By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 2010; C01
LOS ANGELES -- A night in the charmed life of Taylor Swift: Give an incredibly wretched vocal performance, go on to win the biggest Grammy of 2010, anyway.
The country-pop pixie enjoyed the biggest night of her career at the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday, her deserving album "Fearless" taking the Recording Academy's top honor. At 20, she became the youngest artist to win album of year.
Earlier, however, she delivered the evening's most miserable performances. (Which this year is saying something.) She was joined by Stevie Nicks for a pitchy duet of "Today Was a Fairytale" and "You Belong With Me," as well as the Fleetwood Mac classic "Rhiannon." The singers took turns dragging each other off key and Swift was soon suffering a beat-down on Twitter.
Those sour notes (and plenty of others) took the wind out of what promised to be one of the youngest, most "in-touch" Grammy awards show in recent memory, thanks in large part to newbie pop stars Swift and Lady Gaga dominating the nominations.
It was also a career night for Beyoncé. The R&B superstar led the nominations with 10, and took home six, including best female pop vocal performance. The six wins was a best for her and the most ever won by a woman artist. Her mega-hit "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" was declared song of the year early in the program, but the singer was not there to accept: She was busy backstage preparing for an elaborate one-two-punch performance of "If I Were a Boy" and a cover of Alanis Morisette's "You Outta Know."
(In addition to a whole lotta trophies, this song might now belong to Beyoncé, too.)
Dressed like Tinkerbell-turned-pro-wrestler, Lady Gaga kicked off the evening performing in an emerald-sequined onesie and war paint as she strutted through her hit single "Poker Face." Then she bellied up to a piano for a duet with the only person on Earth who knows more about pop hooks and sartorial weirdness than she does: Sir Elton John.
Sadly, Gaga never returned to the stage. And the show's early promise quickly fizzled with acts failing to eclipse her outlandishness. A performance from Pink somehow discovered the unfortunate intersection between Cirque du Soleil and a strip club, while Jamie Foxx, T-Pain and Slash delivered an incredibly messy version of "Blame It." A stately performance from co-ed country crooners Lady Antebellum could have used more lasers. Eminem, Lil Wayne and Drake gave a very profane, highly-bleeped performance that kept the CBS censors busy and almost rendered the music unintelligible.
In accepting the award for best country album for "Fearless," Swift told the audience, "This is my first time walking up those stairs to accept a Grammy on national television."
Georgia upstarts Zac Brown Band kept it country with a dark-horse victory for best new artist. Record of the year was an upset, with Kings of Leon's nouveau power ballad "Use Somebody" topping tunes from Beyoncé, the Black Eyed Peas, Swift and Gaga. "We're a little drunk," singer Caleb Followill said, accepting the award. "But we're happy-drunk."
In the requisite singing-with-a-recording-of-a-dead-person portion of the program, a motley yet able-voiced crew of Celine Dion, Jennifer Hudson, Smokey Robinson, Carrie Underwood and Usher teamed up to perform alongside a video of Michael Jackson's "Earth Song." It's the dramatic eco-ballad that fans first experienced in last year's concert film "This Is It," only this time the video was shown in 3-D.
Was that it? This was the first Grammys awards show since Jackson's death, and it seemed like a strange and insufficient tribute. Lionel Richie then presented a lifetime achievement award to Jackson's children.
The show was once again host-less, but comedian Steven Colbert gave the de facto opening monologue. Noting the absence of platinum-selling Susan Boyle, Colbert providing the audience with a sobering reminder:
"Your industry was saved by a 47-year-old cat lady in sensible shoes."
He returned to the stage to accept the award for best comedy album for "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All." For an awards telecast show so light on awards, it was a strange gesture for a show that touts itself as "music's biggest night."
Black Eyed Peas took the stage in sci-fi S&M garb surrounded by dancers dressed as robots that did (can you guess?) the Robot. "I gotta feeling that tonight's gonna be a good night," they sang on their irrepressible hit, "I Gotta Feeling." Unfortunately for the band, it wasn't a good night. They didn't win any major awards.
Of the 109 gold-plated gramophones awarded on Sunday at the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards, 100 were dished out in the pre-telecast ceremony held in the neighboring Los Angeles Convention Center. This oft-unseen element of the awards was streamed online for anyone with a broadband connection and three hours to kill.
Gaga was the first mega-brand name to bounce out of the pre-telecast ether. She won best dance recording for "Poker Face" and best electronic/dance album for "The Fame." But she didn't materialize to accept either award -- presumably in the make-up chair getting her face painted.
Swift had much better manners. The young singer won the first country music award of the night -- best female country vocal performance for "White Horse." Clad in a muted-pink dress, she came gliding down the aisle of the Convention Center, her hand covering her mouth. "This is my first Grammy, you guys!" she exclaimed from the podium in gleeful disbelief. She was onstage again moments later to accept the award for best country song, also for "White Horse."
Levon Helm's "Electric Dirt" won the inaugural award for best Americana album, but he didn't show up to accept it. Best bluegrass album went to comedian-turned-banjo-slinger Steve Martin. The funnyman didn't show, either, but producer John McEuen accepted the award and delivered a zinger in his place: "[Martin] wanted me to tell you he really wanted to be here . . . but he had a massage appointment."
After co-ed crooners Lady Antebellum and country hunk Keith Urban did not materialize to accept their respective trophies, presenter Mick Fleetwood noted, "We need to turn up some of these people. They're missing out!"
They were presumably preparing for the big telecast, something CBS was obviously hoping would bring more viewers than in years past. Last year's ceremony snared a respectable 19.7 million viewers -- not great compared to the show's glory days, but still a 10 percent spike in eyeballs since 2008's barely watched 50th anniversary Grammy blowout.
If only the record industry itself had enjoyed that same kind of rebound in 2009. Nielsen SoundScan reported last month that overall music sales made a slight bump, up 2.1 percent from '08 to '09, but not enough to alleviate the industry's increasingly foul mood. Album sales continued their seemingly irreversible free fall, dropping a sobering 12.7 percent. Digital singles sales are up, however, with over a billion sold in 2009, a record.
So while the Grammys are intended to recognize "artistic excellence," it's no koinky-dink that acts such as Swift, the Black Eyed Peas and Gaga dominated this year's nominations. Those three, along with Jackson, racked up the most digital track sales in 2009.
But the boost in singles sales is still just the silver lining in the very dark cloud that continues to hover over the music industry -- a cloud that continues to change the definition of what a Grammy actually means nowadays. If sales can't serve as a barometer for what makes pop music popular, can a shiny gold trophy?
The Grammys have often been criticized for doling out the biggest awards to artists many years (sometimes even decades) past their prime. Recent album-of-the-year awards have gone to Alison Krauss and Robert Plant in 2009 and Herbie Hancock in 2008. The Grammys' inclusive 2010 slogan, "We're All Fans," seems to acknowledge that people under the age of 45 listen to music, too.
This must be a particularly frustrating development for Kanye West.
His masterful if not experimental "808s & Heartbreak" was overlooked for an album-of-the-year nod. It was the first album of his career that wasn't nominated for the top honor.
In general, rap music was kinda snubbed, so the rappers snubbed back. Jay-Z didn't show up when "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)" won for best rap solo performance. Other winners, including Eminem, Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, Kanye West and Rihanna, didn't show up for their pre-televised victories, either. On the broadcast, Jay-Z and Rihanna accepted the award for best rap/sung collaboration. The single "Run This Town" also featured a collaborator that was conspicuously absent from the ceremony: West.
A svelte Maxwell took the stage to accept the first two Grammys of his career -- a win for best male R&B vocal performance for the song "Pretty Wings," and one for best R&B album for his excellent "BLACKsummers'night."
It was a mixed bag for Washington-area artists and labels. Los Texmaniacs' "Borders y Bailes" album on Washington's Smithsonian Folkways Recordings won best Tejano album. A kids' disc from Maryland duo Cathy & Marcy with Washington's Christylez Bacon lost the best children's musical album award to Ziggy Marley. Composer John Musto's opera "Volpone" lost for best opera recording -- that performance was recorded at Virginia's Barns of Wolf Trap and released on Wolf Trap Recordings.