The Reverent, Ridiculous Grammys

Both in its tributes to Whitney Houston and its strange slate of performances, the Grammys made its annual bid for respectability, the one thing it'll never have.

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AP Images

Heads down, hands clasped, lights dimmed: The Grammys opened in the only way it could. The news of once-reigning superstar Whitney Houston's death had hit only 24 hours earlier, and what else was to be done? After Bruce Springsteen's competent rendition of "We Take Care of Our Own," host LL Cool J acknowledged the burden he and all the room now shouldered—"There is no way around this: We had a death in our family"—and addressed it in the manner that deaths everywhere are. Heads down, hands clasped, lights dimmed. Prayer. Words of praise. Remembrance. Respect.

Respect is a funny concept within the context of the Grammy Awards, an event that's long been at odds with itself over, and obsessed with, the notion of "respectability." As a show dedicated to pop-culture's most woolly, weird, fractured form—music—its ceremonies have blended unbearable self-regard and pomp with cringe-making bids for youth-culture relevance. It's an idea of respect that's two-fold: There's the idealized construct of "respect"—propagating the canard of "real music" vs. "fake music," carting out unimpeachable elders—and there's the respect that comes from being seen as supportive of the music that's changing listening habits today.

Sunday night's ceremony was typically schizo, if even more tedious than usual—seemingly programmed for max snooziness even before Saturday's horrible news brought spirits down. Springsteen's new single is a fine, sturdy song, but doesn't have the kick you'd think an opener here would need. Paul McCartney's first stage performance, of "My Valentine," was a lullaby. Even the cool-kids collaborative set of Rihanna and Coldplay didn't energize—well, Rihanna's did, and then the Brits showed up.

There were moments of legitimate greatness: Adele's 90-percent-recovered performance of her smashing "Rolling in the Deep" after vocal surgery; the smiling Glen Campbell, afflicted by Alzheimer's but still charismatic, taking to the stage for "Rhinestone Cowboy" with well-done accompaniment by The Band Perry and Blake Shelton. Even the Beach Boys reunion with the help of Maroon 5 and Foster the People—a combination that reads on paper like a train wreck and indeed appeared horrendously awkward on stage—resolved itself with a nice-sounding, appropriately weird-looking rendition of "Good Vibrations."

But as always, the real entertainment came from rubber-necking at when the self-importance on stage deflates. The Foo Fighters were particularly insufferable. They're a major-label, arena-selling act that the Academy is so taken with that it booked its members to perform thrice and awarded them every major rock prize. Yet there they were, billed as outsiders—you could tell by the fact that they played in a tent outside the arena—being introduced by Jack Black yawling about their "indie cred." And there was Dave Grohl, accepting his band's Best Rock Album win, preaching about the "human element" in music, implicitly backhanding half of the talent in the room: "Singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument and learning to do your craft, that's the most important thing for people to do... It's not about what goes on in a computer." And minutes later, there they were happily back in the tent, performing as part of a ridiculous rave medley alongside electro-helmeted dubstep DJ Deadmau5—who makes all his music, yes, "in a computer."

And what of the loss hanging, inescapably, above everything? Was Whitney given the full respect she deserves? Here is where "respect" falters as a meaningful concept in pop culture. To be sure, Jennifer Hudson's rendition of "I Will Always Love You" will be talked about for a long time, and with good reason. It was stark and appropriate; its imperfections only highlighted Houston's matchless talent, and Hudson's well-placed sob before the final chorus certainly provoked other sobs in living rooms nationwide.

Then, though, after the Grammys, the CBS affiliate here in DC dove right into punditry. The critic on screen—I didn't catch her name—said she wanted to see more attention given to Houston: a tribute from Mariah Carey or Beyonce, she suggested, or both. I saw that reaction on Twitter as well. When I think of the Houston I've been watching in videos since her death, I think of the smile, the exuberance, and the effortlessness. All of dance pop has been trying, and failing, since 1987 to match "I Want to Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)." There was no acknowledgement or recreation of that exuberance Sunday night.

But we grieve in our own ways, and so people will rarely come to terms with one another about how grief should be performed. The Grammy producers had nearly no time to come up with more. What they provided was moving. We can all, at least, agree on the way the night began—in the manner we've always agreed to pay respect to those who are gone.