If you’re the sort of person who watches Grammys 2013 looking for clues (usually, this entails having money riding on them), last night’s ceremony offered plenty to the Mumfordish sweep that’d ensue. You could have looked at the nominations slate, noting who triumphed where and why. You could have cited, in particular, Adele beating roughly a third of pop radio — including the semi-charmed “Call Me Maybe” — for a live version of a song from an album already thoroughly acclaimed. You could note the dress code: either couture or suspenders. Or you could note how everyone mined their discographies for the songs most sepia. Sometimes it was literal — as in Justin Timberlake, whose “Suit & Tie” was staged with the sort of old-timey filter that made every Twitter wag cry, in unison, “Instagrammies!” More often, it was in spirit. Miranda Lambert did her single that sounds like a Tom Petty song. Maroon 5 did their one single that could plausibly have Alicia Keys and a band involved. Even Rihanna, not exactly known for roots music, glummed it up with piano ballad “Stay” (to be fair, it’s her current single); only a quick cut to Chris Brown at the end betrayed the controversy fire-geyser that’s her public image. Bruno Mars, who’d mined this schtick back when it was schtick, was right at home. So was British artist Ed Sheeran, who joined Elton John for his breakout single “The A Team”: a very earnest, very acoustic tale of a hooker with a heart of songwriting device. Aside from Taylor Swift staging “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” like Tim Burton’s Alice jilting the White Rabbit on his very important date, or possibly Johnny Depp wearing his hair in that way that stands in for edginess, nothing even tried for the spectacle, self-conscious as it may have been, of the past couple years, of Lady Gaga in an egg or Nicki Minaj exorcising everything. (This year, instead, the Pope resigned. I’m not necessarily saying the two are related.)
Meanwhile, Frank Ocean — the person everyone originally thought would sweep, back when nominations were announced — got about as much shine as he possibly could, which is to say not much at all. It wasn’t for lack of hype; his potential Grammy Moment was hepped up with all manner of Promo Moments until the moment was more or less doomed to collapse under the momentous weight. It wasn’t necessarily his performance; while “Forrest Gump” came off pretty much as pitchy as everyone’s said, few care that Ocean’s no less flat on recording. It might’ve been the track, a little bit. Ocean reportedly insisted on choosing his own song, which is fair enough — but it’s unnerving how well “Forrest Gump” hews to the placid party line, compared to more dynamic singles “Super Rich Kids” or “Pyramids” (which would’ve been totally doable; John Mayer was already there!) or actually nominated song “Thinkin’ Bout You,” which is sumptuous not like a slow ballad but a slow jam, as in R&B.
Which was expected enough; as we predicted, the genre was all but shut out. Ocean won for his hook on Kanye/Jay collaboration “No Church in the Wild,” which is a little like a sound mixing win for The Lord of the Rings, and he took the Urban Contemporary category designed for three purposes: to make Frank Ocean win, to make Chris Brown lose, and to cordon off any R&B act that might be relevant to the genre in the 2010s. The big casualty there was Miguel, who won one unaired award and, frankly, was lucky to get a performance. Even that could easily have been the night’s most stunning moment, for the falsetto alone, had it not been adulterated by remix guest Wiz Khalifa as Miguel and the audience’s third wheel. (Kelly Clarkson was nevertheless moved enough to shout Miguel out and suggest a duet, which is charming if you suspend disbelief that she hadn’t heard of him before and that an actual Kelly/Miguel duet wouldn’t sound like B.o.B.) But at least Miguel got airtime, which is more than the actual R&B category could claim. Massive hits “Climax” and “Love on Top” both took home Grammys, a fact you may well be learning right now. Hip hop, meanwhile, you can pretty much forget about; the Grammys did. Yes, it probably would’ve been slightly awkward to announce the multiple wins for the Throne’s censor-baiting “Paris” — even though Jay-Z already told everyone how to handle its title — but that doesn’t explain rap artists’ near-total absence from the ceremony itself, even compared to their near-total absence in the nominations. You could count Jay-Z’s verse on “Suit & Tie,” though that was short and so inert it passed the Bonnaroo comeback stage and the Vegas revival stage and ended up at, well, the Grammys. You could’ve counted LL Cool J, not for his mild-mannered hosting but for his closing performance with Chuck D, Tom Morello, Travis Barker and mashup DJ Z-Trip (a possible “Novacane” joke, if you think this show would make that joke). But then came the final slight: cutting their performance short to air successive Hilton and Delta commercials, like some Mad TV skit about where the Grammys’ priorities really lie.
There was, of course, no way this wouldn’t happen. As The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica pointed out this time around, complaining about the Grammys is its own annual tradition, as is complaining about complaining about the Grammys. It isn’t that there are no stakes — Grammy winners reliably receive sales spikes, as Mumford & Sons in particular have learned well and will learn a new; they almost certainly influence A&R and songwriting trends; and Grammy nominations and wins are still ready statistics for artists, representatives and historians to rattle off as shorthand for lifetime accomplishment. It doesn’t matter what they actually signify. Nor does it matter that musical inertia is built into both the nomination process, which thanks to its voter base rewards legacy acts, and into the ceremony, which thanks to its viewer base skews wholesome enough for prime time and turns tributes into retromania. It’s like an entirely separate musical world: one that reflects the best-sellers well enough but one that remains stubbornly whitewashed. The funniest moment of the night was also the most prescient: Jay-Z making a crack about The-Dream wearing a beanie with a Parental Advisory sticker. “I’d like to thank the swap meet for his hat,” he joked — but he could equally well have thanked all the risky, relevant records that, on this night in this parallel music history, weren’t relevant at all.