Behold, your Grammys in five seconds.
The image of Sam Smith and Mary J. Blige cruising through an extra cushy version of Smith’s already Ambien-friendly ballad “Stay With Me” sums up everything you need to know about the 2015 Grammy Awards. The stifling elegance! The suits! The ubiquity of Sam Smith’s face! The ballads! The strings! Everything you know about the crushingly comforting tedium of last night’s broadcast is all right there.
Ok, we’ll hit the performances first and then circle back around for actual awards and closing comments, because good grief this year was dreadful. The Grammys have kind of a shitty existence as far as award shows go: they lack the prestige of the Oscars, the camp of the Tonys, and the warm atmosphere of the Emmys. Even with a vested interest, you can’t watch them while pretending there are any stakes or real seriousness to the night (Grammy Twitter is the 100m dash of the Snark Olympics for this exact reason). The most you can hope for is some entertaining performers.
But we even got screwed out of that last night. I won’t line by line every performance, but any talent show that dumps Usher, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, Gwen Stefani, and Adam Levine in tepid balladry is making the wrong move. How do we get something as fiery as Kendrick Lamar and Imagine Dragons last year, then a bunch of dirges the year after? The collaborations, for the most part, were either painfully obvious or utterly baffling: Chris Martin joining Beck on “Heart Is a Drum” is asking for soft-rock quips, there’s the aforementioned Sam Smith and Mary J. Blige, and then the “wtf?”ness of Tom Jones and Jessie J, or Ed Sheeran and ELO. Sheeran’s overqualified supergroup on “Thinking Out Loud” somehow managed to be both: putting John Mayer in what I honest to God thought was an especially hacky John Mayer single at first is so on the nose it’s almost audacious, but why on Earth would you hire renowned virtuosos Questlove and Herbie Hancock to keep time on this slice of cheese?
There were a few bright spots, though. Annie Lennox brought witchcraft and stage presence to “I Put a Spell On You” to lift Hozier’s gloomy “Take Me To Church” out of the muck. Pharrell’s wringing the last mileage out of “Happy”, but the kinda bonkers, Hans Zimmer-fied version was an entertaining spectacle for a night that needed it (ditto for Madonna’s “El Yeezus” performance). Juanes, Eric Church, and Miranda Lambert gave competent band jams, but three numbers really stood out. Kanye’s “Only One” is just such a damn sweet song, and the one-two of Beyonce doing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and John Legend and Common’s “Glory” ended three and a half hours of Important Music with actual important music.
But, my favorite performance of the night was Rihanna, Kanye, and Paul McCartney with a loose and flat out fun “FourFiveSeconds”. It’s just a goofy, dashed off, surprisingly organic performance that features some of the best vocals Rihanna’s ever done. It’s the kind of thing the Grammys should be founded on that got bogged down by the like, double album worth of mournful songs that we heard.
Anyway, now for the mixed bag of the awards.
I’m calling it a mixed bag almost purely for the fact that Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy winnings went from 0 to 100 in the catch up from last year, picking up Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song for “i”. It’s a strike out from what I predicted, but I was happy to see St. Vincent win Best Alternative Music Album (“happy to see” meaning “heard about it on Twitter,” since the Grammys can’t be arsed to put more than 6 awards in a nearly four hour production), and Paramore nail Best Rock Song. The wins were kind of tedious outside that, though; yeah, Iggy lost, probably because the Grammys weren’t ready to die on the hill again for categories they can’t be bothered to air live, and the televised awards were mostly safe bets.
I am, of course, talking about the regime of dullness that is Sam Smith’s near sweep. Smith went home with Best Pop Vocal Album, Best New Artist, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year; he was denied the coveted sweep with Album of the Year (more on this in a second), probably because someone getting all Big Four would have been exciting. I have mixed feelings on Smith. This has been lost in the year’s Grammy narrative so far, but it’s important, especially only a year after The Great Straight Savior, to acknowledge that Smith is openly gay, and that his sexuality informs his music. The acceptance speech where he thanked the man who broke his heart was hands down the best one of the night.
But Smith’s sexuality is the only progressive thing about an otherwise suffocatingly conservative artist; In the Lonely Hour and “Stay With Me” mine every classicist whim the Grammys cater to, and not in an interesting way. He’s an exceptional singer, but I’ll give him a better chance when he writes stronger material. Or gives Disclosure another call, either/or.
So, let’s jump into this Album of the Year debacle. Beck won for Morning Phase. I thought it was an okay album, but I would have called it the 4th most likely to win until holy shit, Prince just said Morning Phase and I was not ready. Then again, neither was Beck. I get it, though; Morning Phase is a good, carefully sculpted, warm, singer-songwriter album that just feels comfortable to listen to. The same could be said for chunks of last year’s winner Random Access Memories, or Mumford & Sons’ Babel from the year before. If you’re so inclined, you could even construct one of those “It’s for lifetime achievement” arguments for Morning Phase. It’s a safe, predictable bet, and c’mon y’all, the Grammys are nothing if not predictable (and, minor aside, Beyonce occasionally glides by on aesthetic to cover lesser moments). It’s almost a truism that the least challenging and most random seeming choice will usually win Album of the Year. Is it a backwards and unfulfilling choice? I’ll leave it up to you to answer, but I’m currently three songs deep into Morning Phase, and trying to will myself into a universe where it sounds like the AOTY. I can imagine the little stickers on the jewel case, though.
God bless Kanye West. Just when you thought he’d mellowed out into his dad and probably-barbecues-with-Jay-Z phase, he goes off on the Grammys, calling Beyonce‘s loss “diminishing the art and not respecting the craft.” Per tradition, there’s been a lot of people reacting to Kanye instead of what he’s saying (with the added, weirdly ingrained idea that music made by one guy is somehow more ART than music/visual media made by a team led by an individual executing a very specific vision), which has been lost somewhere in translation. But I get it. To see Beyonce get the nomination amid non-threatening records like Morning Phase, x, G I R L, and In the Lonely Hour felt kind of token. Not only was Beyonce a quite good but not #FLAWLESS, carefully sculpted, personal record, it’s 21st century artistic event; Morning Phase is just another Beck album. I how one lost and the other didn’t, and I can see the other way, too. But one takes fewer logical leaps than the other.
So was Morning Phase winning Album of the Year a triumph of artistic merit over a hopelessly overrated hype machine, or is it the racially motivated assassination of Queen Bey by the coward Grammy committee? The answer, as it usually is with the Grammys, is somewhere in a disappointing middle.