imaginable.

It’s a subject worth thinking about with the Oscars coming up in — can they get here already? — 13 days, when producers will remind us of a tragically long list of screen names who’ve died in the past year, including Gene Wilder, Carrie Fisher, Anton Yelchin, Garry Marshall and Debbie Reynolds. But more on the Kodak conundrum in a second.

The Grammys offer the most explicit choice in this to-channel-or-not-to-channel question, because in that show’s context a performer can actually, in real time, evoke the late star.


Or they can choose a second way, offering their own personally specific rendition of a late artist’s work. This path aims to honor the passed celebrity almost by self-reference: “They’re great because I’m here aligning my greatness with theirs.”

On Sunday night at Staples Center, Bruno Mars represented the former, embodying Prince — down to the outfit, the hair, the smirk, and the (surprisingly capable) electric-guitar noodling on “Let’s Go Crazy.” By channeling the Purple One, he made us feel his presence, made us realize what was missed. (That he was introduced and backed by the Time, the Prince affiliates who helped shape his Minnesota soul-funk sound, only enhanced that channeling feeling.)

Adele’s performance honoring George Michael was at the other end of the spectrum, as she performed (and then re-performed) his latter-day, minor hit “Fastlove” in the style of many of her other torch ballads. The song was criticized for its scant subject matter and smaller place in the Michael canon, though the singer himself might have enjoyed the raunchy provocation that the choice offered.

More irksome is that she did the song in a style that had little do with how George Michael did it — in fact by choosing her, Grammys producers almost seemed intent on consciously going in the other direction. There wasn’t the flavor of George Michael’s music — loose, rhythmic, reckless — because Adele herself doesn’t embody these qualities.

And it made a lot of people on social media — myself included — scratch their heads. It’s hard to argue with Adele’s virtuosity. But we already had so much Adele — in the opener, and then in what turned out to be a veritable sweep of major awards. Did we need her for George Michael too? And did that tribute feel like George Michael, or just like more Adele?

Which brings me back to the Oscars. Because what many of the film personalities did wasn’t live, there isn’t the same chance to replicate their art at a ceremony. (It’s why there’s often only an In Memoriam segment, not a standalone tribute.)

Or is there? Most of the Oscars’ In Memoriam segments alas tend to take on little more of the character of those leading them — the hard-rock soulfulness of Dave Grohl’s “Blackbird” last year, to name one — if they take on any personality at all. But is there room for a Bruno-esque tribute, one that actually captures the spirit of what was lost? A more ambitious weaving of clips instead of stills, say? Or even some kind of performance?

The Oscars hinted at what might be possible four years ago, when Barbra Streisand began the In Memoriam section in which Marvin Hamlisch was a central figure by singing “The Way We Were.” You felt Hamlisch because in many ways he was Streisand, the way you felt Prince because the Time in many ways was Prince, and Bruno Mars is (apparently) Prince.


There is a way, in other words, to make us feel the person being lost, a point this year’s producers, Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd, are likely thinking about. It just depends on the approach. You can do it up in your own style and make us think of those doing the tribute. Or you can channel the performer and make us miss the people being tributed.

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