A Grammys Show Worth Watching

As I sat down to watch this year's Grammy Awards, it occurred to me that I couldn't remember the last time I'd done so. It seems as if there's never a good reason to watch the Grammys. It's an awards show of interminable length, but unlike the Academy Awards, missing the Grammys won't hamper anyone's watercooler banter, because no one ever talks about them. This year was different, though. There's the fact that it was the awards' 50th anniversary, good reason to pull out all the stops. There was the writers' strike drama, which made people wonder if an awards show could be carried off without writers, while at the same time ensuring that there was nothing better to watch. There was the promise of quirky, past-meets-future performances (Alicia Keys and Frank Sinatra; Beyonce and Tina Turner.) There was the continuing saga of Amy Winehouse, who has been in drug treatment despite her defiant hit song "Rehab." Would she make it to the show? Would she perform? Would she fall over?

For once the Grammys were promising spectacle, and in large part they delivered. The performances that coupled old and new artists were contrived, but they generally succeeded in spite of it. There didn't seem to be any good reason to pair Rihanna with Prince confrères Morris Day and the Time, but who's going to protest a performance of "Jungle Love?" Not me.

In more sensible pairings, Daft Punk joined Kanye West for a performance of "Stronger," West's song that samples the Parisian dance duo. When the lights came up on the black-lit performance, West revealed the word "Mama" shaved into his haircut as he went into a tribute to his mother Donda, who died last year. West usually makes news at awards shows, typically for the temper tantrum he throws when he doesn't win. But this year he'll be the topic of conversation for all the right reasons, as his performance garnered a standing ovation and left many moist eyes in its wake.

Later, Turner (who continues to defy age at 68) and Beyonce took on the former's energetic take on "Proud Mary." John Legend provided piano accompaniment to Fergie on her song "Finally," better known as "that song that reminds you that Fergie is actually kinda talented." Josh Groban and Andrea Bocelli performed a duet. The less said about that the better.

But the most entertaining moments came from those who opted to go it alone. Feist performed her hit "1234" with only an acoustic guitar and some brief flourishes from a seven-piece brass band. Winehouse performed live via satellite, giving a sassy, confident performance that, for a few minutes, moved the focus off her troubled personal life and back onto her music. It would have been nice, though, if she had recognized that performing "Rehab" wasn't in the best taste.

Still, Winehouse's woes weren't enough to stop her from pulling off a near-clean sweep: she won five of the six awards she was nominated for, including Record of the Year, Song of the Year (for "Rehab") and the coveted, if perhaps cursed, Best New Artist category. The category that stopped her short of claiming all her awards was Album of the Year, which went to jazz legend Herbie Hancock's "River: The Joni Letters"—a tribute album of sorts to Joni Mitchell—proof that Grammy voters are willing to be only so edgy. Winehouse's "Back to Black" and West's "Graduation" were clear front runners, but sentimentality won out, as it has many times before (see 2001's inexplicable award to Steely Dan over Beck, Radiohead and Eminem). This makes West's third time losing the big prize, though he did walk away with four trophies.

It was a successful night overall. For a writerless awards ceremony, the show felt surprisingly brisk and well-paced. Luckily, the Writers' Guild decided to spare the Grammys a picket line. Awards shows without hosts usually seem to meander, but this one stayed on task. For a show celebrating an industry that's deflating faster than the U.S. economy, it was a triumph.