Some Grammy performances are classic. Among those that left an impression on me in recent years were Mary J. Blige's searing "No More Drama" in 2001, a post-chemotherapy Melissa Etheridge's full-throated take on Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart" in 2005, and Jennifer Hudson's restrained "I Will Always Love You" following Whitney Houston's death last year. Moments like those can't be planned or announced. They are the result of the right combination of song, artist, and circumstance.
But this year's Grammys, intent on catching lightning in every bottle, introduced each performance as an iconic "moment" in the making, which all but guaranteed there wouldn't be one. For instance, they assured us Maroon 5's collaboration with Alicia Keys would be one for the ages. Instead the artists performed their current hits, "Daylight" and "Girl on Fire," respectively, with their styles wedged uncomfortably together.
The Grammys have a history of pairing incongruous artists. Sometimes those pairings are meaningful, but other times they seem like a producer throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks, and the success rate is about what you'd expect.
Ed Sheeran performing his nominated song "The A Team" with Elton John? Sheeran sounded great, though John proved not to be a natural fit for that particular tune. Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley? They're both country artists and thus more musically compatible, but their songs – her "Over You" and his "Home" – were awkwardly joined and would have been better served by separate performances.
But others worked. Sting and Bruno Mars, on the surface, don't seem like a good match, but drawing from their reggae influences to deliver a medley of "Locked Out of Heaven," "Walking on the Moon," and "Could You Be Loved" in tribute to Bob Marley was surprisingly effective. And a performance of the Band's "The Weight" to honor the late Levon Helm worked as well as it did because the assembled artists – modern Americana all-stars Zac Brown Band, Mumford and Sons, Mavis Staples, T Bone Burnett, and Alabama Shakes – were relevant not only to Helm but to each other, producing a cohesive sound.
But the best performances came from artists simply doing what they do best. The Black Keys delivered an excellent "Lonely Boy" with a New Orleans inflection courtesy of guest performers Dr. John and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, while The Lumineers, armed with nothing but themselves and their instruments, delivered a lovely, understated version of "Ho Hey." Frank Ocean's "Forrest Gump" was unusual – quiet, somber, performed in front of a video backdrop – but he had a haunting emotional presence.
Kelly Clarkson honored late artist Patti Page and Carole King by performing "Tennessee Waltz" and "Natural Woman" accompanied by guitar and piano. The stripped-down performance allowed her to showcase her vocal strength better than most of her studio tracks, which often bury her under heavy production.
Clarkson was also the night's most entertaining winner. Shocked to win Best Pop Album for "Stronger" (as were most of us), she embraced seemingly the entire front row of the Staples Center, in the process getting herself caught in Miranda Lambert's ornate dress. And once on stage, her speech had a giddy exuberance one wouldn't expect from a relative veteran winning her third Grammy for her fifth studio album. More than anyone else, she seemed happy just to be there.
In her speech Clarkson also praised the "sexy" performance of Miguel, which was hampered by an overbooked telecast. Perhaps lacking a better place in the schedule to accommodate him, he was made to sing his winning R&B song "Adorn" by walking to the stage from the aisle – accompanied by Wiz Khalifa, dressed like a lost zebra – and then presenting, of all categories, Best Country Solo Performance.
The hype behind Justin Timberlake's return to music has seemed mostly the creation of a well oiled publicity machine, so I wasn't expecting greatness from his performance of new material on the Grammy stage. Indeed, "Suit and Tie" felt a bit routine – cue obligatory Jay-Z rap verse – but he made up for that by employing his terrific falsetto on the more adventurous "Pusher Love Girl."
The best performer of the night was Jack White, ironically one of the few artists shut out of an awards show that spread the wealth. He performed a twangy rendition of "Love Interruption" with an all-girl band – including sultry singer Ruby Amanfu, who almost outshined him – which led into an unbridled version of "Freedom at 21." He showed that capturing a Grammy "moment" was less about eccentric artist mash-ups and more about unleashing an artist who knows how to work the stage.