Just a little over 24 hours ago, it became clear that tonight’s Grammy awards were going to be about one person: Whitney Houston. Houston’s unexpected death immediately raised all sorts of questions for the awards show: How could the Grammys celebrate her while celebrating all the other nominees? How could they be respectful, but not depressing? How could they honor Houston, while also making time for a “dance music” tribute featuring Chris Brown, Skrillex, Deadmau5, and a bunch of raving teenagers? While these Grammy awards were by no means perfect— the run time pretty handily exceeded that of the Oscars, largely on the strength of overstuffed commercial breaks, which just seems greedy of CBS; and then there was that aforementioned “dance music” number, among other things — they nailed the right tone about Whitney at the start, acknowledging her immediately. And even though the Houston memorial was fairly short— just Jennifer Hudson singing “I Will Always Love You” (more on that in a bit) — all night long the performers seemed to be putting in extra effort (See: Adele, Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, Rihanna.) Not all the sequences worked, but the musicians seemed to have an added incentive to try their best, not just because the Grammys are a big, televised platform, but because it would have been disrespectful to Whitney not to give it their all. Houston’s death essentially gave the Grammys, this most absurd of award shows, some genuine gravitas. And despite some missteps, the show did not squander all of it, thanks in no small part to the talent and charm of the night’s big winner, Adele. Herewith, seven talking points about this evening, from the good, to the bad, to the Nicki Minaj.
1. LL Cool J was a great host.
When LL Cool J was announced as the host of this shindig, we made jokes. We weren’t the only one: the entire ad campaign for the Grammys consisted of Taylor Swift teasing LL about whether he was suitable for the gig. But there was something perfect about having a member of the pop music establishment in long standing in charge when it came time to talk about Whitney and prove that we, the audience, were in good, appropriate hands. LL came out on stage and got right down to it: “We’ve had a death in our family,” he said, before leading the audience in a prayer, which segued into a clip of Houston herself singing “I Will Always Love You” at the Grammys. And then somehow— a heap of professionalism, a cup of good will and good-guyness, a dash of enthusiasm, and a pinch of knowingness— Cool J went from talking about Houston to amping up the rest of the show, Adele included, without making it seem creepy or opportunistic. LL barely did any hosting after this opening segment, but it was the hardest part of the show and he nailed it: He came onstage and suddenly it became apparent there was going to be a way to do this Grammys without disgracing anyone. -WP
2. Jennifer Hudson did good, but the Whitney memorial wasn’t great.
Whitney was shouted out a number of times during the show— Alicia Keyes and Bonnie Raitt mentioned her before their tribute to Etta James; Rihanna exhorted the crowd to “Make some noise for Whitney”: When introducing Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder said, “To Whitney up in heaven, we all love you Whitney”— but the major tribute happened at the end of the in memoriam segment (the only significant time Amy Winehouse was mentioned all night) which segued directly into Jennifer Hudson’s performance of “I Will Always Love You.” Hudson, who reportedly was very emotional rehearsing earlier today, had a very tough job to do, and she acquitted herself admirably. She sounded good and she obviously took the proceedings seriously. But this sort of homage is very complicated: It’s extremely bittersweet to watch anyone other than Houston perform this song. Dolly Parton may have written it, but it belongs to Houston, and the only thing sadder than watching someone very talented singing it not quite as well as Whitney— there will never be anyone on the planet who sings this song as well as Whitney, which is a huge part of why her loss is so great— would be watching someone very talented singing it just as well as Whitney— there should never be anyone on the planet who sings this song as well as Whitney, or her loss doesn’t mean as much as we all feel sure that it does. Hudson is totally blameless for the fact that her performance left something to be desired, seeing as she did exactly what was asked of her and she did it very well. Given the time constraints, this performance was a very respectful (and with more time the Grammys probably would have just come up with a more questionable, over-stuffed spectacle). Still, if we’d been on the Grammy’s advisory board, we might have suggested that they have Hudson ask everyone in the auditorium to sing along: They may not have been able to hit the high notes, but they all know the words, and those two things taken together basically add up to Whitney’s legacy. -WP
3. Adele’s Triumphant Return
The other major reason tonight was a success: Adele, the lovable, adorable, humble Adele. In addition to winning every major award, Adele made her post-surgery live-singing comeback with “Rolling in the Deep,” and no surprise — she killed it. Though her voice maybe sounded different (could that just be our deepest Adele-related fears, making themselves heard one last time?), she landed the big notes with ease, and more importantly, she seemed to be having fun. That giggle at the end of her performance? Delightful, and a recurring feature in every acceptance speech until Best Album, when the enormity of the night seemed to catch up with her. Then she sweetly thanked her mom and started crying. Adele! The classiest. Welcome back.-AD
4. That Insane “Dance Tribute” Was Very Poorly Timed
Of all the ways to schedule this nearly four-hour show, we do not believe that switching from the somber Whitney Houston tribute to a insane rainbow-lit Skrillex/Foo Fighters/David Guetta/LilWayne set was the best option on the table. What happened here? How did no one realize what a jarring transition J-Hud to Deadmau5 would be? We’ve never found ourselves wishing for a LMFAO performance before, but it would have been soothing in comparison. To further complicate matters, Chris Brown was invited back to participate in this bizarro electronica/dance tribute–his second performance of the night. There were several repeat appearances at this ceremony (the Foo Fighters, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen at the end) but Brown’s double-feature is unsettling for all the obvious, assault-related reasons. None of this sat well.-AD
5. There were lots of old guys hanging out.
There were a lot of older male musicians at tonight’s Grammys, and they spent a lot of time jamming on the stage! Congrats to Paul McCartney for rebounding from the worst of the Old Guy segments (a lackluster, seated rendition of his new single “My Valentine”) to deliver the best of the Old Guy performances: an enthusiastic rendition of “The End” with backup from Dave Grohl, Bruce Springsteen, and Paul Shaffer. The night’s other star OG moment belonged to Glen Campbell, who accepted a Lifetime Achievement award and then pulled out “Rhinestone Cowboy” for the audience. Less successful: Tony Bennett’s short, sort of dull duet with Carrie Underwood, and the Maroon 5–Foster the People–Beach Boys supergroup experiment. The Beach Boys themselves were just fine, if a little weathered, but why on Earth did the Foster the People singer look so scared? That poor guy needed a hug from Mike Love so badly. -AD
6. Bon Iver is your adorable best not new new artist.
Justin Vernon and pals also took home the award for Best Alternative Album, but Vernon’s televised acceptance speech came in the Best New Artist category. Despite his very vocal doubts about the Grammys, and despite the fact that he has released two critically adored albums, and is by no normal definition a “new” artist, Vernon bounded up on the stage, notes in hand, and proceeded to give a very earnest and humble acceptance speech. (To the voters: “Sweet hook up.”) His rumpled, Midwestern-college-professor suit didn’t hurt. In case you’re curious: The Who’s Bon Iver Tumblr is in fact already up and running. Related: Who Is Bonnie Bear? -AD
7. Nicki Minaj can out-Gaga Gaga.
Where out-Gaga-ing Gaga means performing a giant, complex, quasi-religious spectacle loosely inspired by Madonna and intended to make someone, somewhere uncomfortable. Unfortunately, Minaj wasn’t singing a song nearly as catchy as any of Gaga’s. -WP