Performances by Adele and Jennifer Hudson highlight strong Grammys telecast

There’s something wonderfully aberrant about Adele‘s success in the last year. She’s not Rihanna-skinny. She doesn’t have Lady Gaga‘s wardrobe gimmicks or Katy Perry‘s overproduced pop sheen. She’s a young woman with a pure and classical-sounding voice writing love songs. Her success is in stark contrast to the music industry’s prefabricated star-making machine, and that’s what makes her such a gratifying woman to have at the top of the pop charts.

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But Adele’s brand of old-fashioned soul wasn’t the only style of music showcased at this year’s Grammys, which have the strange effect of making me excited about music to which I don’t typically listen. Much the same way the Olympics make me passionate about swimming and beach volleyball once every four years, the Grammys enlightened me to the merits of Bruno Mars with his doo-wop showmanship – his “Runaway Baby,” channeling James Brown, was a surprise highlight of the night – and even Nicki Minaj with her abject weirdness whose exorcism-themed “Roman Holiday” performance was wildly overwrought, but entertaining for its sheer audacity.

The diversity of talent was impressive and that, as usual, was the highlight of the Grammy show. Powerhouse vocalists like Adele, singing her Grammy-winning “Rolling in the Deep” and Jennifer Hudson – doing the late Whitney Houston justice with her austere rendition of “I Will Always Love You” – were followed by modern techno-artists David Guetta and Deadmau5. Current country stars The Band Perry and Blake Shelton paid tribute to the legendary Glen CampbellAlicia Keys and the always extraordinary Bonnie Raitt honored the memory of Etta James.

It’s hard not to let your imagination run wild and imagine other unusual pairings. Wouldn’t you love to hear how a gifted hip-hop writer and producer like Kanye West could channel Adele’s voice? If nothing else, it might help Kanye finally win a Grammy in the general field.

Some pairings worked better than others. I’m not sure even Maroon 5 or Foster the People understood what they were doing on-stage with the Beach Boys. Rihanna and Coldplay blended their unique vocals to awkward effect during their medley. And though the Foo Fighters gave a strong performance of “Walk” earlier in the show, their participation in the tribute to dance music was a head-scratcher.

Chris Brown performed not once, but twice. He’s clearly a talented dancer, but his musical contribution to his performances was dubious. Between auto-tuning and aggressive techno beats, he hardly needed to show up at all. This year, the Grammys drastically reduced the R&B categories, making it all the more surprising that his winning album, “F.A.M.E.,” was the best they could come up with. Katy Perry, a superior vocalist, is similarly drowned out by production; if I struggle to remember any of the notes of her two performed songs, it’s because it’s getting harder and harder to tell her songs apart.

Why not give that time over to The Civil Wars, who in their too-brief performance of their Country Duo/Group-winning song “Barton Hollow” took most of the other acts to school? Or allow Tony Bennett and Carrie Underwood‘s “It Had to Be You” to be more than an extended introduction to the Best New Artist category?

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The question hanging over the telecast was how it would address the sudden death of Whitney Houston the previous night. Would the event be shrouded in sorrow? Would celebration of victories seem inappropriate? The challenge was handled about as well as it could have been by LL Cool J, who had the unenviable task as Grammy host of acknowledging the loss while also encouraging celebration. After a brief, respectful prayer, he began the event with a show-must-go-on spirit and did not dwell on the tragedy until the respectful, powerful performance of Hudson during the In Memoriam segment.

Only eight categories were awarded during the telecast, prompting the eye-rolling of many. Isn’t this an awards show? Where are the actual awards? At most entertainment awards I would share that frustration; the Oscars and Emmys are too often packed with clip packages and forced comedy routines that serve as unnecessary filler.

But isn’t it more interesting to listen to performers sing than to hear them thank their agents and managers? Perhaps other award shows should follow suit. If Matthew Weiner wants to stage scenes from “Mad Men” during the Emmy telecast, all the better. If Jean Dujardin wants an Oscar for “The Artist,” make him tap dance for it. Maybe then viewers of those telecasts would be more interested in what’s being honored. They’d watch the nominated films and TiVo the nominated shows. Right now, I think I’ll listen to more Bruno Mars.

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