For all the carping some of us have done over the years about the Grammy Awards telecast becoming less distinguishable from the MTV Awards, the 2013 edition of the show turned out to be mostly about Music With A Capital M, after all.
Or maybe that "M" should really stand for Modesty, given the infamous wardrobe memo, which actually seemed to go heeded by most of the stars. Demurity, thy name is Grammy!
A few smile- and eyebrow-rising moments:
HIGH -- Powerhouse Kelly Clarkson got a big renewal on her "America's sweetheart" license. First, she had the most endearing acceptance speech of the night when Stronger picked up Best Pop Vocal Album. After doing an elongated tour of the front row, a clearly flustered and astounded Clarkson finally made her way to the podium and proceeded to tell the world she was delayed by a dress snafu. "So sorry, I got stuck to Miranda Lambert. There's a story and a song, for later ... after alcohol. I'm just kidding, children," she joked. Her flustered onstage behavior, and her frank admission that "I still get nervous speaking in front of people," charmed the audience. Soon after, she calmed down enough to wow the world with ... a Patti Page song! After galvanizing the Grammys with a performance of the ancient standard "Tennessee Waltz," Clarkson went into overdrive with Carole King's "Natural Woman." No wonder half the online world was tweeting that the show would've been improved if Clarkson sang not just these old classics but every nominated song of the night.
LOW -- Clarkson did run into one snag—and it wasn't when she got tangled up in Lambert's dress. "Miguel, I don't know who the hell you are," she gushed in her acceptance speech, "but we need to sing together. I mean, good God! That was the sexiest damn thing I've ever seen." However much it was intended as a compliment, some folks in the R&B community didn't appreciate hearing Clarkson say she'd never heard of Miguel, her highly acclaimed labelmate.
HIGH -- The Black Keys brought along the Preservation Hall Jazz Band as their horn section and Dr. John as their keyboard player, blazingly, even if "Lonely Boy" went by so fast it felt over almost as soon as it'd begun. (The Grammy wardrobe memo definitely didn't cover Dr. John's headdress.)
LOW -- Judging from the immediate reaction, the "running to stand still" visual trickery in the performance by Frank Ocean was loved by some viewers but ranked as pretentious or ineffective by plenty of others. His acceptance speech for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration also raised a few brows. Ocean thanked Jay-Z and Kanye West for appearing on his record ... even though he was officially a featured guest on their "No Church in the Wild." Was Hova amused?
HIGH -- Ahead of time, we wondered if Jack White would be bringing his all-female band, or his all-male band, since the eccentric rocker-king has the two backup groups rotate randomly on tour. He brought both, and the gals rocked acoustically on "Love Interruption" while the guys banged out a furious "Freedom at 21." Americana met garage rock, and the expert camerawork effectively conveyed the excitement of a great live show in a way we rarely see on television.
LOW -- Carrie Underwood's dress was considerably hyped in advance, and it turned out to be... a Jumbotron. A few of us loved her electronic billboard of a gown, but the outfit was definitely a divider, not a uniter, even if her delivery itself was unassailable.
HIGH -- If anyone was going to break the wardrobe rules, we figured it'd be Rihanna, but she was the height of elegance not just in look but voice and manner. With the scrutiny she's under for rejoining Chris Brown, maybe she feels an extra obligation to come off as a class act. Whatever the motivation, she pulled it off with a beautifully understated, piano-based ballad that offered no greater fireworks than the rumbling of a giant bass drum.
LOW -- Seated in the front row, Chris Brown was excoriated in some online circles for apparently being the only one within camera range not giving Frank Ocean a standing ovation. To his credit, though, he was close enough to Ocean to trip him, yet resisted.
HIGH -- It looked as if the "Suit and Tie" portion of Justin Timberlake's performance was being broadcast live from Pleasantville, with the switch to black and white camerawork. But the visual gimmick fit the Cotton Club look of his giant "JT & the Tennessee Kids" band, and if the soul-revue vibe of his performance is any indication of the album to come, we'll reserve our tuxes now.
LOW -- "What a fitting tribute to Dave Brubeck," said NARAS head Neil Portnow—right after a group of the greatest jazz musicians played "Take Five" for what felt like about a half-minute. Maybe they meant it as in "take five seconds." Remember when jazz used to get a token slot on the Grammys? Was that all the way back in the John Denver-hosted days?
HIGH -- The Miranda Lambert song "Over You" is about death, and the Dierks Bentley hit "Home" is ambiguously patriotic. So they don't really have much to do with each other—except having been the two most serious-minded country smashes of the past year, which was reason enough to make a medley of them. Lambert's vocals on Bentley's tune sounded particularly at "Home" on the tune.
LOW -- Nate Ruess of fun. fell into the TMI camp when he handed over his acceptance speech to another band member by saying "I gotta pee so bad, so I gotta leave this up to one of these guys." We would've bought it if he had run off stage to the men's room while his bandmates finished talking, but instead of putting his zipper where his mouth is, he stuck around. That's no way to climb the bladder to success.
HIGH -- Taylor Swift would've been the most-seen performer of the night even if she hadn't opened the show with a circus-style performance of "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together." The cameras cut to her in seemingly almost every performance because she was the only person in the entire crowd who knew the words to every single song. She's as much super-fan as superstar.
LOW -- When Sting walked out on stage during Bruno Mars' performance of "Locked Out of Heaven," we were sure it was to serve him with papers for ripping off the Police's vibe for the song. Happily, he had bass in hand, not a summons, and their matchup made for a fairly fine medley, even if most viewers had long forgotten they were supposed to be paying tribute to Bob Marley by the time Damian Marley finally came out to join them on one of Dad's oldies.
HIGH -- Jay-Z may have gotten off the best zinger of the night, saying of fellow winner The-Dream, "I'd like to thank the swap meet for his hat."... Although Katy Perry had a pretty good one too, presenting for Best New Artist andquipping: "I was never even nominated in this category and I have my own eyelash line. Take that, Bon Iver."
LOW -- Hosting for the second year, LL Cool J may be the most earnest man in the entertainment business. And he was definitely the man to have on hand last year, when Whitney's death called for some opening solemnity. But he said he'd had to wait a year to give the speech he'd pre-empted from last year, and... let's just say it made the typical Neil Portnow/NARAS interlude seem like a pithy laugh riot. And his insistence on reeling off the million hashtags we should follow made him sound like the grandpa who'd just discovered social media. (When he announced that he was tweeting a photo he'd just taken backstage of Carrie Underwood, it sounded a little pervy before it sounded naive.) Still, it's refreshing to have someone host an awards show who doesn't seem invested in taking the entire proceedings down 10,000 pegs.
HIGH -- Saying any negative thing about a show that has an all-time great like Mavis Staples on stage singing "The Weight" (during the Levon Helm tribute segment) can only feel churlish.
LOW -- Gotye won the top Record of the Year award, despite not even being nominated for Best New Artist. And he almost certainly would have had a shot at winning some other top categories, if he'd been put up for them. Does that make him the Ben Affleck of this year's Grammys?
LOW -- It was also nice that the Grammy producers didn't try to force everyone into all-star medleys this year and let a few performers, like Jack White and fun., stand on their own. But Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers surely could have been squeezed into one performance slot, if only to disprove the rumor that they are the same band.