Who’d have thought it? The GRAMMY Awards—music’s ultimate insider event, one to which independents, iconoclasts and those who would think outside the box have often found a closed door—ended up, in its 56th edition, being a celebration of living, loving and doing business by one's own rules.
Daft Punk, the self-styled French “robots” who returned in 2013 with a modern take on a retro-funk sound, topped the night. Masked in gleaming helmets, the pair took home four awards, including Album of the Year for Random Access Memories, a record that claimed a new audience and revived the careers of greats like Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder. “I bet France is really proud of these guys right now!” said Pharrell Williams, acting as spokesman for the non-verbal duo, when the irresistible “Get Lucky” was named Record of the Year. For their performance, the group transformed a vintage recording studio into a neon-trimmed space disco, and, with the help of Stevie Wonder, seemed to have the entirety of Staples Center up and dancing.
Right behind them in the golden haul was Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ The Heist, the little indie hip-hop record that could, and did, and did again on this night. Self-produced and self-released, the album that blew up on the strength of goofy, exuberant monster hits like “Can’t Hold Us” and the inescapable “Thrift Shop," was named Best Rap Album, no doubt to the consternation of some. But that was academic, because it was the Seattle pair who provided this night with what will surely live forever as one of GRAMMY’s most talked about moments. More on that later.
First, let's go back to the beginning. “Music’s Biggest Night” kicked off with a heaving, panting bang, compliments of the Carters. Beyonce and Jay Z, music’s most unquestionably adored couple, brought their sexed-up traptastic jam “Drunk In Love” to a live stage for the first time. The track is a sweaty, groping rejoinder to the couple’s still-great “Crazy In Love,” and you had to wonder how the CBS censors would handle all those references to panties, going all night and “breasteses for breakfast.” Yet except for a few audio drops, most of the song seemed to air intact, including Bey’s “graining on that wood” of the surfboard.
This would prove to be a GRAMMYs not lacking for memorable performances. Kendrick Lamar, unbelievably shut out of awards despite seven nominations, teamed in white suits with Imagine Dragons for an electric, manic collision of “m.A.A.d city” and “Radioactive.” Katy Perry unveiled a sexy witch take on “Dark Horse” that couldn’t really decide what it wanted to be—except that it wanted to be a performance where a broom doubled as a stripper pole. A fierce Metallica tore through “One” with Chinese pianist Lang Lang more than holding his own. And Taylor Swift, in refreshing contrast to her Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass opener at last year’s show, toned it down for a soaring, emotive “All Too Well.”
The GRAMMYs clearly don’t believe there is such a thing as too much Beatles. The band's music has been featured five times in the past nine GRAMMY ceremonies. And this year there was a historical marker: It’s been nearly 50 years since the Fab Four’s U.S. debut on the Ed Sullivan Show, and the surviving Fab Two were in attendance to mark the occasion. Ringo had his moment first, bringing smiles with his bouncing 1973 solo hit “Photograph.” Then Sir Paul McCartney, backed up by his mate behind the kit, performed “Queenie Eye.” Seeing the two on stage was a were-you-there magical moment, and cutaways to a smiling Yoko and Sean were especially touching.
But it was two young country performers, and their empowering messages of freedom, who improbably helped lead the way in defining the night. Hunter Hayes debuted “Invisible,” an inspirational new song aimed at young people that says in effect, “Yes, it does get better.” And breakout country star Kacey Musgraves wowed with the deceptively bouncy “Follow Your Arrow,” a no-judgments track with lyrics about living how you want and loving who you want.
Which of course brings us back to Macklemore, and the moment of the evening. “Risk-averse” would be a nice way of describing the GRAMMYs traditional attitude to controversy on the big night. The show itself rarely takes a stand bolder than, say, peace is good and racism is bad. So here’s hoping it was a watershed moment that the Academy and CBS signed on to the idea of 33 couples of all colors, ages and orientations getting married to the strains of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and Mary Lambert’s “Same Love.” Queen Latifah officiated and one of history’s greatest gay icons, Madonna, chimed in with “Open Your Heart." Considering that marriage equality is not a reality in 34 of the 50 states to which the awards were beamed, it was one of the GRAMMYs’ most audacious moments, and one to be proud of. Only days away from Sochi 2014, let that moment go out from the Staples Center direct to Vladimir Putin. Let the right be “offended” and the hipster left moan that “Same Love” is heavy-handed. As Daft Punk said at the end of the night—through a spokesman, of course—it was as classy and as elegant as the GRAMMYs have ever been.