The Grammy Awards are dull and insipid every year, but at least for the last two years the Recording Academy managed a few surprises: In 2011, Arcade Fire won Album of the Year, providing a climactic reality-check for thousands of indie partisans; in 2012, the awards attempted to both grapple with the EDM boom and mend a fraught relationship with hip-hop ... before ultimately handing the whole thing over to a stage full of men with guitars. But, having tried to gain (or feign) relevance and failed, at least those Grammy Awards failed rather spectacularly.
By contrast, the 55th Grammy Awards last night proved both incompetent and exceedingly dull -- light on surprises, innovations, and blatant hypocrisy. It was a night of playing it safe, and it was about as fun as, well, fun., the excellent-but-not-terribly-exciting pop-rock outfit that walked away with the awards for Best New Artist and Song of the Year.
Nearly all the winners in the major categories felt like obvious choices, with the possible exception of Gotye and Kimbra winning Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for "Somebody That I Used to Know." (But even that was pretty obvious.) The Academy couldn't even find it in itself to give a Grammy to poor Carly Rae Jepsen, who had the undisputed anthem -- for both fans and critics -- of Summer 2012. Instead the award for Best Pop Solo Performance went to Adele's "Set Fire to the Rain," from her Live at Royal Albert Hall record. You could practically hear the voting members moaning about how they wished it was still 2012, when they could offload gobs of little trophies to the likable British diva without any guilt.
Oh sure, the Academy found a token R&B star it could tolerate in Frank Ocean (okay, and Miguel), and Ocean's two aw-shucks turns at the microphone made for some of the most charming moments of the evening. (His performance of "Forrest Gump" was dull, but it felt like Ocean knew he didn't have much to prove.) Channel Orange won Best Urban Contemporary Album, which sounds like a category the Academy invented to honor music it knows nothing about and doesn't much care for.
It would have qualified as a surprise if Channel Orange had won Album of the Year, but only because it would've made too much sense, given Ocean's hefty impact on pop music in the past 12 months. Instead the award when to Mumford & Sons' Babel, which has all the emotional complexity of a good hat shop. But Babel sold more copies in its first week than Channel Orange has sold yet, and the Academy is, after all, an industry group that exists to honor products that sell.
Few of the night's performers managed a genuine surprise. Taylor Swift opened the proceedings by singing "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" wildly off-key at times, perhaps distracted by the arduous Alice in Wonderland-schtick of her stage presentation. Fun., apparently realizing that everyone has heard "We Are Young" and "Some Nights" far too much, instead played "Carry On," which isn't as good as either of them. Justin Timberlake came out with Jay-Z, looking like a Rat Packer for the easy-to-swallow "Suit & Tie." Jack White brought out both his all-female and all-male bands, and (surprise!) played a loud guitar solo. Kelly Clarkson sang a lovely tribute to Patti Page and Carole King. Miranda Lambert looked approximately 14. So basically everything went as planned.
Two of the live performances stood out. The all-too-brief snippet of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five," aired by jazz legends Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, and Kenny Garrett, arrived with a quiet jolt, its warmth and humanity striking a sharp contrast with the glitz of the Grammys. (So why was it only a minute long?) Later, a large group that included Mavis Staples, Elton John, the Mumford boys, and Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard put on a truly moving tribute to the Band's Levon Helm, for which "The Weight" served perfectly. Staples either missed or ignored the ending cue, and continued bellowing into her microphone after the rest of the group stopped. For a moment her lone voice filled the vast arena with a rumbling, guttural shout, something like the sound of real grief. And for that moment -- along with maybe a handful of others -- the 55th Grammy Awards were genuinely interesting.