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Viewers of this year’s Grammy Awards would have been well advised to take a mood-stabilizing drug before tuning in. How else to navigate the endless tonal shifts of this music industry promotional concert masquerading as an awards show?
At the telecast’s beginning repeating host LL Cool J promised that we would see twenty-three musical performances, which barely left any time for, you know… awards. When someone did win, they were generally played offstage within seconds. The performances themselves spanned such a wide stylistic and emotional range that the ultimate effect was more numbing than stimulating. By the end of the seemingly endless evening, it was as if you were walking away from a buffet feeling nauseatingly overstuffed.
Continuing the show’s propensity for unlikely mashups of performers, we were treated to such bizarre combinations as Tom Jones and Jessie J, singing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” with the latter wearing a strange sheer outfit that resulted in Jones not having to bother undressing her with his eyes. Hozier sang his hit “Take Me to Church” accompanied by Annie Lennox, who for some reason then performed a solo on an imaginary harmonica during her rendition of “I Put a Spell on You.”
See More: Grammys: Best and Worst Moments
That legendary trio Peter, Paul and Mary — I mean Kanye West, Paul McCartney and Rihanna — delivered their collaboration “FourFiveSeconds,” with the former Beatle reduced to the role of backup singer/guitarist. Kanye seemed much more comfortable in his earlier solo number “Only One,” which he performed not in the spotlight but rather directly on top of one. The Voice co-hosts Adam Levine and Gwen Stefani dueted on a rendition of “My Heart Is Open” featuring a lavish string section. Usher sang Stevie Wonder‘s “If It’s Magic” accompanied by a harpist, with Wonder belatedly making an appearance only to deliver a brief harmonica solo — on a real harmonica, at least.
Then there was the peculiar combination of Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett, although they at least have been performing together for some time now. Singing “Cheek to Cheek,” they managed to bridge their six-decade age span with finesse, although it’s difficult not to feel that she’s just playing dress-up.
Bizarre performances abounded, but not in a good way. Madonna performed her new single “Living for Love” accompanied by a seeming herd of half-naked Minotaurs in a stage tableau resembling a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Performing a striptease during the number to demonstrate that she’s still devotedly using her Thighmaster, she was eventually raised to the rafters as if ascending to heaven.
Sia replicated the hallucinatory effect of her “Chandelier” music video including her dancing doppelganger and a cameo by Kristen Wiig, but she might as well have been performing in another venue entirely. But the most truly jaw-droppingly strange performance of the evening came courtesy of Pharrell Williams, dressed in a bellboy outfit seemingly borrowed from The Grand Budapest Hotel, performing his smash hit “Happy” with all the happiness drained out of it. Like Common and John Legend would later in the night, his performance referenced the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture that originated with the protests in Ferguson, Mo. He was accompanied by classical pianist Lang Lang, in an apparent attempt to duplicate the success of last year’s collaboration with Metallica, and soundtrack composer Hans Zimmer, who wandered onstage playing guitar as if he was paying off a bet.
As is so often the case, it was the impromptu moments that were the most entertaining: Taylor Swift enthusiastically inventing new dance steps for every number she watched from the audience. Sam Smith‘s acceptance speeches, and they were legion, that included admitting how his music didn’t come together until he stopped trying to lose weight and thanking the man who broke his heart because he now had four Grammys as a result. Kanye West jokingly rushing the stage after Beck‘s surprise best album win. Tony Bennett looking utterly bemused while watching AC/DC rocking through “Highway to Hell.” Prince, with his now ubiquitous walking stick, introducing the best album award by noting, “Albums still matter, like books and black lives.” Jamie Foxx reprising his Ray Charles impersonation while presenting an award with Stevie Wonder.
One of the more incongruous segments began with a PSA delivered by President Obama about violence against women. That was followed by that most socially conscious of performers, Katy Perry, singing “By the Grace of God” while clad in an angelic white gown, which might have been easier to take seriously if we hadn’t witnessed her performing atop a giant robotic lion at the Super Bowl a week earlier.
The evening ended on serious notes. Beyonce, as if making up for her controversially sexy turn in last year’s awards with “Drunk in Love,” went into full gospel mode with the classic “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” That was followed by Legend and Common, warming up for the Oscars, performing their song “Glory” from the Selma soundtrack and finally, as if to accentuate his dominance of the evening, Sam Smith and Mary J. Blige reprising their duet on “Stay With Me.”