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Grammys Review: Music Is Too Personal to Make Show a Multi-Demo Hit

The only reason to watch is the live acts and mash-ups, but even that leads to pointless debating.

Jack White Performing Grammys - P 2013
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Jack White, pale ghost, rocker, man of many influences.

As a television critic who grapples with the quality, importance and good taste of awards shows like the Emmys, the Golden Globes and the Oscars, there's really no getting upset about the Grammys. It's kind of pointless.

As a former music critic, I know all too well that no other art form is more personal to the people who absorb it. I can say your favorite television show is a disaster, and you're not likely to get too miffed, but if a music critic says your all-time favorite artist or song is candy-sweet nonsense that brings new meaning to the word "awful," well, you're going to be in a rage rarely seen. Music is ultrapersonal. Songs have meanings connected to specific moments -- many of them emotional and important -- in people's minds. Diss that song or that artist, and you're sticking a fork in someone's favorite love song or the artist who changed (or maybe even saved) their lives. You are messing with deep emotional connections that film, television, literature and even art can't match.

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Which is one way of saying that being a music critic is thankless and brutal, but it's also another way of pointing out that the Grammys can't possibly appeal to everyone, so these wildly disparate interpretations of who was great and who was dreadful float into the zeitgeist. It's an awards show divided.

So it helps to go in with very low expectations. I've never truly liked the Grammys because, in bulk, it recognizes and rewards music I have almost no interest in. Historically, it's the awards show I'm least interested in watching or even commenting on. And yet, when you have low expectations, it allows for the emergence of small surprises. (That, and the show is all about performances, moves quickly, most people don't thank their managers and said speeches are shorter than any other show. What's not to like about that?)

Here then, after putting it off and then subjecting myself to it, are the positives I took from the live performances:

1. Bruno Mars, Sting, Rihanna, Ziggy Marley, Stephen Marley and Damian Marley in a tribute to Bob Marley. Historically, the more diverse acts that are thrown into the mix to celebrate someone else, the better the performance -- it's certainly more interesting visually. Part of this is because music is about knowing musical history. Most people learn by listening to covers from artists they like, then realize it was someone else, or become more open-minded to someone from the past if someone current says they were influenced by the artist or band. So, in this odd collection, it worked.

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2. Tribute to Levon Helm. See above. Elton John. Zac Brown, Mumford & Sons, Mavis Staples and Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard did a fine job here. Again, the appeal is the mash-up of disparate acts.

3. Rihanna singing "Stay." Arguably the most surprising, most subtle moment of the night. She was emotional, in top form and introspective. She also went with "lovely" as opposed to "overtly sexy." Great performance.

4. The Black Keys singing "Lonely Boy" with Dr. John and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Fans of the latter two will rightly note that they didn't really get to do what they do, but the pairing was logical, fun and led to a rousing version.

5. Jack White. The singer most likely to appear in a Tim Burton film showcased two sides of his personality, with the intriguingly female-led band the Peacocks for "Love Interruption," which was especially good, and then sliding over to burn the place down with "Freedom at 21" with the Buzzards.

6. Justin Timberlake. Retro big band, Jay-Z, strings, dancing, charm: The guy likes to do it all. This concoction worked, even in black and white.

7. Miguel (and Wiz Khalifa) opening a lot of eyes with "Adorn." That's a voice.

8. Even though it unfortunately got cut off with bits of sponsored-ad support as the awards came to a close, it was nice to see LL Cool J and Chuck D jumping around onstage, mixing in some guitar assaults from Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker and DJ Z-Trip. Mashing up Public Enemy's "Welcome to the Terrordome" with LL Cool J's "Whaddup" plus a "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" interlude to honor Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, it was a retro-rap moment to remember -- until it was cut off. I still would have liked to hear Chuck D say more than the iconic "I got so much trouble on my mind/refuse to lose!" and perhaps LL Cool J weaving in more "Rock the Bells."

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9. The Lumineers were good, and people no doubt will want more praise for Mumford & Sons, but I would have vastly preferred they both be ditched in favor of The Avett Brothers. But there you go with the whole musical bias thing stated above.

10. And what list about performances could leave out Taylor Swift -- not because she sang that weak-ass "Never Ever" song but because she took it upon herself to sing everybody else's song as well, from her seat. Yeah, I know, people will either pounce on her for that (was she really that into those songs or just seeking more camera time) and others will defend her for just being excited about the other acts (and if that's true, that's what the Grammys are supposed to be about, so there).

Oh, and Alicia Keys doesn't need Maroon 5. Not in that dress. And that haircut. And those drum-playing arms. But again, reasonable people can disagree and often will when it comes to music and the Grammys.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine