Grammys Rocked by Adele’s “21″-Gun Salute, Jennifer Hudson’s Sensitive Houston Homage, and Nicki Minaj’s Satanic Verses

Chris Willman
Stop The Presses!

What will we be talking about from the Grammys at work on Monday? Maybe not so much, because we'll all be on our computers, getting a copy of Adele's 21, if we're among the seeming minority of Americans who haven't downloaded it already... or wishing there were a 17 or 23, if we have.

Although Adele had been expected to be the big winner at the Grammys even before nominations came out, her Album/Record/Song triple-crown hardly accounted for the only buzz of the night--not on an evening when Whitney Houston's spirit hovered over the whole affair...and Nicki Minaj literally hovered.

The most memorable moments of the 54th Grammys:


Debuting "The Exorcism of Roman," Minaj was positively the British accent so recently driven out of Madonna. She was also overcome by the desire to put on an incoherent, theatrical extravaganza that looked like she put The Exorcist and Ken Russell's The Devils in a blender and re-imagined the whole thing as a musical comedy. The baffling number began with Minaj confessing to a terrified priest while appropriating a bit of "I Feel Pretty" that we feel sure couldn't have really been licensed by Stephen Sondheim, and then went into Catholic-imagery overload as Minaj rhymed "witch," "twitch," and "World War 6." She did a neat magic trick, levitating demonically above the stage, though the trick of making us understand what any of it meant went unfulfilled. Maybe it'll all make a slight lick of sense when her forthcoming song cycle comes out, but isn't it a little early in her career to be killing it with concept albums?


Wouldn't you love to have been a fly on the wall at the Grammy meeting where somebody asked, "Who should we have on the show twice?"--and a majority of hands shot up for Chris Brown? He's not quite as universally welcome in these parts as he is at the BET or even MTV Awards, for historical reasons that don't need much explaining, but the Grammys seemed determined to make up for his absence of a few years. That's possibly because they couldn't find anyone else with the nerve to lip-synch an entire lead vocal on the Grammy Awards, and for the sake of tokenism, somebody had to do it. He turned the Grammys into the Dancies, and of course turned his mic off, hoofing his way over a large-scale set of creatively lit Legos. When it came time for the now de rigeur standing ovation at the end of his big solo number, a few audience members started to rise, but the cameras cut away before we could take stock of which fellow artists think it's time to forgive and which think he still didn't belong in the company of people who do more wondrous things with their hands.


If you're curious to know how Perry feels about Russell Brand--or even if you aren't--she aims to let you know with the new song she premiered, "Part of Me." "You let me drown," she sang, resplendent as always in a blue wig. "Now look at me, I'm sparkling/You will never put me out again/You can keep the diamond ring/It don't mean nothing anyway/In fact you can keep everything/Except for me." As much as we usually adore bitter superstar confessionals, though, there was something impersonal about this supposed broadside against her ex. Maybe it was the spandex and huge cast of distracting dancers, or maybe we were still confused by the abrupt shift from the fake-out "E.T." opening...or maybe the lyric just isn't half as bold and revealing as Perry imagines. If you really want to do a kiss-off album next, Katy, check and see if Taylor Swift is available for co-writes.


Could there have been any classier medley than the one that had the Band Perry's "Gentle On My Mind" and Blake Shelton's "Southern Nights" leading into Campbell's own "Rhinestone Cowboy"? The only disappointment was that Campbell wasn't allowed to do a song where he could peel off one of his still-expert electric guitar solos, as he did at a performance across the street at the Grammy Museum just last week. When Campbell ended the bit by laughing and asking, "Where do I go? Do I go somewhere or shut up?," that may have been the Alzheimer's talking, but it also may have been classic country music's lack of pretentiousness speaking up.


The first appearance together by all the surviving Beach Boys in a couple of decades was overshadowed a bit by the two tribute acts that preceded them, Maroon 5 and Foster The People. You had to admire Adam Levine's nerve in wearing pinstripes to honor the kings of surf and sand. But when it came to the falsetto on "Surfer Girl," well, to quote another Brian Wilson song, his voice just wasn't made for these notes. Foster The People was even less naturally equipped to emulate the Boys, but somehow they worked their looser quality to their advantage. And whoever dressed them and combed their hair should get an honorary Grammy for most appropriate styling. When the Boys took over for "Good Vibrations," it didn't matter that the theremin was a synthesizer and it was impossible to tell whether Brian was happy to be there. We were ecstatic to have them there.


Everyone's all-time favorite Cockney soul singer came through her first post-polyp-removal live performance with flying colors. In a "60 Minutes" interview immediately preceding the telecast, she'd told Anderson Cooper she gets stage fright before every show, and if you looked in her eyes Sunday night, you saw she wasn't kidding. But her "Rolling in the Deep" provided tremendous solace that great voices didn't disappear with Whitney's. Bonus points for working the word "snot" into her final acceptance speech, and for keeping those huge eyelashes glued to her face, flood of tears notwithstanding.


Bless you, Grammy powers-that-be, for not giving us a bloated, ramshackle Whitney Houston medley. Instead, we got one perfectly framed ballad--"I Will Always Love You," of course--sung by possible heir apparent Hudson. The accompaniment was a cappella, at first, before an eventual piano (and, thank God, nothing more) kicked in. "We will always love you, Whitney," she added at the close, putting a cap on the perfect marriage of eulogy and eulogizer.


Thank you, again, Grammys, for not giving us a Christina Aguilera "At Last" in honor of the recently deceased Etta James...because we have been there and done that. Instead, we got the sterling combination of Alicia Keys and Bonnie Raitt on "A Sunday Kind of Love," accompanied only by their own electric piano and acoustic guitar. A subtle Etta James last, indeed! We even quickly stopped being distracted by the fact that Keys looked to have literally scalped Bruno Mars for his pompadour.


So much of the evening had been elder-friendly, between the swell turns by Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, Campbell, and the Beach Boys. Then David Guetta, Deadmaus, Chris Brown, and the Foo Fighters sent everyone over a certain age or sensibility running to bed with a dance-music medley that took place outdoors in what looked like one of Coachella's giant tents. At least the Grammys were polite enough to wait until about 10:45 to turn into the MTV Video Music Awards.


Why did Civil Wars, who won two non-televised awards for folk and country, get a coveted performing slot? Was it because the Grammy people realized what a horrible mistake had been made by not nominating them for Best New Artist, and it was a moral imperative to atone? Or was it because pal Taylor Swift demanded they be her "opening act"? Either way, they made the most of their acoustic minute...and yes, they were the only act of the night to announce exactly how many seconds their slot would last. Selling a bunch of records on Monday is the best revenge.


Dave Grohl got abruptly cut off by the music when he launched into a radical pro-music manifesto. (Some of the tenets of which he later seemed to negate, ironically, when he participated in the electronica mini-festival.) Bon Iver's Justin Vernon came off the most like somebody you'd find nervously accepting an award at a movie-tech ceremony, charmingly, as he also spoke to "the inherent reward of making songs" and being "a little bit uncomfortable up here." But he wasn't so discomforted that he didn't get around to thanking "all the voters, of course. Sweet. Sweet hookup." He got played off, too, as he espoused his weirdo theories on music being its own reward. Conspiracy?