The Beach Boys performing at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards

[Ed. Note: While most Grammy nominees aren’t typically our cup of tea around here, there’s something undeniably alluring about the preeminent music awards show. Contributor Roman Gokhman attended Sunday’s show, and here’s his report about what it was like to view it in person.]

A popular music event like the Grammy Awards tends to divide people, with fans of indie artists claiming the best “now” musicians get left out. That’s a valid claim. With the exception of The Arcade Fire last year and Bon Iver this week, the big winners are typically the big names, and (non-nominated) performers with their best years behind them (The Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney).

That being said, it takes a lot of skill and talent to make it to “Music’s Biggest Night”. All of the performers and nominees are good at what they do, with two exceptions: I didn’t get Nicki Minaj’s performance or Chris Brown’s appearance at the ceremony.

I was fortunate to cover the Grammys this year for the first time. I arrived at the Staples Center about 9:30 a.m. The credentials I was given were of the lowest kind, giving me access only to one of the media rooms set up in the arena’s hallways and separated by black curtains and velvet ropes. My assignment was for the TV, radio and online room. Print media had its own, and many of the larger outlets had private interview rooms, the size of large closets, as well as spots on the Red Carpet that led from the nearby Los Angeles Convention Center.

I had tried – to no avail – to get better credentials. So instead I arrived early to see if I could get more on my own. I could hear Bruce Springsteen rehearsing as I walked passed Staples to the Red Carpet to get a look. TV producers from E, Entertainment Tonight and others were setting up their positions, and crews were placing Grammy Awards, flowers and chandeliers as decorations. Access was easy enough; just look like you have a place to go and check your cell phone for important messages from time to time.

Doors to the media were opened at 10 a.m. and I checked in to my media room. Besides supplying coffee, snacks, power outlets and TVs to view the pre-cast and main ceremonies, there was also a small stage where winners and presenters could make appearances, if they chose to. There was nothing going on at the time so I claimed a chair close to the small stage and wondered away to see what else I could find.

I walked through numerous unlabeled black curtains and down sets of stairs before I made it to the main bowl of the arena, where artists and stand-ins were running through a full rehearsal of the show. This is how I got to watch about two-thirds of the Grammys in person; moving lower and lower until I made it to the floor. Watching the performers watch their peers perform was interesting. Adele, the reunited Beach Boys, Paul McCartney and Glen Campbell got standing ovations. Campbell’s rehearsal was a bit shaky and he tripped over the lines to “Rhinestone Cowboy”, which made me worry he would do the same later (he did a fine job).

The Coldplay-Rihanna collaboration was stronger during rehearsal. Stand-ins read the lines of the celebrity presenters such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Neil Patrick Harris. When Carrie Underwood rehearsed her Tony Bennett duet, Bennett was not there and was replaced with a female signer who performed better than he would later. McCartney’s rehearsal came following vocal scale exercises.

After the rehearsal concluded I headed back to the media room to watch the pre-cast, during which the majority of the awards are handed, on closed-circuit TV from the convention center. Imagine this ceremony as the second round of the NBA Draft; with awards coming fast and furious, with only a few performances.

Presenters included last year’s best new artist winner Esperanza Spalding, members of OK Go and Corinne Bailey Rae. Best new artist nominee Skrillex, The Foo Fighters and Adele won the first of their awards here. Much of the focus on the pre-cast goes to the classical, opera and world genres, as well as categories like best long and short form videos, best children’s album and best pop duo or group performance.

The awards were handed out between 1 p.m. and about 8:15 p.m., when the main ceremony concluded. Of the winners, many more paid a visit to the media room during the pre-cast ceremony, including Gospel and R&B singer Kirk Franklin, best country duo or group winners the Civil Wars, best folk album winners Alison Krauss and Union Station, best alternative album and best new artist winner Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, country artists and multiple Grammy winners Lady Antebellum, and the Beach Boys – who pointed out that they have never performed at the Grammy Awards before this week.

The Hits:

Host LL Cool J – He has hosted the Grammy nomination show four consecutive years and handled himself perfectly at this ceremony. The opening monologue and prayer for Whitney Houston had the desired effect.

Adele performs and sweeps six awards – Her voice was not at 100 percent following vocal cord surgery and five months off, but still raised the hairs on the neck of her producer, Paul Epworth, and everyone in the media room. Her “snotty” remark after winning one of her earlier awards only endeared her to the crowd more.

The Bruce Springsteen opening – Classic Bruce. If Madonna gets to promote her new album at the Super Bowl, it’s only right from Springsteen to get a similar honor.

The stage reunion and performance by the Beach Boys – They’ve waited 50 years to perform at the Grammy Awards. While they’re up in years, it was still a worthy performance, Foster the People and Maroon 5 notwithstanding.

Tony Bennett and Amy Winehouse’s parents accepting the award for best pop duo together.

Jennifer Hudson’s Whitney tribute – She did not attempt to upstage Houston with her range. The melancholic take on the song was right on the money.

The Misses:

Nicki Minaj’s performance – She tries to be Madonna and is not as “classy” as Lady Gaga. Her odd stage show with levitation and a tryst with a Pope lookalike was better suited for the MTV Video Music Awards.

The disappearing Etta James tribute – Whitney Houston’s sudden death sent producers scrambling. In the melee, they seemed to have forgotten that James also passed away, and an Alicia Keys-Bonnie Raitt performance of “A Sunday Kind of Love”, a song that James previously recorded, turned into a forgotten side note.

Chris Brown – Both of his performances were complete messes, not to mention his recent Grammy-related history, and the following online reaction of girls willing to let him beat them. When asked, afterward, why he gave so much stage time to Brown, Recording Academy President and CEO Neil Portnow deflected the decision to the 12,000 voting academy members, and said that talent comes above personal history at the award show. Brown didn’t demonstrate much talent beyond some dance skills on Sunday.

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