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!”
Unfortunately, the music amounted to a slew of performances from artists who felt ill-matched. Maroon 5 and Foster the People joined the Beach Boys for a stiff performance. Tony Bennett and Carrie Underwood delivered a completely forgettable duet. Rapper Lil Wayne, R&B singer Chris Brown, rock band Foo Fighters and DJs David Guetta and Deadmau5 all shared the stage, as if their names had been drawn in a raffle.
Not every performance was a team effort. McCartney sang a soppy ballad from his new album, Foo Fighters banged their heads and Taylor Swift sang “Mean,” a tune many believe was written about music journalist Bob Lefsetz, who criticized Swift’s vocal performance on the Grammys two years ago. Swift sounded much better this time around, but the song itself felt like sour grapes. “Someday, I’ll be singing this at the Grammys,” she sang, tweaking the lyrics for the occasion.
Others had even more to prove. Brown hopped up and down a terraced stage like a pop-locking Q*bert, trying to dance his way to America’s forgiveness. He was arrested for assaulting his then-girlfriend Rihanna on the eve of the 2009 Grammys, but his acceptance speech after winning best R&B album included no act of contrition. When Chris Brown is getting more airtime than Whitney Houston, there’s a serious problem.
Kanye West led the evening’s nominations with seven, and was awarded four, beating himself for two of them. But neither he nor Jay-Z materialized after winning best rap performance for “Otis” from their excellent collaboration album “Watch the Throne.” Apparently, they chose to watch the Grammys from their home thrones.
And let’s be clear: West was unfairly snubbed for an album of the year nomination. His opus “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” was one of the most acclaimed albums in recent memory and felt far more deserving of the prize than any of the nominees.
The voters of the Recording Academy did manage to show their in-touchness with the recognition of Bon Iver, the nom-du-rock of singer-songwriter Justin Vernon.
“It’s really hard to accept this award,” said Vernon from the stage, accepting the Grammy for best new artist. He said that he made music for “the inherent reward of making songs, so I’m a little uncomfortable up here.”
Vernon beat out Skrillex, the 24-year-old DJ-producer who carves bass into riotous forms and who took home three awards early in the night.
“I guess there’s no formula or format anymore and we can do whatever we want!” Skrillex said from the stage during a the pre-telecast ceremony at the neighboring Los Angeles Convention Center. He also noted that he used to live in a warehouse not far from the Convention Center.
Dave Grohl boasted about how he recorded his latest album in his Los Angeles garage. His band had picked up five Grammys early in the night. “The human element of music is what makes it most important,” he said from the stage. “It’s not about what goes on in a computer, it’s about what goes on in here and what goes on in here,” pointing to his heart and his head.
The only Grammy Grohl and company lost was to Adele for album of the year; “21” is enjoying its 19th week at the top of the Billboard albums chart — right behind Houston’s 1993 soundtrack to the “The Bodyguard,” which shares the 20-week record with Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii.”
Just how much has the beleaguered music business changed over those 19 years? “The Bodyguard” soundtrack has sold more than 17 million copies. “21” only recently topped 6.3 million. But the tide could be changing ever-so-slightly.
Nielsen SoundScan reported 330.6 million albums sold in the United States last year, up 1.3 percent from 2010. It’s the first uptick since the industry entered a slow-motion free-fall in 2004. Between 2000 and 2010, revenue from recorded music fell by more than half.
And TV viewership has been up for the Grammys, with 26.7 million viewers watching the 2011 awards, up from 25.8 million the year before. It was also the Grammys’ highest ratings since 2000, a year when the recording industry was about to make an unexpected pivot from boomtimes into end-times.
Sunday at the Staples Center, it was only weird times.
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