The 57th annual Grammy Awards took place at the Staples Center on Sunday night and were hosted by LL Cool J. I tuned in just in time to hear AC/DC opening up the show with their classic hit-song “Highway to Hell.” It was both comforting and slightly unnerving to see Angus young, now white-haired and wrinkly, strutting around the stage in his schoolboy outfit and toting his Gibson SG, but the guy still has serious energy, stage presence, and guitar chops. AC/DC’s opening performance was representative of a classic Grammys motif: the honoring of veteran artists in the wake of young stars.
Sam Smith took home the first award of the night for Best New Artist, which didn’t really come as a surprise to most people. Haim, Bastille, and Brandy Clark didn’t really stand a chance against the “Stay With Me” wonderboy. Sam Smith’s only real competition was Iggy Azalea, and if she won people would have been very upset. Chris Richards from the Washington Post sums up the Iggy Azalea controversy nicely, saying, “regardless of how it all shakes out, the nominations alone should remind us that the American record biz is still chillingly adept at using whiteness to sell blackness.” The recording academy learned their lesson last year when they awarded the Grammy for Best Rap Album to Macklemore over Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Jay-Z, and Kanye. Even Macklemore himself agreed that Kendrick deserved that honor.
Ariana Grande took the stage soon after Sam Smith’s first Grammy of the night to perform her ballad “Just a Little Bit of Your Heart.” To be honest, her performance was a little bit boring. However, she was in good company. Beyoncé and Katy Perry also performed some soggy, underwhelming ballads that night in what seemed like an inauthentic attempt to create a serious, holier-than-thou atmosphere. Perhaps these performers were trying to emulate the Grammy golden boy Sam Smith.
Sam Smith secured the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album, his second of the night, for his album In The Lonely Hour. At this point, it was becoming clear that Sam Smith was going to sweep, and I can’t say he didn’t deserve it. The award was for Best Pop Vocal Album, and lets be honest, his vocals are ridiculous. Smith also took home Grammys for both Record and Song of the year for his gospel-soul-pop hit “Stay With Me.” At first it seemed a little surprising that an artist like Sam Smith could sweep the Grammys the way he did, especially considering the hip-hop, EDM, party music pop milieu that we’ve found ourselves in. However, as Chris Richards of the Washington Post Points out, artists like Adele and Amy Winehouse have proved that American listeners have a soft spot for traditionally black musical styles appropriated by white, British artists.
My favorite performance of the night was easily Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” featuring John Mayer, Questlove, and Herbie Hancock. Talk about an all-star line up. I simply love the song “Thinking Out Loud,” the lyrics are beautiful, the chords are simple, and the melodies combined with Ed Sheeran’s vocals really pull at your heartstrings. However, it was a little strange seeing superstars John Mayer and Herbie Hancock as mere sidemen to Ed. Herbie laid down some super tasteful riffs in-between Sheeran’s vocals, but it pains me knowing that most young viewers probably didn’t fully understand the musical and cultural magnitude of Herbie Hancock. John Mayer’s solo was classic John Mayer and his backing vocals were solid. John is no stranger to the spotlight that Ed Sheeran has been basking in, and him stepping to the side for Sheeran’s performance was a symbolic passing of the singer songwriter torch. We all remember the huge ego and insensitive comments of John Mayer’s early career, but it is clear that he has humbled himself in recent years.
Perhaps the most eagerly awaited performance of the night was Kayne West’s brand new ballad “Only One.” Kanye stood at the center of a circular stage with a single beam of light illuminating him through the fog in his purple velour jumpsuit. His performance followed the trend of Ariana Grande and Katy Perry; it was a slightly bland showing that lacked a certain oomph. Kayne also resorted to using auto-tune to help him through “Only One.” Many people would consider this a stylistic choice, but it seems more like a lazy crutch that Kanye leaned on to aid his transition from rapping to singing. I really liked “Only One” when I heard the studio recording, but Kanye’s Grammy performance made me wonder if the same song would have been successful if Kanye’s name weren’t attached to it. Aside from that, it was cool when Kayne straight up disappeared at the end of the song… seriously, where did he go?
Beck took home the Album of The Year award for Morning Phase, an album that I didn’t even know existed until that night. When Beck’s name was called he seemed as confused as I was, because clearly Beyoncé’s surprise release album made a much bigger splash in 2014. However, this isn’t just a popularity contest. Although Morning Phase was the lowest selling album of all the Album of The Year nominees (300,000 records sold vs. Beyoncé’s 5,000,000), Morning Phase is a real work of art with music and lyrics all penned by Beck himself (he also played 15 different instruments on the record). On the other hand, Beyoncé was created with a team of over 20 expert writers. There is no doubt that Beyoncé was more popular and culturally impactful than Morning Phase, but I think the academy realized that it was time to honor Beck for his musical and artistic talent, not just in 2014, but throughout his whole career. Besides, I think Beyoncé can survive without a Grammy; she’s Beyoncé after all.