Houston Tributes and Genre Battles Dominate Grammys
Nicki Minaj

Nicki Minaj performs at the 54th Annual GRAMMY Awards, Los Angeles, Calif., February 2012. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

As the mainstream music industry crawls across the 21st Century, still apparently confused as to how to coexist with the internet, the Grammys are increasingly a flashpoint where old and new intersect, awkwardly. This is usually exemplified every year when Neil Portnow, president of NARAS, appears to deliver a stern speech over his glasses about how internet piracy is destroying musicians and, more importantly to him, the music industry as we used to know it. While Portnow did deliver his grim soliloquy, this year he was not the most obvious rickety gauge of old vs. new. That honor went to Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, who accepted his band’s Best Rock Album award with an appropriately rockist speech: “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,” he said. “It’s not about being perfect, it’s not about sounding absolutely correct, it’s not about what goes on in a computer. It’s about what goes on in [your heart] and what goes on in [your head].” On cue, Grohl was cut off by the sound of music: “Party Rock Anthem,” LMFAO’s ubiquitous techno dance smash, which was most certainly made using the cold dead circuits of a machine. Someone should tell Grohl that it’s not the instruments you use, but whether the music translates to people.

“There was so much drama nerd on display, with Minaj flashing every wild-eyed face in her arsenal, before the awesomely sacrilege segment where she levitated to the sound of Christmas carol “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.” Bizarre? Totally.”

The underlying tension between rock and dance music dominated the night, as even the biggest rap artist performing (Lil Wayne) had to share the stage with a dubstep party (Deadmau5). Mainstream America fell in love with raves last year, and the proceedings reflected it: David Guetta got a cameo, Skrillex was up for Best New Artist, Katy Perry’s awesome new song has a big-room house undertone. The starkest example of techno’s 2011 takeover, though, was during Rihanna’s set. She performed the Calvin Harris-penned diva-house anthem “We Found Love” looking like ‘90s T-Boz in a tuff suit, backed up by a laser-light show and a cadre of banjee dancers… and when it was time to collaborate with Coldplay, even though the tempo slowed to a snail’s pace, the Brit boys flashed a Stephen Sprouse-like neon backdrop and gave everyone in the audience glowsticks. (Well, they were bracelets, but still.) Contrast their set with that of Taylor Swift, who tried to make the Great Depression cutesy with a Dust Bowl set and a Rodarte gown, or the three stalwart performances of the Foo Fighters, who seemed like they alone were holding the torch for throwback guitar rock and, well, let’s just say a dance party will always win.

But of course it was also R&B’s night, too: Whitney Houston was at the front of everyone’s minds. Engaging, classy host LL Cool J began the show with a prayer for Houston, and Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of “I Will Always Love You” could not have been more perfect, despite the heft of the task of singing the difficult signature song of a beloved artist who had died just 24 hours before. It was a beautiful tribute, as was the one for Etta James, in which Alicia Keys and Bonnie Raitt traded bars on “Sunday Kind of Love.” (Bonnie bodied, but Alicia stayed afloat.) And, of course, Adele—the world’s most beloved scorned woman—took it all home, both with her perfect performance of “Rolling in the Deep,” unscathed despite her recent recovery from vocal surgery, and six awards, including Best Album, Record, and Song. Her sweet acceptance speech for Album of the Year was dotted with tears, and could have been a lesson to Taylor Swift in how to do believable humility.

With all the production and brouhaha, though, it seemed Soul Train innovator Don Cornelius got lost in the eulogies mix: he did not show up in the slideshow of those music lost last year, and his only remembrance was a tossed-off seeming reference to dance parties before Chris Brown, Best R&B Album winner and perennial brat, performed his second time that night, to the chagrin of many. (Brown was invited back to the Grammys after a two-year hiatus, with NARAS saying they felt he had been sufficiently exiled after he brutally beat his ex-girlfriend Rihanna. If NARAS was feeling his remorse, they haven’t been reading his Twitter feed.)

But that wasn’t the only travesty of the night: in the category of Best New Artist, Midwestern mumbler Bon Iver was a surprise winner, and didn’t even seem like he wanted it. (“Sweet hook-up” is the absolutely the bro-iest thing anyone has ever said on the Grammy stage.) It felt like a slap in the face to nominees Skrillex, the dance star whose music appeals across genres, and to Nicki Minaj, who is… well, one of the biggest rappers on the planet. But lest we forget the latter’s a battle rapper, she got back at everybody in the most interesting, weird, confusing and awesome to watch performance of the night, for new song “Roman Holiday.”

Minaj had confused everyone earlier by showing up on the red carpet wearing a cardinal-colored Spanish habit and towing along an old white man dressed as the Pope. (Also, constant companion SB who, no matter what wild get-up Minaj is wearing, will reliably be dressed in a t-shirt, fitted, and jeans.) The big reveal: Minaj was going to stage an exorcism in the Staples Center, right there in front of everyone. She began by doing a juiced-up version of “Roman’s Revenge” in a makeshift confessional booth, but midway through became possessed… by the ghost of Natalie Wood, apparently, because she launched into “I Feel Pretty,” from West Side Story. Then it was time to make use of that LaGuardia High School diploma: riffing on The Exorcist, she appeared handcuffed and surrounded by dancers dressed as monks. The chorus “Roman Holiday” sounds like it was ripped from a Sondheim musical (namely, “Sweeney Todd”) and leads us to believe Minaj has been bumping classic hits from Queen. But the rap is classic Minaj—barbs out her mouth for the Barbs, i.e. “Worship the queen and you might come pass/ Keep it real, these chicks couldn`t wipe my…” There was so much drama nerd on display, with Minaj flashing every wild-eyed face in her arsenal, before the awesomely sacrilege segment where she levitated to the sound of Christmas carol “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.” Bizarre? Totally, but it was the utter and unfiltered manifestation of Nicki Minaj, who can do any outre thing she pleases and her fans will follow. The best part? She performed the whole thing while still wearing her Coldplay rave bracelets. Signifiers are everything.

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