Esperanza Spalding, Arcade Fire top a night of upsets at 2011 Grammys

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 14, 2011; 1:34 AM

LOS ANGELES - Gaga, schmaga.

Lady Antebellum, the adorable country-pop trio with the slavery-era name, won big at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday, winning both record of the year and song of the year for "Need You Now," a gorgeous ballad about a boozy late-night booty call.

The wins marked a night of huge upsets that included Canadian indie rock underdogs Arcade Fire taking home album of the year for their surging rock opus "The Suburbs" and jazz newbie Esperanza Spalding besting the likes of Justin Bieber and Drake for best new artist.

"What the hell?" Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler exclaimed in disbelief at the podium, Grammy in hand, in what felt like an apt assessment of the entire evening.

But with big upsets in all four of the major Grammy categories, Sunday night's winners weren't always tucked inside the envelopes - they were revealed in the umpteen performances crammed into this sprawling 31/2-hour telecast, where the musical numbers outnumbered the trophy handoffs, 16 to 10.

And as the beleaguered recording biz continues to unravel, Grammy organizers tried to hold things together the only way they know how: with a big trans-generational group hug.

More than 30 performers of all ages graced the Staples Center stage during Sunday's Grammy telecast - some cherubic (Bieber, age 16), some grizzled (Bob Dylan, age 69).

The show opened with the widest genre-jumping, decade-leaping embrace of the night, with Yolanda Adams, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Hudson, Martina McBride and Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine trilling in tribute to the ailing Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.

(For those keeping score at home: Aguilera had her princess-of-soul tiara snatched away by Hudson but did manage to remember all of the words.)

Few performers eclipsed Lady Gaga, who had already won a Grammy for best female pop vocal performance by the time she was wheeled up onstage inside a giant, translucent egg. She popped out sporting a plastic bodysuit with pointy shoulders, singing her anthemic new single "Born This Way" like a sci-fi Madonna.

With it hatched the subtext of this year's Grammys, an awards show that celebrated big 21st century personas (Gaga), while honoring big 20th century voices (Franklin).

In today's wildly competitive popscape - more than 1,000 individuals were nominated for Grammys this year - a galactic persona is a must.

To match her big hair, pompadoured R&B singer Janelle Monae flaunted both personality and pipes as she gave the first great performance of the show with her single "Cold War." Even without a Grammy in her hand, she sounded like a winner. Same goes for the Avett Brothers, who backed Dylan with gusto during a singalong of his classic "Maggie's Farm."

In most other cases, a performance seemed to translate to a Grammy win, almost without fail. In addition to performers Arcade Fire, Spalding and Lady Antebellum taking home trophies, Muse won for best rock album after sleepwalking through its hit "Upraising." After her performance, Lady Gaga won best pop vocal album for "The Fame Monster," dedicating the win to Whitney Houston. And Miranda Lambert, whose 2009 album "Revolution" stealthily went platinum last year, won best female country vocal performance for "The House That Built Me" moments after she cooed the song onstage.

Still amped up on his performance alongside mentor Usher and Jaden "son-of-Will-and-Jada" Smith, Bieber came bounding backstage after the ceremony as if he had actually won a Grammy.

"I'm really happy for her," Bieber, smiling, said of Spalding's best new artist upset. "I hope she has a good year."

But of the 108 Grammys dished out on Sunday, 98 were presented during a fast-paced pre-telecast ceremony in the neighboring Los Angeles Convention Center, and streamed out to the universe on the Grammys' Web site. Comedian Kathy Griffin, one of the pre-telecast ceremony's numerous hosts, nudged things along with the help of some four-letter words. "Keep these speeches short!" she barked. "We have 90 [expletive] categories!"

Best Americana album winner Mavis Staples didn't do her part, giving a a lengthy speech punctuated with tears. "It's a long time coming," the soul icon said, catching her breath. "But it was worth the wait."

Moments later, Neil Young sauntered onstage to accept the second Grammy of his career (last year, his boxed set won an award for packaging). "This is my first Grammy for music, and it's appreciated greatly," the 65-year-old said, accepting the award for best rock song for "Angry World," off his album "Le Noise." "I'm not Mavis, but I'm close."

With Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga leading the 2010 nominations, last year's telecast snared 25.8 million viewers, the highest number since 2004, and up considerably from the 19.7 million who tuned in for 2009's awards.

The record biz continued its decade-long fizzle last year. Album sales fell 12.8 percent in 2010, with digital downloads accounting for more than a quarter of all sales, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

There were fewer blockbusters, too. Only 11 albums sold more than a million copies in 2010, compared with 22 the year before.

Eminem's "Recovery" wasn't just one of them; it was the best-selling album of 2011, moving 3.4 million copies. Those sales figures seem to have translated into Grammy nods for the 38-year-old rapper, and he took home two awards, including best rap album - but not in the top categories.

Out of six Washington area nominees, only one would fly home with a little gramophone trophy packed in his carry-on: Chad Franscoviak, the New York-based recording engineer who's a member of the Washington chapter of the Recording Academy. He won for best engineered album, non-classical, for his work on John Mayer's "Battle Studies."

Chuck Brown, the 74-year-old godfather of go-go, was up for the very first Grammy of his career but came up short, losing best R&B performance by a duo or group with vocals to Sade.

Raheem DeVaughn was topped by John Legend and the Roots for best R&B album. Twenty-six-year-old newcomer Carolyn Malachi lost best urban/alternative performance to Cee-Lo Green's ubiquitous, profane hit "[Expletive] You." BT lost best electronic/dance album to Brit duo La Roux.

And Mary Chapin Carpenter was unable to add to the five Grammys she snared back in the '90s, losing best contemporary folk album to Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs.

If only they had been allowed to perform. Any Grammy ceremony would benefit from a little go-go.

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