Sam Smith was the big winner at Sunday’s Grammy Awards, taking four golden gramophones with polite charm that fit a largely droopy night and came with his observation that it was “only until I started to be myself” that he found success. But the British crooner who captured the Best New Artist, Song, Record and Pop Vocal Album categories was also overshadowed by an Album of the Year surprise and tons of performances, topped by Annie Lennox, Beyonce, Madonna and Sia.
Beck’s surprise win for Album of the Year with Morning Phase, beating both Sam Smith and Beyonce, even drew a self-curtailed bum rush from Kanye West, hinting at his infamous Beyonce-was-robbed VMAs interruption of Taylor Swift. It seemed like a joke until West later spouted off to E! News, suggesting Beck should have given the trophy to Beyonce. Beck took it all politely, as surprised as anyone, having already snatched Rock Album of the Year from the Black Keys, U2 and Tom Petty, who wins anyway for shared future royalties on Smith’s “Stay With Me.”
West got to perform twice on the show, even joining Paul McCartney (who you couldn’t really hear anyway) and Rihanna on “FourFiveSeconds.” Other successful collaborations included Smith with MJ Blige and a ubiquitous gospel chorus, Tony Bennett going “Cheek to Cheek” with a classily gonzo Lady Gaga, country standout Brandy Clark with harmonizer Dwight Yoakum, and best of them all, Hozier with Annie Lennox, who didn’t seem quite in step with his “Take Me to Church” but brought down the house with her zesty take on “I Put a Spell on You.”
For her part, Beyonce (who still won three Grammys) hauntingly sang “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” like a bridal angel, amid black men in white suits who raised palms in a subtle reference to the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” movement. The oddly bellhop-attired Pharrell Williams made the same visual commentary with dancers in hoodies raising their hands in his chaotically recast “Happy,” a classical piano solo poorly shoehorned into the production as a weak attempt to broaden the musical styles offered on the telecast. But presenter Prince dropped the most obvious yet clever line in “Like books and black lives, albums still matter.”
Much like Beyonce stood in contrast to her sexy “Drunk in Love” romp at last year’s Grammys, Katy Perry followed her Super Bowl prop party with divorce ballad “By the Grace of God” after moving words against rape and domestic violence from President Obama (on video) and assault survivor Brooke Axtell.
Madonna showed she still pushes enough buttons, beyond the fountain of youth, to dance like a matador among men with bull horns and masks on her new “Living for Love” and ultimately (if it was indeed her) ascend toward the heavens. It could have been a rousing introduction to the night, but Madonna had done that before. So the kickoff honors when to classic hard-rockers AC/DC, which could use the boost since it was the band’s first live appearance in four years. With drummer Phil Rudd facing drug charges in New Zealand, shaven-headed replacement Chris Slade was back behind the kit, flanked by hanging bass drums for “Highway To Hell,” a worthy follow-up to the lame new song “Rock or Bust” that had attendees donning light-up devil horns.
More devilish fun would have improved the rest of the three-hour-plus show, which was mired in too many dull performances, including “The Voice” coaches Adam Levine, Gwen Stefani and Usher, perhaps lucky that their show is on the same promo-shameless network. And the shy Sia perhaps trumped everyone with a “Chandelier” performance-art piece where the singer apparently faced a wall while wigged doppelgangers (including former “Saturday Night Live” star Kristen Wiig) enacted a dramatic dance as head-scratching as much of the night.