Review: Grammys try too hard, but succeed with Pink, Taylor Swift, Imagine Dragons

You can usually tell when the Grammys are trying too hard. They insist everything is a new “Grammy moment” we’ll remember for decades to come, stage performances of overproduced songs on an over-decorated stage, and arrange their usual mash-ups of famous singers whether they sound good together or not. We got more of the same this year.

Here’s the funny thing, though: this time it worked more often than I expected.

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Sure, there were moments that overreached, like Madonna with a pimp cane and cowboy hat singing a shaky rendition of “Open Your Heart” while a multi-ethnic group of gay and straight couples were married live following Macklemore and Ryan Lewis‘s “Same Love.” Whew!

Sweet, no doubt, for the couples involved, and encouraging to see the music community publicly celebrate equality, but it felt overly calculated. You could feel telecast producers insisting, “Grammy moment! Grammy moment!”

And during most musical performances, indeed, less was more. Katy Perry‘s “Dark Horse,” staged like a hip-hop video directed by Tim Burton, didn’t do as much for me as, for instance, John Legend‘s simple, perfect vocal while sitting at a piano for “All of Me.”

Taylor Swift, who often goes big on-stage, also toned it down, singing her emotionally wrought “All Too Well” in one of the best live performances I’ve seen her give; even when the accompanying band kicked into full gear, her surprisingly strong vocal didn’t get lost in it.

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Other performers succeeded by letting their music speak – or sing – for itself, like Lorde‘s haunting, echoing “Royals“; and country legends Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Merle Haggard performing a medley of classics with Blake Shelton.

You’d expect an elaborate production number from electronic dance music artists, but even Daft Punk were relatively subdued, performing their Record of the Year-winning “Get Lucky” with Pharrell Williams and Stevie Wonder.

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But sometimes going big worked too, as when Pink performed an impressive acrobatic routine hanging far above the audience – a reprise of her similar Grammy performance from 2010 – then came back down to earth for an equally athletic dance routine for her song “Try.” She finished by dueting with Nate Ruess on “Just Give Me a Reason.” The fact that she pulled it off while singing (perfectly) live made the rest of the Grammy lineup look woefully out of shape. The only misstep was Ruess’s distracting ’70s-porn-star mustache.

Going over the top also worked for Kendrick Lamar and Imagine Dragons. From the start I was prepared to hate the performance; it reeked of the Grammys’ obsession with grafting together incompatible music to manufacture more once-in-a-lifetime “moments.” So I was shocked at how well Lamar’s “M.A.A.D City” and Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” worked together, feeding off of each other’s energy and building to a thrilling crescendo. Even the blinding lights, smoke machines, and canons blasting colored dust felt appropriate; they had earned it.

I felt bad for poor Kacey Musgraves, though. She had to immediately follow that thrashing throw-down of a performance with her much more low-key “Follow Your Arrow,” with small neon cacti as her only decoration. The performance itself was lovely, but scheduling those songs back-to-back induced musical whiplash.

Other collaborations were a mixed bag, though they still worked better than usual. I wanted to like Carole King and Sara Bareilles more than I did. They’re both adult-contemporary singer-songwriters, so on paper their music seems compatible, but their vocal styles are so different that their duet of King’s “Beautiful” and Bareilles’s “Brave” wasn’t an ideal fit.

But I’m nitpicking. I still liked King and Bareilles, as I did the much more unusual pairings of Miranda Lambert and Green Day‘s Billie Joe Armstrong (“When Will I Be Loved?”), and Robin Thicke performing a medley with Chicago. I enjoyed them, they just didn’t take off the way Lamar and Imagine Dragons did, or the way Pink literally did.

So yes, Grammys, you got a couple of “moments” this time, but you don’t always have to throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks. Sometimes a good singer accompanied by a guitar or piano is all you need. Or, when in doubt, hang Pink from the ceiling.

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