Grammy Awards 2016: The Thrill Is (Almost) Gone

The music industry’s biggest awards show saw its lowest ratings in seven years with 24.9 million viewers tuning into the 58th Annual Grammy Awards. One could attribute the dip in ratings to the fact that this year’s telecast was pushed to Monday night, in competition with major prime time shows like The Bachelor. But when considering the theme running through Monday night’s performances — the words somber, subdued, and stale come to mind — the ratings seem unsurprising.

The sleep-inducing setlist included a number of drawn out ballads, like Sam Hunt and Carrie Underwood’s awkward duet to a “Take Your Time”/”Heartbeat” mashup. Even those with strong potential to affect audiences fell short of expectations. Little Big Town’s performance of “Girl Crush” lost the rawness and ballsiness of the song’s original recording in the lushness of an orchestral accompaniment. Sound issues led Adele, one of the industry’s most revered pop vocalists, to struggle through a pitchy delivery of “All I Ask.”

Ineffective Grammy arrangements blew certain opportunities for redemption by stripping the dynamism from songs that thrive in electronica. Backed by a funereal cello, The Weeknd’s performance of “In the Night” lacked the punch of the recording’s ‘80s-style synths. After some choppy guitar playing in his solo acoustic performance of “Love Yourself,” Justin Bieber was joined by Diplo and Skrillex for an arena-rock version of “Where Are U Now” that horribly missed the mark in execution. With the two DJs performing not as producers but as musicians on kettle drums and electric guitar, the song’s signature “dolphin” sound was replaced by jarring strings. Perhaps a smart rendition of the seriously danceable “Sorry” or “What Do You Mean” would have better reflected the explosiveness of Bieber’s past year.

The night was chock-full of tributes, which leaned more towards tired than celebratory. John Legend and Demi Levato kicked off a Lionel Richie medley with decent vocal efforts, before Luke Bryan’s corny finger-pointing and Megan Trainor’s awkward stage presence made us question the tribute’s necessity or relevance — especially when considering the industry’s year of loss. Alice Cooper’s Hollywood Vampires provided the show’s biggest WTF? moment with their tribute to Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister, an on-stage unraveling of mid-life crises (imagine your retired uncle rocking out with the Zepplin-worshipping bandmates he found on Craigslist). The Eagles and Jackson Browne honored Glenn Frey with a disappointingly lackluster performance of “Take It Easy,” the hit Browne co-wrote with Frey. Don Henley’s stoic expression encapsulated the listlessness of the performance, which was blandly true to the recording that receives hourly airtime on classic rock radio stations.

Lady Gaga brought much-welcome showmanship in a David Bowie tribute, with light projections and costume changes illustrating the late trailblazer’s evolution of characters, and a medley of several songs sampling his musical versatility. While too rushed to echo Bowie’s impact on the music industry and its consumers, Gaga’s performance slapped us awake with colorful, technology-enhanced theatrics.

For viewers still optimistically tuned in, a B.B. King tribute brought their ears relief with a worthy performance of “The Thrill Is Gone.” Chris Stapleton’s soulfulness complemented Gary Clark Jr.’s raw blues sound, before Bonnie Raitt joined them with her smokey vocals and quiet swagger. Alabama Shakes provided another show highlight, performing “Don’t Wanna Fight” as their Grammy stage debut, a fiery Brittany Howard proving to any unaware viewers why her band was up for Album of the Year.

But no performance matched the energy or execution of the performance-art-turned-musical-theater-turned-cinematic-climax that was Kendrick Lamar’s politically charged spectacle. Taking the stage as part of a chain gang, Kendrick electrified his audience with the very first verse of “The Blacker the Cherry.” His urgency was palpable even as he stood still with his handcuffed wrists circling the microphone. After breaking free and stumbling into the next scene, Kendrick preached animatedly in front of a flaming bonfire structure, backed by turbulent jazz as he transitioned into “Alright.” When he made his way back to a mic stand to perform a yet unheard song, the telecast’s producers cut dramatically between different close-up shots of an unapologetic Kendrick looking straight to camera, his pupils illuminated with flashing light as he forced viewers to acknowledge his voice.

Overall, the 58th Annual Grammy Awards felt more like a three-hour lullaby than the year’s primary celebration of music — an unfortunate disconnect reflected in the broadcast’s notably low ratings. Good thing the potent Kendrick Lamar gave us reasons to feel excited about today’s music industry with a legendary performance that will surely go down as one of the best in Grammy history.

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