Grammys: Great Surprises, Lame Prizes and Muppet Disguises

Once upon a time, Eminem sang songs about transporting screaming women in his trunk, knifing homosexuals in the skull and perpetrating various Shady things under the influence of drugs. But it seems the years have reeled in Marshall Mathers’ demons, and he’s singing duets with Rihanna (certified female), exchanging friendly text messages with Elton John (certified homosexual) and using his new-found sobriety to make piles of money for the recording industry (certified platinum, many times over).

This year, the Grammy voters were supposed to celebrate this evolution and finally hand him one of its big trophies. Sure, they had previously gifted the expletive-spewing performer four wins in the best rap album category and 11 overall, but never has he been honored in the awards’ most prestigious categories. On Sunday night, the voters opted to keep Eminem in the rap ghetto — giving him two awards out of a leading 10 nominations. I guess everything hasn’t been forgiven quite yet.

A series of surprises livened up Sunday night’s Grammy ceremony — with a deserving upset in the album category for Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” and Lady Antebellum’s victories in the record and song categories for “Need You Know” (whether those are deserved I’ll leave to the ears of the listener). In the other big category, jazz singer Esperanza Spalding somehow managed to beat Justin Bieber — creating an outrage among tween girls and tone-deaf pederasts. This would never happen if the Grammys were voted on like “American Idol”!

Anyway, since the Grammy ceremony is more notable for the performances, let’s start at the beginning. I have my wine glass filled, so let’s run through this show together.

WOMEN OF SOUL: The night begins with a tribute to Aretha Franklin. LL Cool J announces the quintet of women who will pay homage: Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Hudson, Florence (of Florence + the Machine — thankfully it wasn’t the machine), Yolanda Adams and Martina McBride. LL makes sure to point out that it’s the first time these women have appeared together. Where the hell else would this group have collaborated hitherto? VH1’s “Divas Live” is no longer around — and besides that wouldn’t have made sense without Celine Dion in there beating her chest. Here, Aguilera seems to have won the Franklin Award for most fierce diva by staking claim to the middle spot and the lead vocal on the first song. Luckily, she doesn’t forget any lyrics on “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Perhaps if “The Star-Spangled Banner” had been replaced as national anthem with a Carole King tune that would never have happened. (My vote: the seemingly apt “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.”) Anyway, each of these divas from various walks of musical life — pop, gospel, R&B, country and indie rock — gets a turn in the soul spotlight. I think I enjoyed Martina and Florence best because they were such unexpected choices. The Grammys needs to do this kind of cross-genre hopping a little more. One of the highlights of last decade was provided by Ms. Franklin herself when she filled in for an ailing Pavarotti on “Nessun Dorma,” a performance that featured in a package-introducing highlight reel.

MEN OF “SOUL SISTER”: The divas return to hand out the first award, for pop performance by a duo or group. Train wins for “Hey, Soul Sister,” but it’s a live version. What’s up with that? Did the Grammys miss out on a chance to honor this crap song in the past and look for a loophole to make amends?

OVER EASY: Lady Gaga’s here in a tasteful dress and offers an unadorned acoustic number. Sike! Pop music’s biggest weirdo hatches from a giant egg to sing her new equality anthem, “Born this Way,” which I can only assume means she’s been born as an oviparous creature, like a chicken or a sea turtle, but with much more eye makeup. The song itself is reheated Madonna (I can only hope it’s an homage), but the performance is all leftover Gaga. Her egg was carried aloft down the red carpet by a quartet of scantily clad men and a female space alien. Onstage, she and her background dancers don egg-yolk yellow. She pauses her crazy movements at one point to play an organ bedecked with what looks like decapitated mannequin heads suspended in spheres of ice. The performance ends with the dancers stripping to flesh-colored underwear while Gaga remains swathed in her sheer golden gown and sunhat. While having newly out Ricky Martin introduce the number was a nice touch, the performance was a bit underwhelming. But with memories of her meat dress from the VMAs still fresh in the mind, one has to wonder if the egg spectacle is Gaga’s way of celebrating the merits of protein. We’ll have to wait and see if she takes after my fellow Wisconsinites and incorporates a cheesehead motif into her next ensemble. Such an effort would put her one grain-based outfit away from a lifetime Egg McMuffin.

BRINGING DOWN THE “HOUSE”: Miranda Lambert sings “The House that Built Me,” and that’s already one best song nominee better than “Need You Now.” Lambert — no relation to Adam, I was relieved to find out, though they both made their starts on reality TV contests — is like Carrie Underwood with a soupcon of Lucinda Williams’ folksy pathos. The lyrics include a dog buried in the yard; gotta love that in a country song. It wasn’t showy, but it didn’t need to be.

MUSE, NOT MUSIC: I’m not familiar with this band, but it seems like some forgettable ’90s alternative drudgery. The lead singer is clad in a shiny, silver jacket, but the cokehead rock vibe is disrupted when a group of thugs storms the stage, some in masks, some with sticks or some form of protest weaponry. It’s like a light version of the recent Egyptian unrest, except Hosni Mubarak’s cruelty rarely extended to the eardrums. The marauders end the performance — not soon enough, unfortunately — by setting the stage ablaze with mock molotov cocktails (mocktails?) You would have thought they’d have saved the conflagration for Arcade Fire.

THROUGH SPACE AND TIME: Bruno Mars, B.o.B. and Janelle Monae collaborate on “Nothin’ On You.” At least that’s how we start out, then we do some sort of time warp to a black-and-white doo-wop past with Mars as central crooner. If Bruno is from Mars, then Monae is from the moons of Jupiter. Her “ArchAndroid” concept album and stage presence show at the very least she’ll always have a place in Gaga’s posse. Adorned with a cape (which she ditches halfway through) and a Temple Grandin scarf, her hair gathered in a pompadour, Monae steals the performance from her higher-charting collaborators with her propulsive “Cold War.”

USHERING IN A NEW ERA: Usher first met a 13-year-old Justin Bieber in a parking lot. OK, that sounds a little creepy, but you have to hear how Biebs remembers the meeting four years ago: “You told me, ‘If it was meant to be, we’d meet again.'” And, of course, fate and record executives intervened, as we all know. Ah, what a cute story for Valentine’s weekend. It’s no doubt featured in Justin’s movie, which opened Friday and apparently recounts his 16 long years on this planet. Usher tells Justin it’s his time (as Usher is now a senior citizen by pop music standards). To show that he’s a musician and not just a marketing tool, Bieber is playing guitar on his YouTube sensation “Baby.” But before a 14-year-old can even faint, a phalanx of ninja-attired drummers ascends the stairs and Justin has transformed from a young troubadour to a gyrating, leather-clad playa’ (they grow up so fast). The ninjas then jump around him in a flame-wreathed Cirque du Soleil spectacle. This mini-epic continues along with its daring theme of human replacement when Jaden Smith — four years’ Justin’s junior — arrives to share the stage. Justin can begin to feel what must haunt Usher: younger stars stealing his spotlight. If Justin is smart, he’ll do what Usher did by searching out boys in parking lots and on the Internet to offer lucrative music deals. Usher shows everyone who’s still daddy by closing the set by being more annoying than Jaden and Justin put together. It’s awful to watch and awful to hear.

“MONSTER” TRIUMPH: Gaga holds off both ends of the age spectrum by defeating Bieber and Susan Boyle for best pop album. She’s ditched the gold dress for a black leather-vinyl creation to accept the trophy for “The Fame Monster.” She thanks all the monsters watching (I wonder if the Cookie Monster has cable). She thanks Whitney Houston, though I’m not sure if that implicates her as a monster by association. No, it’s not because Whitney (allegedly) smokes crack, which helps Gaga conceive her sartorial creations; it’s because Gaga envisioned Whitney singing “Born This Way.” You would think it would be much easier to envision Madonna singing it, since it sounds just like “Express Yourself.” Regardless, “Born This Way” isn’t on the album being honored, so it seems a weird coda to her acceptance speech. But that’s weird relative to a woman wearing a Batman-inspired outfit with cartoonishly molded breasts and ass cheeks.

FOLK LEGEND: Bob Dylan, Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers— together at last. It was a great tribute to roots music until … Bob Dylan showed up? Unfortunately, Mr. Dylan was suffering an off night with his vocals, but it’s all forgiven to hear “Maggie’s Farm” in this smart set.

SAD LADY: Lady Antebellum is paying tribute to the late Teddy Pendergrass with a bit of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” They honor his memory by including their song about the beauty of drunk-dialing. This mash-up left much to be desired, without any tacky razzle-dazzle to cover for the musical mediocrity. Conspiracy theorists might make wonder about the band taking home an award immediately after singing, but that seems to be a Grammy tradition.

CAN’T FORGET THIS ONE: I must admit I felt a frisson of terror at the beginning of the show when producers alluded to Cee Lo Green performing with Gwynneth Paltrow and a gaggle of Muppets. But my fears were immediately alleviated when I saw Cee Lo behind the piano, looking like a cross between Elton John, a peacock and a costumed theme park greeter amid a wild Muppet scene complete with background dancers. Appropriately enough for this kids’ fantasia, he’s singing the PG “Forget You” version of his nominated hit. Gwynnie, who memorably made the song hers on “Glee,” isn’t dressed like a muppet; in fact, she’s attired in simple black — a stark contrast to her setting, but she does have some cool pink feathers for earrings in a nod to Cee Lo’s fowl fashion, and she seems to make love with Cee Lo’s piano at one point. They sing in beautiful harmony in their candy-colored landscape. This is the performance of the night and one of the most awesome things I have seen on the Grammys. Although Cee Lo triumphed in the urban-alternative category, he’s left out cold in the song-record categories. Fuck you, Grammys.

BAD ROMANCE: Katy Perry gets the best introduction of the night, with Neil Patrick Harris confessing to having recently engaged in sexual congress with the pop star. But hubby Russell Brand has little to worry about (outside of his humorless comedy routines) because it was all for TV. Phew, I was worried those “Harold and Kumar” movies were rubbing off on NPH a little too much if he were truly rubbing off on Katy Perry, but he obviously had the good taste not to go there. The same couldn’t be said of Katy’s performance tonight. We get dramatic lighting and Perry on a bedazzled swing, which slowly raises her towards the heavens as she sings her fairy-tale laments; meanwhile, her pink princess dress flows downward till Perry comes crashing down to reality. This would seem like elaborate theater, but remember that Perry was married on an Indian tiger reserve (lest you forget, footage from that blessed event is included here). Perry gives a shout-out to all the Valentine’s lovers before a cadre of crimson-clad sex fiends arrives on stage to take part in the Grammy performance equivalent of a Vegas wedding. “Moulin Rouge” chanteuse Nicole Kidman is singing along in the audience. (Do I spot the next “Glee” guest star on the horizon?)

DOLLY, AND A GRAMMY FOLLY: Norah Jones, John Mayer (looking scarily like Johnny Depp) and Keith Urban (looking like he spends more time with the hair and makeup people than wife Kidman) are singing Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” I didn’t expect that. The song is such pure awesomeness, and it sounds great here even in abbreviated fashion. It was the antidote to many of the overblown sets that preceded it. They sang it in honor of Parton being one of the night’s lifetime achievement award winners. It would have been nice if they blessed this legend with the Aretha treatment they delivered earlier — and maybe brought Parton onstage — but it’s better than what Leonard Cohen got last year, so I’ll take it. The trio hands out the award for best song. I love that Cee Lo’s nominee is referred to as “the song otherwise known as ‘Forget you.'” As you know, Lady A take best song, the award otherwise known as the prize that should have gone to Cee Lo. In a more just world, of course, Ms. Parton would have won this award years ago, as well.

LOVE THE WAY YOU LIE, GET HIGH: Seth Rogan cracks a joke about getting high with Miley Cyrus, which elicits a smile from Bieber (wait till he steps into his own Miley Cyrus-Lindsay Lohan scandal). Seth is actually here to introduce a man who knows all about substance abuse: Eminem, singing with Rihanna, Dr. Dre and Skylar Grey. Rihanna starts off the catchy “Love the Way You Lie,” and there’s more fire behind her. Em shows up, and the flames burn brighter as he spits out his fiery rhymes. The song segues into “I Need a Doctor” and the stage dissolves into a toxic green fog. Dr. Dre joined in toward the end, and we also get a couple of spots of dead, censored air — not the first time tonight.

SURPRISE OF THE NEW: Esperanza Spalding wins. No, I didn’t know who she was either (though I will be checking out some of her music now, especially after her gracious and succinct acceptance speech). But she was also one of the night’s losers, being the only best new artist nominee not allowed to sing.

IN MEMORIAM: Lena Horne, Captain Beefheart, Joan Sutherland, Alex Chilton and Soloman Burke were some of the notable names lost last year.

LOVE AND DEATH: From death to Mick Jagger. It would have been a more natural transition had it been Keith Richards, but it’s apparently Mick’s first time on the Grammy stage and he’s actually paying tribute to Soloman Burke with “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” an appropriate song on the eve of Valentine’s. It’s also a nice change of pace to the somber melodies that usually accompany these obituary packages. Speaking of aging legends, we next get Barbra Streisand, looking beautiful and youthful at 68, reminding us that it’s all about a great set of pipes. But “Evergreen” is a bit tired; I’d love to hear her on something a little fresher. I think she still has the voice to pull it off.

ANIMAL INSTINCTS: Will.i.am is wearing a sparkling undershirt and red gloves, but he’s still upstaged by Nicki Minaj, who looks like a leopard with an afro (I hope she didn’t enlist Sarah Palin’s help in “creating” this outfit). They introduce rap album, which goes to Eminem as expected.

IT’S GETTING HOT IN HERE: Rihanna is back with Canadian rapper (and best new artist loser) Drake in “What’s My Name.” We get more fire (this show is now officially an arsonist’s wet dream). There’s a lot of suggestive interplay; it’s one step away from a back room at an L.A. after-hours club. But the show is getting close to climax, so perhaps this salaciousness is appropriate here. This show is damn long, but I guess that’s why they make those economy-size bottles of wine.

I GUESS I’M A BROKEN RECORD, TOO: J-Lo, with husband Marc Anthony, prepares for her new gig of judging bad music by presenting best record to “Need You Now.”

JUSTICE IN THE END: The best album wins best album, and it’s characterized as an upset. That shouldn’t be so, and perhaps this is a positive step in that direction. Arcade Fire’s win reminds me of musical forebear U2’s breakthrough in the album category for “Joshua Tree” back in the 1980s. Let’s hope this is the start of a wonderful relationship between the Grammys and Arcade Fire. The band sang “Month of May” preceding the award. The performance includes their trademark array of musicians, plus strobe lights and bicyclists riding around the stage. Why not? If Justin Bieber can have ninja drummers, why deny Arcade Fire some bicyclists. There’s no blaze to be found, but I guess that’s for the best. We were one pyrotechnic display away from a visit from the fire inspector. After their win, band members conclude the show with a rousing “Ready to Start,” a delightfully ironic choice. It seems a bit odd the band would be ready to play a second number after the award, but I guess the producers agreed to an encore if the show ran short. It’s a good thing they won; it could have been awkward if it were one of the other nominees.

As for Eminem? Well, keep putting out albums until you’re so old and harmless they have to give you the award. It worked for Bob Dylan, Steely Dan and plenty of othes.

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