What did it say about the 58th Grammy Awards that among the liveliest moments in the show were a tribute to the late B.B. King, a number from a Broadway musical and — oh, yes — a celebration of the music of Lionel Richie?
Nothing good, that’s for sure.
The Grammys have long been known for favoring veterans over newcomers when it comes to handing out trophies. As we’ve seen with the Academy Awards, that’s an institutional hazard facing any show-business organization filled with the folks who made our memories.
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But at this year’s ceremony, broadcast live Monday night on CBS from Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, it wasn’t the awards that felt old-fashioned. As widely expected, Taylor Swift won the flagship album of the year prize with her “1989,” as modern a pop statement (despite that title) as any in recent memory.
And though there’s no denying the retro flavor of Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” which was named record of the year, it’s a pungent piece of 2015.
Instead, Monday’s show atrophied in the performances, which seemed to slow to a crawl any time someone under the age of 40 appeared onstage. It was as though pop’s elite — the movers and shakers who make the music go — had fallen under some wicked spell, encouraged to live up to a tired ideal.
Looking stiff (if dapper) in a form-fitting tuxedo, the Weeknd transformed his exuberant R&B track “In the Night” into a sleepy supper-club ballad complete with strings. Little Big Town did the same with “Girl Crush,” its slyly sensual country hit, as did Ellie Goulding in “Love Me Like You Do,” a love song with real passion in its studio recording.
Tori Kelly and James Bay, two young singer-songwriters nominated for best new artist (which Meghan Trainor won), looked like nervous music-school students rehearsing for a big recital during their joyless duet.
Sam Hunt and Carrie Underwood had even less chemistry in a lumpy mash-up of his “Take Your Time” and her “Heartbeat.”
Some did even more damage than that, as when Justin Bieber remade his sleekly futuristic “Where Are U Now” as a blast of turgid, groove-less alternative rock.
That left the old-timers — and those in their mold — to provide some signs of life, and many were up to the challenge.
Jumping onstage to finish off his tribute (which featured John Legend, Tyrese and a full-throated Demi Lovato), Richie was the picture of ebullience as he belted out his decades-old “All Night Long.”
The salute to King with Chris Stapleton, Gary Clark Jr. and Bonnie Raitt had a palpable throb.
And you could practically taste the intensity in a performance from the musical “Hamilton” that was beamed in from New York. Accepting the award for musical theater album, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s creator, rapped his thank yous with hunger and excitement radiating from his eyes.
Even more energy came from Kendrick Lamar, the Compton rapper who channeled rage, hope and everything in between in an incendiary medley of tunes from his album “To Pimp a Butterfly,” which was also up for album of the year. Using the roiling sounds of jazz to get his message of social justice across, Lamar found fierce inspiration in the battles of yesterday.
Lady Gaga was looking for a similar charge in her run through some of the late David Bowie’s best-known songs, but her bit was too rushed to say anything about Bowie’s one-of-a-kind spirit (or how Gaga relates to it).
As one of the few talents bigger than this show, Adele will no doubt get the chance to redeem herself next year. By then, hopefully, her peers will have learned to act their age.