Even as the show was rolling on, details of Houston’s death were emerging — how she was found in the hotel room bathtub, how friends had tried to revive her before paramedics arrived. Grim video footage of the singer’s body being removed on a stretcher played on the local news.
So this year’s Grammy awards suddenly became a chance to memorialize a voice that once embodied the excellence the awards claim to celebrate. Instead, viewers endured a ceremony riddled with disjointed collaborations that spanned genres and generations for the sake of . . . what, exactly?
Certainly not for the sake of rallying around Houston’s legacy. A six-time Grammy winner herself, Houston’s influence on the past 25 years of popular music can’t be overstated. Her dazzling vocal abilities changed the way we think about singing, making it nearly impossible to imagine what Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Boyz II Men, Mary J. Blige, Beyonce — let alone “American Idol” — would sound like without her imprint.
Jennifer Hudson was the only Grammy performer to pay tribute to Houston in song, and she did it with a quick, stately rendition of Houston’s signature hit “I Will Always Love You.” It was the evening’s most coherent performance, but it wasn’t enough to make the entire night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles not feel like a missed opportunity.
The awards themselves had a sense of clarity thanks to Adele, the 23-year-old British soul phenom who swept all six categories she was nominated for, including album of the year for her sophomore smash “21.”
“This record is inspired by something that’s really normal,” the singer said between sobs, cradling the night’s most coveted trophy. “A rubbish relationship.”
She performed her hit single “Rolling in the Deep” — which won record of the year and song of the year — earlier in the program, making her first appearance on stage since vocal-cord surgery that had sidelined her for months. It provided an understated counterpoint to the stage pyrotechnics that accompanied singer Katy Perry and the outlandish costumes of rapper Nicki Minaj, whose exorcism theatrics felt worlds away from earlier performances by Paul McCartney and the reunited Beach Boys.
As in Grammys past, this year’s ceremony put an emphasis on the performance over the awards. Bruce Springsteen kicked off the show his new up-by-the-bootstraps single “We Take Care of Our Own” — and, given Houston’s death, an ill-considered opening line: “America, are you alive out there?”
The show’s host, rapper-turned-actor LL Cool J, aimed to put joy over solemnity immediately after Springsteen’s show-starting number, leading a group prayer in honor of Houston and encouraging the audience to enjoy the evening. “This night is about something much bigger than any one of us,” he said. “This night is about music!”