For a Grammy performance that was literally show-stopping, it was hard to top Chris Brown’s early Sunday cock-up — the R&B singer turned himself in on an alleged domestic violence felony battery charge against an unidentified “female victim” who had “visible injuries.” Brown and girlfriend Rihanna turned up at Clive Davis’ pre-Grammy party, but both canceled their performances and Brown was later questioned by detectives. Considering the telecast felt like it lasted longer than the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards, and a tax audit combined, their talents weren’t missed.
But the 51st Annual Grammy Awards featured the usual bewildering array of extended grotesquerie and fleeting brilliance, so here’s SPIN’s ranking of all 25 performances (from best to worst); and no, we’re not counting the unnervingly festive appearance by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (“the star of Race to Witch Mountain) who proclaimed: “The Grammys are a way of life — to me, ‘Grammy’ stands for ‘Great Artists Making Music, Yes!'” as he shook a fist and flashed a blinding, white-capped grin. Then, even more frighteningly, he added: “The very first thing I did when I got here today was, ‘I kissed a girl and I liked it!'” Hopefully he showed better discretion afterwards than Chris Breezy.
P.S., All the best to Whitney Houston, who continues to be the most disturbingly unhinged person allowed extended airtime on American television. It’s amazing that she gets a standing ovation for pulling herself together and potentially staging a comeback, even though she looks like Mrs. Robinson wandering onto an episode of Intervention and flashing a little leg (“Thank you, Bono, I knew I should have worn my boots!” in reference to U2’s performance of their new single “Get on Your Boots.”). Can Clive Davis really be proud of how all this turned out? Did the check clear?
Now, on with the rankings….
1. Lil Wayne feat. Robin Thicke, Allen Toussaint, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and Terence Blanchard, “Tie My Hands”
More a tribute to New Orleans, and a much-needed reminder of the ongoing post-Katrina devastation, than a celebration of any one musician, this intergenerational free-for-all — loosely presided over by Wayne, dressed simply in t-shirt, jeans, and unlaced high-tops — took the Grammys away from its orgy of self-congratulation and attempted to remind everybody that the world outside the Staples Center is largely fucked. After Weezy took off his shades and rapped, “My whole city underwater, some people still floatin’ / And they wonder why black people still votin'” (as images of flood damage scrolled by), the whole show took on a tone of significance that seemed impossible back when hapless wigger Jay Mohr was mugging with LL Cool J and shouting, “Farmer’s Boulevard!” for no damn reason and so-called comedian Craig Ferguson was claiming to have once been a menacing Glasgow punk rocker. Eventually, the performance went full-on Nawlins, with Allen Toussaint giving his classy spin on second-line piano and the Dirty Dozen Brass band blasting away with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, while Weezy sashayed across the stage, chanting “Feets don’t fail me now” over and over. Then he won Best Rap Album. A rare moment of Grammy clarity.
2. Carrie Underwood, “Last Name”
Wearing an inexplicably dazzling peach-colored combo of flouncy top, hot pants, bondage gear, and glittery heels, and backed by what seemed to be a hellish mash-up of Fallout Boy, Poison, and Maroon 5, Underwood howled this tale of Cuervo-related, anonymous cheap Pinto sex and quickie Vegas marriage with such force and undulating glee (accompanied by en fuego blonde guitar shredder Orianthi Panagaris) that she seemed to scare the poor Jonas Bros. shitless. Burnin’ up? Underwood lit a match to the boys’ precious coifs and strutted off giggling.
3. M.I.A., Kanye, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, and T.I., “Swagga Like Us”
Why did a hugely pregnant M.I.A. still perform, even though she was scheduled to deliver her baby at any time? Because she knew that while she may have other children, she may never get another chance to perform at the Grammys, and especially not with the tuxedo’d (Weezy rocked a skinny white tie and plaid scarf, just cuz) hip-hop “Rap Pack” (so dubbed after a Lifetime Achievement Award for Dean Martin). All in all, the performance was an indecipherable mess — with nobody really nailing their verse — but it was also amazingly entertaining, since there appeared to be not a trace of love or camaraderie between anybody on the stage, which considering the egos involved, was oddly reassuring.
4. Radiohead, “15 Steps”
Solemn guitarist Johnny Greenwood and a shockingly animated Thom Yorke — sporting what looked like the signature “Keith Urban” special from the Nashville Supercuts — gave “15 Steps” a vibrant makeover, joined by the University of Southern California Trojan “Spirit of Troy” Marching Band, which celebrated the 30th anniversary of a pop career that started in 1979 backing Fleetwood Mac on Tusk and has continued into collabos with Michael Jackson, Outkast, George Clinton, the Offspring, Diana Ross, and many others. On a side note, what’s up with Gwyneth Paltrow drooling all over Radiohead (“One of the most influential, adventurous, and thoroughly artistic musical groups of all time”), while being spotted nowhere near Chris Martin? The only thing missing from that quote was “…unlike Coldplay.” Shady.
5. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss feat. T-Bone Burnett, “Rich Woman” and “Gone Gone Gone”
Both their voices sound wonderful, and T-Bone Burnett makes a surprisingly haunting racket on his guitar, but don’t you get the sense that Alison Krauss is constantly fighting off tides of embarrassment every time Plant does anything vaguely Zeppelin-like? Poor Percy, even in his sixties, he’s still a freak, babbling on in acceptance speeches about “the heart of the American underworld of rhythm and blues and shimmy.” God bless him.
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6. Chris Martin and Jay-Z, “Lost”
Chris Martin, in his military style jacket with the Craft Castle fringe, sits apart from the band at an electric piano on a riser out in the crowd, plinking away. But then up pops Jay! Busting out his depressingly complex rhyme from the Viva La Hova mixtape, he drops lines about Martin and Malcolm and Biggie and ‘Pac and Caesar and Brutus and Bobby Brown and media crucifixion. It’s stunningly dense, but also, it’s like, why can’t he just stop campaigning already? Nobody’s denying your greatness. Let Weezy shine.
7. Jennifer Hudson, “You Pulled Me Through”
The song is an irredeemable dud, and Hudson oversings like a desperate Idol melisma-maniac, but by the end she’s in tears, and we all know why, and she deserves every break we can give her. And that black sequined dress is an unnatural wonder.
8. Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus, “Fifteen”
Two teens, two stools, one acoustic guitar, and one of the year’s best pop tunes. But you get the feeling that if Taylor didn’t look like a model, Nashville would never let sing her own songs, because every time she’s performed on television, her voice has wavered on the verge of falling off-key at any moment, and Miley, bursting with twangy shtick and bad makeup, sounds way better, though maybe Taylor’s fallibility is what makes her so lovable. Regardless, when you can write a song this good, you get a pass.
9. T.I. and Justin Timberlake, “Dead and Gone”
Samuel L. Jackson’s bizarre “man-love” intro of his scarf-wearing “buddy” JT is even creepier than his character’s sleazeball antics in Black Snake Moan. T.I., meanwhile, rips the troubadouresque lyrics like his next case depended on it.
10. Coldplay, “Viva La Vida”
Post Jay-Z, Martin bounds up onstage and does his goony little dancing and squatting, weirdly exposing his midriff, while tympani synth strings resound with no guitar in sight. Diddy’s on his feet. Rock’n’roll has never felt (more/less) vital.
11. Al Green feat. Justin, Boyz II Men, Keith Urban, “Let’s Stay Together”
Al Green is still motherfucking Al Green and even though he can look adrift behind those shades, he occasionally hits a chilling note like nobody’s biz; but the Justin Timberlake factor is a bit much. The whole Memphis homeboy intro is endless and baffling. First question, exactly where, back in the day in Memphis, is Al Green living down the street from Justin and going to a “general store” where they sell bait and tackle and burgers (and where a young Justin would meet him)? “I haven’t seen the Rev. at the general store lately,” says JT wistfully. Huh?
12. Kid Rock, “Amen”/ “All Summer Long”/ “Rock and Roll Jesus”
Kid Rock is singing “Amen” while Arabic writing appears on a giant screen behind him. Draw your own conclusions. At least he shouts out late Skynyrd/ “Freebird” pianist Billy Powell. Then again, who won’t Kid Rock co-opt?
13. Kenny Chesney, “Better as a Memory”
Dim blue light, cowboy hat, acoustic guitar, self-effacing ballad, no bullshit. Too bad about that Morgan Freeman intro: “He’s a poet, a pirate, a dreamer, but most importantly, he’s a man I’m proud to call my friend.” Sheesh.
14. Paul McCartney feat. Dave Grohl, “I Saw Her Standing There”
Why is this song nominated again? Why is Grohl bashing away on drums? Why does everybody feel the need to constantly kiss Paul’s ass? And how do we get him to play something from Ram at Coachella? Constantly kiss his ass? Oh, all right.
15. U2, “Sexy Boots”
Trust me, this is the worst song on the new album, and why they’re parading it around as their reintroduction to the marketplace is beyond me. And just a word on the lyrics: Who is supposed to be putting on these sexy boots? Bono’s wife? Some composite hot teenager? Carrie Underwood? The Jonas Brothers? And what are they gonna do once they put them on? And is the biggest problem for someone putting on said sexy boots that they don’t know how beautiful they are? Note: Never put lyrics on a video screen unless it’s already universally acknowledged that they don’t suck. Especially if one of the lines is: “Satan loves a bomb scare but he won’t scare you.”
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16. Adele, “Chasing Pavements”
Norah Jones, your life is calling.
17. Neil Diamond, “Sweet Caroline”
Welcome to Branson, Missouri, complete with leering stepdad stage presence. If I gotta hear this, I’d rather be in Fenway.
18. Jonas Bros. and Stevie Wonder, “Burnin’ Up” and “Superstition”
Could Joe Jonas possibly be playing his guitar for real? I haven’t seen anybody piston an arm up and down that fast since a Jodie Foster’s Army show in the ’80s. And could Kevin please stop yelling, “Come on, Stevie!” every 30 seconds; it’s like a physical therapist is standing next to the keyboards.
19. Estelle feat. Kanye West, “American Boy”
Kanye, a.k.a., Martin Louis The King Jr., is wearing a ridiculous silver jacket pushed up to the elbows and black leather gloves and tight black pants and a freakin’ mullet and singing horribly off-key. Welcome to the future of pop! Estelle is wearing a silver sequined Hefty bag and seems to be singing the chorus with the aid of a guide track. Then Kanye complains that Bob Newhart won Best New Artist, but he didn’t. Think Newhart will come back at him with a gaybaiting diss track?
20. Sugarland, “Stay”
Somebody should tell Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles that Hee Haw went off the air years ago.
21. Jamie Foxx, Ne-Yo, Smokey Robinson, Duke Fakir, Four Tops tribute
Levi Stubbs was a god, so whateva whateva. But you know you’re in trouble when Jamie Foxx has the strongest pipes in the crew.
22. Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Keith Urban, John Mayer, Bo Diddley Tribute
If you wanna have all these dudes play guitar, fine, but every time John Mayer opens his mouth to sing, I feel transported to the American Airlines Admirals Club lounge where Capt. Stoneman and flight attendant Eakes are sharing domestic beers and domestic pressures between flights. Sometimes you can judge a book by the cover, Bo Diddley. Rest in peace, godfather.
23. Stevie Wonder, “All About the Love Again”
If there’s one thing the Grammys are definitely not about, it’s the love. Come on, Stevie!
24. Duffy and Al Green, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”
Duffy, please step away from the soul legend. It’s for everyone’s safety.
25. Katy Perry, “I Kissed a Girl”
Rendering all double entendres pointless once again, Katy Palin frolics amongst the produce section. She can’t dance, can’t sing, and has no charisma, but she sure knows how to ride a banana… ugh, sorry.