Grammys 2016: Performances From Worst To Best
Hey, we made it through another year! This was the first year I can remember in which all five Album Of The Year nominees were, in one way or another, pretty good. And that led some of us to the foolish, optimistic belief that this could be a pretty good Grammy telecast. Nope! Never underestimate the Grammys’ ability to take good performers and turn them into leaden paragons of respectability. This year’s show saw so many acoustic-guitar lullabies that it’s a wonder anyone made it to the OK-they’re-just-trolling-us-now Pitbull/Travis Barker/Robin Thicke finale. The vast majority of the performances were pure, unalloyed garbage, with only a couple of bright spots buried in there. Let’s relive the horrorshow, in descending order of awfulness. (I’m not including half-performances, like Miguel’s sleepy Michael Jackson cover and the please-pay-for-music piano kid.)
19. Justin Bieber, Skrillex, & Diplo
Here is the problem with the Grammys in a nutshell. All these music-industry titans think that real music means utterly disemboweling everything that makes pop music special. Here, they have the people behind a couple of fun, exciting pop hits, and they completely destroy everything that was every good about them by trying to turn them into real music. They put a fucking acoustic guitar in Justin Bieber’s hands and turn him into a dorm-room troubadour. They sit Diplo behind a Mellotron and strap an axe on Skrillex, forcing them to become a half-assed rock band. And they turn something great into something deeply putrid.
18. Hollywood Vampires
Alice Cooper is one of the great hammerhead rock goons of all time. Someone please break him out of this giant moving Ed Hardy shirt.
17. Lionel Ritchie, John Legend, Meghan Trainor, & some other fools
My local CBS affiliate’s feed kept cutting our during this one, but what I saw was so butt that I didn’t look the video up online, even though this is literally my job. Go ahead and fire me, Scott. I don’t even care.
16. The Eagles & Jackson Browne
Look, I know Glenn Frey is a very important figure who needs to be honored. But that doesn’t mean I suddenly want to watch a bunch of crusty old motherfuckers playing a song I hate.
15. Tori Kelly & James Bay
Look at these attractive young people! Now watch them play boring music on acoustic guitars! We should never expect anything more than this from the Grammys, really.
14. Andra Day & Ellie Goulding
Absolute all-consuming blandness, the way only the Grammys can do it. Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” isn’t a great song or anything, but it’s a pretty fun one, and it doesn’t deserve a reading this sleepy.
13. Stevie Wonder & Pentatonix
What, the Grammys couldn’t let Wonder salute his friend Maurice White on his own? These fucking goofs have to get involved? That can’t be allowed. The Grammys do Stevie Wonder dirty every single year by throwing him up onstage with whoever the fuck. I guess it was memorable, at least.
12. Sam Hunt & Carrie Underwood
Hunt’s pop-country Drake-isms are just fascinating. How does something like this exist? But this got a whole lot less interesting when he stopped quasi-rapping and the two of them started singing. I appreciated the ’80s-rock staging of the whole thing, and Underwood still has those expressive performance skills that won her that one American Idol season, but something this sleepy and bland should be buried in the third hour of the show, not thrown into the first 20 minutes.
11. Chris Stapleton, Gary Clark Jr., & Bonnie Raitt
Stapleton is a great, powerful, intense singer. But when you force him into the “B.B. King tribute guy” role, you pretty much turn him into a bar-band hack. Bonnie Raitt was cold, though.
10. The Weeknd
“Can’t Feel My Face” is beyond played-out, and the slickly respectable version of “In The Night” was the sort of prestige nonsense of which this show is too often guilty. But I liked Abel Tesfaye’s whole James Bond tuxedo/lighting situation, and I just love his voice.
09. Gwen Stefani
Does this count as a Grammy performance? It looked like a musical interlude from an Austin Powers movie. I liked it okay. Stefani rode on roller skates on what I guess was live TV, and that’s pretty badass.
08. Pitbull, Travis Barker, Joe Perry, Robin Thicke, & Sofia Vergara
The Grammy producers are laughing at you. (Chaka Demus & Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote” is one of the greatest songs ever written, and I will never be mad at hearing that beat.)
07. Taylor Swift
Tay went full-on Belinda Carlisle-core on “Out Of The Woods”: dry ice, sparkly jumpsuit, exaggerated Broadway gestures. She knows how to find a camera and make eye contact with it, and her new haircut looks great. She’s come a long way as a live singer in this sort of context, and her song-closing runs sounded not-terrible! On guitar, Jack Antonoff was happy to be there. Swift didn’t really do anything special, but her presence is a present, and “Out Of The Woods” is a titanic song.
06. Little Big Town
Websites like ours don’t give it enough credit, but Little Big Town’s stately country lullaby “Girl Crush” is an absolutely great song. This was an immaculately staged, beautifully performed version of it. Sometimes, that’s all you need. The Grammy producers, of course, took a slow song and made it even slower, but this was a rare case where that didn’t hurt it too much.
05. Lady Gaga
The inevitable Bowie tribute was always going to be a mess, but at least it was a fun mess. And considering the theatricality of Bowie’s glam years, it’s weirdly appropriate to see it turned into a Broadway revue. Also, I liked how her makeup briefly came to life. Things got pretty dicey when she tried to take it into post-1974 territory, though, and playing Bowie songs in Girl Talk-sized chunks doesn’t really do them any favors. On Twitter, someone made the point that this could’ve been great if she’d just come out, solo spotlight, to a piano and put everything she had into singing “Starman.” But for the most part, Lady Gaga doesn’t know how to be great. At best, she knows how to be interesting.
04. Alabama Shakes
The band got room to work up a groove, and Brittany Howard wailed impressively and wore a white cape. On a show like this, that’s enough to get you upper-echelon status.
If you’re going to stack a bill top to bottom with lullabies, the least you can do is get the queen of those lullabies, so give the Grammys credit for doing that. Thanks to an out-of-tune piano, the sound got really weird. And if there’s a moment to not fuck up, you’d think it’d be that one. But she blew right through it. It’ll be fun to watch her win every last award on next year’s show.
02. The cast of Hamilton
How sad is it that Broadway has something that’s more fun and inventive and beautifully crafted than anything the music industry — or at least the music industry’s idealized image of itself — is willing to show us? Lin-Manuel Miranda’s entrance was the first goosebump moment of the entire broadcast, and bonus points for getting Daveed Diggs from noise-rap titans clipping. onto the Grammy telecast.
01. Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick came on right after the Hamilton cast and tried to stage an even more elaborate production: jailhouse set, crazy lighting effects, massive onstage bonfire. And he tried to make it as aggressive and confrontational as possible while still maintaining that awards-show slickness. But the thing really took flight when Kendrick just seized the mic and rapped. Nobody can do that like he can, and that new song that he performed a bit of sounded amazing.