If the Grammy Awards could be summed up by a song, it would be “Tradition,” the ode to the status quo from Fiddler on the Roof. Two of this year’s genre-spanning Big Four categories were won by Daft Punk, whose 2013 comeback album Random Access Memories reclaimed not only disco, but the idea of the session musician-aided pop spectacle; Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney each got their own performance slot, with Starr handling drums for his ex-bandmate; and the night’s two most chatted-about performances were focused on marriage — one involved a mass wedding, while the other breathlessly ran down the sort of drunken sexual congress that could happen even after rings had been exchanged.
Talking about the Grammys as an awards show is always frustrating — the world of pop is vast, and as a bloc, the voting pool of the Grammys tends to favor institutions. Each year, this results in some laughable award recipients — yesterday, for example, Led Zeppelin’s Celebration Day, a recording of a 2007 reunion show at the O2 Arena, won Best Rock Album, while projects involving McCartney amassed four trophies, among them Best Rock Song for his collaboration with the surviving members of Nirvana, “Cut Me Some Slack.” Best Reggae Album went to a Ziggy Marley live record.
Daft Punk was the night’s big winner, taking home five trophies for Random Access Memories; they remained mute both times they went on stage, instead letting Pharrell and Paul Williams handle the acceptance speeches. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won four awards, including each of the rap-specific categories in which they were nominated. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s Best Rap Album win for The Heist marked the third time in the last five years that the trophy went to a white rapper — Eminem picked up Grammys in 2010 and 2011 for Relapse and Recovery.
Collaborations between new and old artists have been the Grammys’ stock in trade for years — they’re a way for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to play to their base (people who have been in the business for a while) and simultaneously entertain those viewers at home who want to see present-day pop stars. In addition to having the transcendent Nile Rodgers and the notably behatted Pharrell on stage for their performance, Daft Punk collaborated with Stevie Wonder, incorporating his Songs in the Key of Life track “Another Star” into their “Get Lucky”-anchored medley. Carole King and Sara Bareilles traded inspirational bon mots (via their songs “Beautiful” and “Brave”) over a pair of pianos; Robin Thicke fronted Chicago in a pairing that was probably dreamed up at a fern bar; Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson engaged in the Grammy equivalent of inducting Blake Shelton into the Grand Ole Opry, performing Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee.” And 25 years after bludgeoning their spellbinding hit “One” and subsequently being shut out of the inaugural (and only) Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental award, Metallica brought the song back to the Grammy stage — this time older, wiser, with less hair and aided by the Chinese pianist Lang Lang, who was born a year before Metallica’s debut Kill ‘Em All came out.
Even though it’s waning as a genre, rock asserted its place in the Grammy canon. Starr played his 1973 track “Photograph” while pictures of his life as a Beatle — collected in his recent book Photograph — flashed on the screens behind him; he later played drums while McCartney performed his upbeat recent track “Queenie Eye.” Pink repped for the power ballad, flying through the air like a circus pro for her performance of the nudging “Try” and duetting with fun.’s Nate Ruess for “Just Give Me A Reason.” The show ended with two alt-rock acts who are relative lifers, and who put out excellent albums in 2013: Nine Inch Nails pummeled “Copy Of A” from Hesitation Marks, and Queens of the Stone Age ripped through “My God Is The Sun” from …Like Clockwork, with Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham and Dave Grohl, the Unofficial Spokesman For Rock, assisting.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s own reach into pop’s past, though, doubled as a grand gesture. The duo performed their hamfisted homophobia rebuke “Same Love” assisted by Mary Lambert, whose lilting soprano lifts the recorded version of the track, and Trombone Shorty, who gave the live version a much-needed dose of verve; they were subsequently joined by Queen Latifah, who presided over the wedding vows of 33 couples, and Madonna, who retrofitted her heartbroken 1986 hit “Open Your Heart” to fit the subdued feel of “Same Love.” It was one of those moments that was so utterly of the record industry — a Political Statement about oppression that was more an extended act of back-slapping about how progressive the people making the statement were — that it made Macklemore’s status as the night’s most-decorated new talent retroactively inevitable.
Other Best New Artist nominees did run with their chances to shine. Kendrick Lamar, whose 2012 breakthrough good kid, m.A.A.d city didn’t pick up any of the awards it was nominated for (including Album of the Year), transcended his involvement with the hoary rock act Imagine Dragons, throwing down energetic verses while chaos reigned around him. (He also got an apologetic text from Macklemore over the whole Best Rap Album thing — which Macklemore posted to Instagram, in another gesture that was simultaneously sweet and eyeroll-inducing.) Kacey Musgraves, the Nashville Star alumna whose major-label debut Same Trailer Different Park nabbed two trophies (including Best Country Album), was allowed to fly solo and perform her just-be-yourself anthem “Follow Your Arrow” while surrounded by neon cacti; the song, a sweetly hummable permission slip for doing things your own way, has seen resistance from the always-traditionalist country radio, but Musgraves’s quietly fierce performance should at least get it notice from a wider audience.
And then there was the show-opening performance by Beyoncé, who followed her arrow by releasing her self-titled “visual album” on iTunes last month — way out of this year’s eligibility period, but as Beyoncé‘s launch proved she’s a big enough star for quibbles over release dates to slide. She and Jay-Z performed their ode to getting wasted and getting it on “Drunk In Love,” with Beyoncé recreating the tipsily buoyant dance from that song’s video; later, when Jay won the Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for his Nirvana-interpolating Justin Timberlake duet “Holy Grail,” he quipped that the golden gramophone would double nicely as a sippy cup for their daughter — another nod to tradition, not to mention what might result from getting a bit too carried away with sodden sex.