From the clash of the queens to a baffling Bee Gees tribute – and everything in between
Nevertheless, Adele persisted. Her rip-it-up-and-start-again tribute to George Michael was a startling highlight of this year’s Grammy bash. She grabbed a bold pick from the George Michael songbook – the long-forgotten 1996 “Fastlove,” a hedonistic disco trip that she reworked into a mournful piano elegy, repeating the final words, “I miss my baby.” And when she couldn’t nail the notes at first, she just called a halt and demanded the do-over she deserved last year. What an emotional roundhouse kick of a performance.
The 2017 Grammys were full of musical peaks: Beyoncé staging her royal pregnancy-as-mushroom-trip pageant, A Tribe Called Quest stomping with political rage and humor, the Time squawk-funking through “The Bird.” Plenty of garbage, too – that’s the nature of the Grammy game. But hey, at least they didn’t let the Chainsmokers sing – although the pop duo did accept David Bowie’s posthumous award for “Blackstar,” a moment so hilariously wrong that Bowie probably would have loved it.
In recent years, the Grammys have turned into the most consistently kicky of award galas, phasing out the actual prizes to make more room for live music. Longtime host L.L. Cool J was missed, but James Corden made up for it with his hyper enthusiasm, especially his “Carpool Karaoke” routine, singing “Sweet Caroline” with Neil Diamond, Jennifer Lopez, John Legend, Jason Derulo, Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Blue Ivy Carter, who ran across the aisle in time to join in.
Beyoncé blew the roof off, as usual – the Queen continued her grand tradition of hijacking an award gala and turning it into her own personal baby shower, just like she did at the 2011 VMAs. After an introduction from her mom Tina, Bey sang “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles” while doing an epic gold-hued maternity-themed chair dance (the most psychedelic vision of pregnancy since Rosemary’s Baby), quite literally wearing a halo-halo-halo like a Renaissance painting of the Annunciation.
By the end of the performance, Bey had acted out all five Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary and ascended to her own glittering Bey-heaven. She kept it going with her excellent acceptance speech for Lemonade, reading from a gold scroll to explain her tribute to “the profundity of deep Southern culture.” It was awesome.
It was also badly needed, because the music got off to a feeble start until Bey showed up. The first hour or so was a godawful sadgasm, like Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood doing a Style Council homage in a rave-themed glowstick cage. The Weeknd articulated his pro-ejaculation sentiments in a Daft Punk duet that was just one Slash cameo away from turning into a Black Eyed Peas Tron-themed Super Bowl halftime. Rihanna unfortunately didn’t perform, but she offered a nonstop highlight reel of priceless reaction shots – giving a passive-aggressive slow clap for Ed Sheeran, rocking to Bruno Mars, whipping out her flask when the action got dull.
A Tribe Called Quest stole the night, along with Beyoncé and Adele – the show’s most explosive, spontaneous, all-the-way live moment, with Anderson Paak and Busta Rhymes paying tribute to the late great Phife Dawg, pissed off yet full of savage wit as Busta announced, “I want to thank President Agent Orange for your unsuccessful Muslim ban.” Q-Tip chanted, “Resist, resist, resist.” It was a surprise – who knew they’d get so much airtime to cut loose? – and an inspiration.
Katy Perry made a welcome statement with her “PERSIST” armband and a Planned Parenthood lapel pin. She also wore a white pantsuit in honor of Hillary Clinton, even if her bizarre disappearing act since President Agent Orange took over might not exactly serve as the most heroic model of leadership. “It’s a new era of purposeful pop,” Katy explained on the E! red carpet to noted political analyst Ryan Seacrest. “I used to be the queen of innuendo, so now maybe I’m the queen of subtext.” Tragically, she sang her awful new “Chained to the Rhythm,” which sounds like woke Ace of Base, complete with Nineties rent-a-Marley reggae flourishes, coming off about one-twelfth as purposeful as “Hot and Cold.” (Or even “The Sign,” which was pretty darn woke already.)
Lady Gaga and Metallica did a headbanging duet, despite James Hetfield’s dysfunctional microphone. Country upstart Maren Morris teamed up with Alicia Keys for “Once.” Dwight Yoakam gave a tribute to the late Sharon Jones before her Dap-Kings jammed with Sturgill Simpson. Stax legend William Bell, who won his first-ever Grammy earlier in the day, joined Gary Clark Jr. in a great version of “Born Under A Bad Sign,” the blues standard Bell wrote 50 years ago. (Among all the great songs he’s written, let us note “I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” which became a New Wave classic for Billy Idol.)
There was a strange Bee Gees tribute that only touched on an 18-month snippet of their long career. Fun fact: Saturday Night Fever was not the Bee Gees’ only album.
Blowhards like Demi Lovato and Tori Kelly sucked up a storm trying to overfrown these songs. Why not recruit defter talents – James Hetfield for “Nights on Broadway,” John Legend for “Run to Me,” Adele for “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You,” maybe a Katy/Bruno duet on “Guilty”? Gaga could have made amends to Bowie fans with “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” the hit the Dame rewrote as “Space Oddity.” Hell, since Barry Gibb was in the house, they could have brought him onstage to do the best Bee Gees song ever, the 1967 lunatic-asylum psychedelic nightmare “World,” which never fails to give me the creeps.
The Time paid tribute to their funk godfather Prince and the profundity of deep Minnesotan culture, inspiring the night’s funniest audience reaction shots – Rihanna jumping up to get her jungle love on, Bey and Jay doing the Bird. Morris Day and Jerome did their primping-in-the-mirror routine to perfection, as all America once again pledged allegiance to the Time. They could have gone on to deep cuts like “Chili Sauce” or “If the Kid Can’t Make You Come,” but unfortunately, Bruno Mars took over to do a cover-band rendition of “Let’s Go Crazy” that felt pointless. We all could have used an Appollonia-style splash in the waters of Lake Minnetonka.
And where was drum queen Sheila E., you ask? At sea in the Caribbean, hosting Sheila E.’s Glamourous Life Cruise.
Chance the Rapper gave a flashy gospel performance, enjoyable even for a fan like me who regards gospel moves as the least compelling aspect of Chance’s game and vastly prefers Acid Rap to Coloring Book. Chance is probably the first Best New Artist winner to announce, “I claim this victory in the name of the Lord.” (Sadly, the Lord isn’t eligible for Best New Artist, having collaborated with Prince back in the Eighties.) Jennifer Lopez said, “I will never forget my first Grammy nomination – or the dress I wore that night.” You are not alone, Ms. Lopez. Paris Jackson gave a righteous shout out to the pipeline protest. Weirdly, the music in the ads was fire all night – “Suffragette City,” “Jailbreak,” “The Humpty Dance,” the Gap ad with the Color Me Badd/”Honky Tonk Women” remix, the Target ad with Lil Yachty and Carly Rae Jespen doing “It Takes Two.” For some reason, somebody let a nightmarishly hammy a cappella group called Pentatonix sing “A.B.C.” Congratulations, a cappella! You are still a thing.
The In Memoriam montage had John Legend crooning “God Only Knows,” proving that Brian Wilson knew what he was doing when he wrote a melody nobody could sing except his brother Carl. The honor roll went deep – I didn’t know about the death of Philly soul man Billy Paul or the great Stax pianist Marvell Thomas, bless them both. But it had some astonishing gaffes, leaving out P.M. Dawn’s Prince Be, Can’s Jaki Leibezeit, Pete Burns, Tony Conrad, Pauline Oliveros and others. And sadly, they blew it big-time by dismissing Merle Haggard with a couple seconds of his novelty “Okie From Muskogee” – definitely the wrong song to commemorate this country giant.
In an annual tradition, the night ended with people acting outraged over who won Album of the Year, even though nobody ever remembers two weeks later. So in case you’re new to this: The Grammy for Album of the Year has never once gone to the year’s best album. It just doesn’t happen. OK, maybe 1974, when Stevie Wonder won for Fulfillingness’ First Finale. But even that one isn’t as great as Talking Book, which didn’t get nominated in 1972, as Bowie’s Blackstar didn’t this year.
So don’t pretend to take Album of the Year seriously unless you can name the past six winners off the top of your head, which you can’t. Canon-tweaking is not what the Grammys are for; it’s what music critics are for. (You’re so welcome.) In the night’s final moments, Adele won for 25, which could have been an awkward moment since (like most of us) she was rooting for Lemonade. But Beyoncé and Adele are both queens with a long history of acting like grown-ups when people around them (men, I mean) are sniveling like babies, and they handled this moment with a graceful display of mutual admiration that made them both look more regal than ever.
And on a night like this, how silly to think either queen could lose.
In other news: John Travolta is still getting invited to award shows to read things off teleprompters. A touching display of the indomitable optimism of the human spirit. See you at the Oscars, Danny Zukazeem.
From the clash of the queens to a baffling Bee Gees tribute – and everything in between