Out of the Salvation Army and onto the A-list — here comes Macklemore.
The “Thrift Shop” rapper and his producer, Ryan Lewis, officially made the leap from oddball outsiders to music-biz insiders at Sunday night’s 56th annual Grammy Awards, winning four trophies, including the award for best new artist . They were also up for the evening’s sparkliest prize, album of the year, but lost to Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” in the waning minutes of the show.
But never mind those statuettes. Every year, the Grammys become less a celebration of excellence and more of a television ratings grab. Accordingly, the program reached its feel-good climax with a performance of Mackelmore and Ryan Lewis’s equality anthem, “Same Love,” during which Madonna parachuted in to sing a few lines and Queen Latifah presided over a marriage ceremony that hitched 33 couples billed as gay, straight and of mixed ethnic backgrounds.
Along with those newlyweds, the copper-coifed rapper and his tight-lipped partner were two new faces on a night crowded with old ones.
This year’s ceremony — held at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles — offered a glut of veteran cameos and era-smudging duets that consistently short-shifted the present while radiating a fear of the future.
Take poor Robin Thicke. The guy had terrestrial radio’s most-played song last year with “Blurred Lines.” But he was only allowed to croon it after sleepwalking through a medley of vintage hits alongside that ’70s radio-staples act, Chicago.
Then there was Ringo Starr inexplicably trotting out his 1973 solo tune, “Photograph.” Why? Because it’s been 50 years since the Beatles first appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Moments later, when he was called back to the stage for an encore sing-along with Paul McCartney, the Grammys were suddenly doing the impossible: They were making the Beatles annoying.
In addition to doing a disservice to so much of today’s music, Sunday’s sorriest duets also exuded a distinct sliminess. Producers tout these partnerships as once-in-a-lifetime “Grammy moments,” but they’ve come to reek of brand synergy.
Viewers had to wait for the commercial breaks for more tangible brand synergy. Katy Perry’s ad for a cosmetics company was far more interesting than her telecast performance. Ditto for John Legend, who’s been shilling for an American auto giant. And while Justin Timberlake was nowhere to be found in the Staples Center, he popped up during the breaks on behalf of a credit-card company and an embattled box store.
This icky night started off on the right foot, though. Pop’s reigning power couple, Beyoncé and Jay Z, opened the gig with a steamy rendition of Bey’s latest single, “Drunk in Love.” Later in the night, her hubby accepted the golden gramophone for best rap/sung collaboration with a sober shout-out to their daughter, Blue Ivy: “Daddy got a gold sippy cup for you!”
After the Carter family’s show-opening duet, rapper-turned-crime-procedural star LL Cool J sauntered out, raring to host his third Grammys. As if delivering a commencement speech, he used his opening monologue to tout music’s ability “to move us, to inspire us, to totally surprise us. . . . Music unleashes us!”
Right on, Cool James. So where was the fervor? The sweat? The defiance? The stuff that grabs us by the throat?
It wasn’t in Metallica playing “One,” a 25-year-old tune, with classical pianist Lang Lang. It wasn’t in the snoozy ballad Taylor Swift mewled behind a grand piano. It wasn’t in Pink’s Cirque-du-Soleil-ish trapeze routine that she recycled from the 2010 Grammys.
There were glimmers from the top prize winners. New Zealand teen phenom Lorde gave a poised performance of her song of the year-winning “Royals,” and Daft Punk’s record of the year winner, “Get Lucky,” provided the night’s most tolerable mash-up, thanks to ex-Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers and Grammy regular Stevie Wonder.
But the evening’s most quietly confident performer also delivered the night’s biggest upset: Newcomer Kacey Musgraves’ stellar debut album, “Same Trailer Different Park,” trumped Swift’s “Red” for country album of the year.
Only 10 trophies were doled out on television — meaning 72 awards were flung around the neighboring Nokia Theatre during a rapid-fire pre-telecast ceremony. Legacy acts vacuumed up plenty of those prizes. Led Zeppelin won best rock album for “Celebration Day,” a live album recorded in 2007. Black Sabbath won the best metal album for their crispy quasi-reunion effort, “13.” And sure, those are the guys who shaped the contours of rock music. So why not celebrate the music they’ve shaped?
Dave Grohl stood somewhere in the gray area, taking home two Grammys related to his “Sound City: Real to Reel” documentary, including best rock song for his collaboration with McCartney and former Nirvana bandmates Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear — a song he said the gang whipped up in two hours.
Throughout Sunday’s telecast, the Grammys sought comfort in familiarity — something that felt eerily emblematic of pop music’s shrinking comfort zone. According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, the rise of streaming services squeezed terrestrial radio into playing a smaller swath of recognizable songs in 2013. And that uptick in streaming appears to be hurting music sales, too. According to Nielsen SoundScan, digital track sales fell from 1.34 billion units a year earlier to 1.26 billion units in 2013.
In a world in which the big hits are bigger, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are thriving. Going into the night, they had eclipsed Kendrick Lamar with seven nominations, but helped send the Los Angeles rap maverick home empty-handed. They also shut out Kanye West, beating him for best rap album and best rap song.
West wasn’t on hand to sit through the indignities, of course. Pop’s most thrilling futurist hasn’t shown up at these nostalgia-soaked Grammy debacles for a few years now.
He was presumably at home doing something the Grammys continue be resistant to: Thinking about the future.