Grading last night’s Grammy performances

Highlights, lowlights, and what Daft Punk’s big win means
Daft Punk. (Reuters)

The Grammys turned 56 on Sunday, and if you followed our live-chat last night, it showed, with an award ceremony that came across like so many uncool dads, interrupting their embarrassed son’s 18th birthday party to say “whazzap” in front of all of his friends, fingers flashing the sign of the horns. The improbable return of LL Cool J for a third year as charmless host felt stilted enough; having his opening monologue refer to a song he released in 1990 didn’t help.

The awards themselves afforded only two surprises–Kacey Musgraves’s win for Best Country Album and Daft Punk’s triumph for Album of the Year–so let’s focus on what most people watched the ceremony for: the performances and collaborations with some of music’s favourite stars. Here’s our assessment of how they played out:

Beyonce, Jay Z: The worst-kept secret of the Grammys night found pop’s power couple performing its duet, Drunk in Love, off Beyonce’s self-titled surprise LP. A wise choice by Grammy producers, as there is an automatic froth generated when Beyonce shows up—though it’s hard to deny that she worked that chair into the ground and, seeing all the primping done by her fellow artists, decided to just do the show straight out of the shower. (It worked.) Downside? It seems clear that she lip-synced, with her mic leaving her mouth without any impact on sound, which is odd as she is Queen Bey, and why would she need to lip-sync a performance where she wasn’t doing heavy dancing, especially after the controversy of her 2012 inauguration performance? Jay Z, meanwhile, continued his I’m-incredibly-bored tour, using his improbably verse (on a song sung by his wife about their top-notch sex life!) to remind everyone yet again that he’s not a businessman, he’s a business, man. Parse through the Bey love, and it was a good, not great, showing. 7.5/10

Robin Thicke, Chicago: A painful amount of schmaltz. With tuxed-up musicians and a retro stage set up, it looked like a Justin Timberlake set, it had all the signifiers of a Justin Timberlake performance–and then the Grammys threw in the sleazy Robin Thicke in his stead, and we were reminded exactly why Robin Thicke will never have the same crossover appeal of Timberlake, even if Thicke actually trades more in traditional soul techniques. Also, it was painfully clear that no one in the crowd knew who Chicago was. 2/10

Lorde: It’s too bad she sang Royals, rather than the alternate single Tennis Courts, because Royals is starting to verge on overplayed. A standard performance from a remarkable youth (she’s 17!), though it came as a surprise for anyone who hasn’t seen her stage-stalking presence. 7/10

Katy Perry: Booooooooring. You would have been forgiven if you had thought the song she performed, Dark Horse, was a music video for an M. Night Shyamayan-directed reboot of War Horse, but it was all smoke and mirrors and nothing in the way of substance or on-stage charm, despite an appearance by Juicy J, who appeared from out of a makeshift on-stage pony to serve as the performance’s interloping Greek army. Perry is an artist who has somehow never won a Grammy, and she really should have one on her mantle. She didn’t win again last night. 3/10

Taylor Swift: If she knew that she was going to improbably get shutout at these awards, you wouldn’t be able to tell from this performance from the girl people love to hate on. But what began as simply as an elegant reminder of her songwriting prowess of her pop-targeting latest, Red (“Hey, you called me up again just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being honest”) became a head-banging, hair-ravishing, passionate performance best memorialized for the whiplash she’s invariably suffering today. 7.5/10

Kendrick Lamar, Imagine Dragons: “Finally, the collaboration everyone was waiting for,” said no one before the show. We were all wrong. Arguably the high point of the show, Imagine Dragons were an impressive, aggressive backing band perfect for one of the first live performances of underrated Kendrick track “m.a.a.d. city”, with the smash hit “Radioactive” intermingling only to heighten the fervour, and ending in Kendrick’s own verse from the brand-new Radioactive remix. The high-energy act energized an affair that had gotten, to that point, fairly sleepy. I do wish that producers did a more precise job of bleeping out Lamar’s occasional swearing, as it needlessly took out entire chunks of an otherwise powerful street portrait. 9/10

Kacey Musgraves: Sweet, unassuming, and lost in the massive energy produced by the Kendrick/Imagine Dragons performance that immediately preceded it (bungled that one, Grammys). That would have been an appropriate epitaph for Musgraves’s night—who burst onto the scene this year with an excellent debut record, Same Trailer Different Park—until her upset victory in the Best Country Album category over an all-danced-out Taylor Swift. If you can find this video online in HD, let us know. 7/10

Metallica, Lang Lang: This was shockingly awesome. Maybe it was just a desperate hunger for something, anything, to inject some life into the tired thing, but this was an inspired collaboration choice. I’ve never been a huge Metallica fan, but I would pay money to see an extended concert if Lang Lang joined them for the whole thing. 8/10

Carole King, Sara Bareilles: So simple, so sweet. A venerable veteran with a sweetheart up for the Album of the Year playing the piano and singing together, it was a beautiful melody and pairing that was completely (and wrongly) overlooked by more-hyped acts. Watch it again, if you missed it. 8/10

Pink, Nate Ruess: It’s cute that Pink even pretended that she wasn’t lip-syncing during her acrobatic performance Try, because it’s incomprehensible to think that we could believe she could do incredible dances and aerial gymnastics and lift a grown man without any impact on her singing. That’s not on you, Pink. Just be honest with us. As for Nate Ruess’s cameo in the second half of the performance, on Just Give Me a Reason: Nate, the mic-throw-and-catch move was cool the first time, and boring the third time you did it in the span of a minute. He also missed a couple notes there. 7.5/10 for Try, 6/10 for Just Give Me a Reason

Daft Punk, Pharrell Williams, Stevie Wonder: Awesome, awesome, awesome. This is what the Grammys are about—blending landmark appearances by huge stars (Daft Punk’s robots in person) and reminding short-memoried people about the absolute legends still in our midst (Stevie!). The funk mash-up that followed summer smash Get Lucky is incredible, and featured some really excellent bass work, to boot. 9/10

Keith Urban, Gary Clark Jr.: The performance was the icing on a nice cake for Clark, whose coming out party was overshadowed by Musgraves’s. Don’t sleep on him. 7.5/10

Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr: You’re going to put two Beatles on stage, but then have them each play their solo songs plus a new track? Ugh. 0/10

Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, Mary Lambert, Queen Latifah, Madonna: When we look back at these awards, this bloated, mostly mawkish thing is going to be what we’re going to remember. It’s not to say it’s a nice idea, having 33 marriages on stage as Macklemore performs his gay-rights call-to-arms Same Love, but did we really need the background to turn into a graphic representation of a church? Did we need Queen Latifah to officiate it? (Just because she’s a queen doesn’t qualify her to marry people, does it? Will those marriages stand up in court?) And did we really need an out-of-tune, cane-supported, bored-looking Madonna to appear to sing a different song at the same time? There’s something to be said about a quiet, intimate wedding. There’s another thing to say about whatever this mess was. Let me check my privilege quickly at the door and say it’s certainly not for me, a straight male, to say whether or not this was a wise or empowering move. And who am I to criticize people’s wedding decisions? But it did feel, from the perspective of Grammy award show planning, like a good idea that came from a good place, that in execution had so many moving parts that it came off sounding like a joke, taking sentimental advantage of people’s feelings to cap a show. Also, hey, at least Macklemore stayed on beat more than usual. 5/10

Queens of the Stone Age, Lindsey Buckingham, Dave Grohl, Nine Inch Nails: Do you not remember this collection of excellent rock musicians playing Sunday night? That’s because they were rendered meaningless play-us-out background music for the broadcast, as the show played commercials for their sponsors over top their set. From what we could hear, this was actually awesome–despite the Queens of the Stone Age having a reasonable axe to grind, as the curiously Grammy-free band were wrongly beaten for Best Rock Album by a recording of a 2007 Led Zeppelin concert–but they settled it by grinding on their axes, even if Delta Airlines used their set to tell you how nice it is to fly coach with them.

There’s certainly more to unpack from the night, including this morning’s revelation that Macklemore, who walked away with four Grammys, apologized to Kendrick Lamar via text message that he won Best Rap Album (a really nice gesture) and then posted the text up on Instagram (you were this close from doing the right thing there, Macklemore). But mostly, there’s this: did the Grammys do itself any favours to reverse the appearance of fading relevance in a rapidly evolving music climate? No: the night was terribly anticlimactic, save for Musgraves and Daft Punk, and in themselves, on first blush, they reflect the sentiment from within the Academy. In the country genre, country still means something (Musgraves certainly had the better country album; the lead single of Taylor Swift’s Red was a dubstep-infused pop confection). And in Best Album? It’s a good thing that they’re not so fastidious in their desire to set the agenda for the cultural zeitgeist to (incorrectly, to my mind) give Best Album to Macklemore, but they’re still unwilling to acknowledge where music is heading, ignoring Kendrick Lamar’s good kid m.a.a.d city. Daft Punk’s record—appropriately, the “oldest”-sounding record they’ve released—is a compromise that pleases few. Even Daft Punk, in a remarkable GQ profile released in May, said it expected the album to do poorly, and let’s be honest: if it wasn’t helmed by the most popular and enigmatic electronica artists in the world, perhaps in the history, would we be talking about the otherwise only-above-average record this way?

But did Daft Punk deserve the win? Watch the reaction from the ever-silent Daft Punk (Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo) from beneath those robot masks when they announce Album of the Year: they’re screaming, delirious, out of their mind with ecstasy. They’re human, after all. So too are the Grammys. Let’s grant them that.