Grammys: Beyonce outshines performances by Katy Perry, Madonna, Sia, Sam Smith

Given the amount of uptempo pop music that dominates the charts these days, the Grammys were unusually moody this year, both in terms of their winners and their performances. If you followed the social media response like I did, perhaps you also saw the word “boring” pop up more than once (in-between 101 “Grand Budapest Pharrell” jokes). But I’m not sure I agree with that assessment.

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I tend to think a musical performance improves in inverse proportion to how much bombast there is in it. That’s why I much preferred Bruno Mars‘s showstopping 2014 Super Bowl performance to Katy Perry‘s parade of giant tigers, costume sharks, and shooting stars. Great performances can be enhanced by grand spectacle, but grand spectacle by itself doesn’t make a great performance, so a nicely stripped down collection of slow songs was a welcome change of pace.

Consider that some of this year’s best performances were the simplest. Beyonce was easily my highlight of the night, performing Mahalia Jackson‘s gospel classic “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” to close the night. It was staged simply, with Beyonce dressed in white and framed by a symmetrical tableau of background singers. It was my favorite vocal, the most emotionally resonant, and though there was nothing small about Beyonce’s singing, it still felt nicely restrained, letting the song be the star. They should consider giving her a Grammy or something – or 20.

She could have taught Katy Perry a thing or two. She of the trending halftime sharks took her own stab at Serious Artist cred with a performance of “By the Grace of God” as a tribute to the survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault. Also dressed in white from head to toe, she performed in front of a white screen where shadows danced, but it seemed more self-conscious and less compelling, despite wearing its well-intentioned heart on its sleeve.

But that was better than Madonna, who showed the greatest gulf between the amount of production and the quality of performance. She debuted a new song, “Living for Love,” in an extensively choreographed production number featuring background dancers wearing bull horns, but the song itself was forgettable, her voice has been better, and even some of the dancing felt awkward. She may have been trying harder than anyone else on that Grammy stage – and who can blame her: she’s been responsible for some of the most memorable music performances on live TV, but this wasn’t one of them.

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Take it from Annie Lennox, who turned out to be one of the liveliest acts of the night, joining Song of the Year nominee Hozier for an excellent rendition of his “Take Me to Church” before blowing him off the stage by belting out “I Put a Spell on You.” One of the highlights of the night, without any bull – literal or figurative.

That was probably the best of this year’s artist collaborations, which have become a tradition at the Grammys, though they’re always a mixed bag. Some you can tell will work before even hearing a single note, like Lennox and Hozier, while for others you’re crossing your fingers, like Jessie J and Tom Jones, whose duet of “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” went better than I would have guessed it would.

Ed Sheeran and John Mayer were perfectly compatible on Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” – though I got a bit of a sneak preview of them last week when Mayer guest hosted “The Late Late Show” and featured Sheeran as a musical guest.

And bringing Mary J. Blige on to sing “Stay with Me” with Sam Smith was an inspired idea, so much so that I’m still kind of waiting for that performance to happen. Blige is a powerhouse vocalist – remember her “No More Drama” performance at the 2002 Grammys? – but she held back during their duet, letting Smith take center stage. That’s all well and good; Smith himself is an outstanding singer. But not letting Blige belt out a soaring, gospel-tinged ballad like “Stay with Me” at full strength is like buying a sports car and leaving it parked in the driveway.

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Other duets were just okay. Gwen Stefani and Adam Levine sounded mostly fine on “My Heart is Open,” but it played more like a promo for “The Voice” than a truly memorable duet. And though Rihanna gave one of the strongest performances I’ve seen from her on her new song “Four Five Seconds” with Kanye West, they were joined by Paul McCartney, who looked like he felt as out of place as he was.

Just after his surprise win for Album of the Year, the pressure was on for Beck‘s performance of “Heart is a Drum” with Coldplay‘s Chris Martin. They were solid, but this was the one performance of the night where I wish they’d have cranked it up a notch, because the man who just won the night’s top award felt like an anticlimax on stage.

One of the strangest collaborations wasn’t between two musicians. It was Sia and Kristen Wiig. I’ll admit, though I count myself as a Sia fan, I’m never sure exactly what she’s getting at with the performance-art pieces she stages in lieu of showing her face, but in this case I’ll make an exception. With Maddie Ziegler, the young dancer who has appeared in Sia’s music videos, Wiig danced throughout a rundown-apartment set while Sia sang “Chandelier” with her back to the crowd. Ziegler has always been a consistently expressive interpreter of Sia’s music, and Wiig matched her.

Strange? For sure, but it was one of the night’s most memorable moments – and memorable in a good way.

What were your favorite Grammy moments? Do you agree that Beyonce gave the performance of the night? Am I being too hard on Madonna? Comment below, or visit our message board to chime in on this year’s winners and losers.

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