The Grammys have been billed as “music’s biggest night” for years, perhaps as a way to avoid figuring out what the show is really supposed to be.
Sure, it’s a purported celebration of artistic excellence. But more so, it’s a televised concert spectacular draped in the prestigious garb of an awards show. And at Sunday night’s 57th Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, the proceedings didn’t feel like a singalong trophy contest so much as a race to pop music’s mushiest, most self-important middle. It was a night for everyone to trot out their nicest outfits and their soggiest ballads. And B.Y.O. gospel choir.
Too many of the evening’s nearly two dozen performances felt leaden, maudlin or both. Younger artists tried to sound old while older artists struggled to sound young. Guitar-toting veterans AC/DC and ELO were given the green light to rock out, while Adam Levine, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga kept their dancing shoes practically pinned to the floor. Pharrell Williams recycled his hyper-peppy mega-hit “Happy” into something vaguely downcast, while Kanye West — pop’s true rebel spirit — politely crooned an Auto-Tuned slow jam.
Was Sam Smith to blame?
In addition to leading the nominations alongside Beyoncé and Pharrell with six, the 22-year-old blue-eyed soul man seemed to be bending the entire vibe of the show toward the austere, melancholy mood of his music.
At the outset, the British singer seemed poised to become the first singer to win in the Grammys’ top four categories since soft-rocker Christopher Cross ran the table in 1981. But, scoring the show’s biggest upset, resurgent folkie Beck spoiled the sweep when his handsome “Morning Phase” was announced as album of the year. (Smith had promised that if he’d won the prize, he’d hand it over to Beyoncé, whose self-titled album was also up for the night’s top honor. Beck kept the award for himself.)
But Smith also managed to snap up the other three most coveted gramophone statuettes of the night. He was named best new artist, while his ubiquitous, gospel-grade hit “Stay With Me” won song of the year and record of the year.
This was a big feat, but not necessarily a big surprise. As Adele and the late Amy Winehouse proved in recent years, the Academy has a special place in its collective heart for old-school, black, American soul music — especially when it’s being sung by new-school, white, British singers. Winehouse took home five Grammys in 2008 and Adele won all six prizes she was nominated for in 2012. Smith was keeping a tradition going.
Race still might have been on some Grammy voters’ minds. Sunday’s awards did appear to do a little self-correction in light of last year’s hip-hop debacle after West, Drake, Jay Z and Kendrick Lamar lost best rap album honors to Macklemore, a less skilled but momentarily more popular white rapper.
This year, polarizing Australian rapper Iggy Azalea seemed poised to rekindle that controversy. But she was shut out in all four of the categories in which she was nominated, including best new artist and record of the year. She lost both of those trophies to Smith. She lost best rap album to . . . Eminem.
Modest in his music, Smith was equally humble in his acceptance speeches. “It’s only when I started to be myself that the music started to flow,” he said after picking up one of his trophies.
But throughout the night, other onstage platitudes seemed to materialize out of nowhere. “Dreams don’t have deadlines,” host LL Cool J announced at one point, apropos of nothing in particular. “Believe in yourself!”
All of this talk hinted at — and sometimes smacked of — an awards show searching for its deeper purpose, its moral center. And, clocking in at more than 3
President Obama beamed in with a pre-recorded message about the importance of stopping violence against women. And before pulling Beck’s name from the album of the year envelope, pop icon Prince made a passing remark about race, music and education that spoke volumes: “Like books and black lives, albums still matter.”
In similar spirit, the rapper Common and the R&B piano man John Legend closed the show with “Glory,” their song from the soundtrack of the civil rights drama “Selma.” (The tune won best original song at last month’s Golden Globes, and the duo will try to score the same prize in two weeks at the Academy Awards.) And instead of performing a hit from her much-ballyhooed self-titled album, Beyoncé sang the gospel standard “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”
Slow-moving as they were, these qualified as highlights. The night’s lowlights, however, felt sluggish and more abundant: Jessie J and Tom Jones singing “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”; Ed Sheeran dutifully strumming “Thinking Out Loud”; Usher standing next to a harp instead of making magic with his limbs. In many ways, this year’s Grammys felt as confused as ever. And more exhausting.
And while plenty of critics continue to dump on the nonsensical all-over-the-placeness of this annual telecast, the entire thing will have to to crash and burn to a crisp before the National Academy of Arts and Sciences decides to reboot the proceedings.
That won’t happen anytime soon. Last year, the Grammys scored a reported 25.8 million viewers, adding to a steady annual ratings climb. If those numbers rise, expect more choirs, fewer drummers, more frivolity-crushing seriousness and fewer reasons to stay up and watch to the end.
But, as mediocre as it was, the night seemed to be enjoyed by at least one man wading in the gooey blandness. In fact, he might have been having the night of his life. His name was Sam Smith.