LOS ANGELES — The 56th Grammy Awards gala was defined by breakthroughs, with critically beloved French dance duo Daft Punk gilding its transition to the mainstream with a leading five awards — including album and record of the year — while Macklemore & Ryan Lewis made off with the rap categories and teenaged songwriter Lorde enjoyed a coronation of her own.
© Matt Sayles/Invision/AP
Paul McCartney, left, and Ringo Starr perform on stage at the 56th annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014, in Los Angeles.
In what was widely considered an impossible race to predict, Daft Punk — the duo of 39-year-olds Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo — walked off with the evening’s top prize for their influential “Random Access Memories,” a crossover hit that found the masters of elegantly textured electronic music embracing live instrumentation and a retro esthetic, referenced by a Grammys performance alongside soul legend Stevie Wonder.
Given that the duo stays resolutely silent under various helmets, any talking was left to collaborators such as Pharrell Williams (the slick singer on ubiquitous summer smash “Get Lucky” and himself a four-time Grammy winner on Sunday) and 1970s singing icon Paul Williams.
Given the overall strangeness — and yes, randomness — of this particular Grammys, there was something appropriate about two white-clad space robots silently accepting the biggest award in the music business.
“This is the most insane thing,” Paul Williams said as he and other collaborators gathered onstage following the final award. “Back when I was drinking and using, I used to imagine things that weren’t there and it was frightening. And then I got sober and two robots called and asked me to make an album.
“Captain Kirk uses the Enterprise,” he added later, “they sail on a ship of generosity.”
Well, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis had a titanic night too, making off with four trophies — including a sweep of the major rap categories and a best new artist win — while participating in the evening’s defining performance setpiece.
With the stage dressed as an electric ministry, Macklemore delivered the pair’s gay rights anthem “Same Love” before Queen Latifah officiated the onstage marriage of 30-plus real couples.
Oh, and a white-clad Madonna popped up to duet with the song’s original guest vocalist, Mary Lambert.
And in their acceptance speech for best new artist, Macklemore was sure to remind the audience just how unlikely all this was for an independent (albeit radio-friendly) hip hop act.
“Hoooo. Wow, we’re here on this stage right now,” said an apparently disbelieving Macklemore, standing next to a silent Lewis. “First and foremost, I want to thank our fans, the people that got us on this stage, before there was any media, before there was any buzz about us, before there was a story there were our fans and it spread organically through them, so without them there would be no us. Shout out to anyone repping worldwide.
“I want to say we made this album without a record label, we made it independently, and we appreciate all the support.”
Seventeen-year-old New Zealander Lorde was similarly gobsmacked with each of her two wins, particularly a lofty song of the year honour that arrived for her widely loved breakout single “Royals.”
“Thank you to everyone who has let this song explode,” she said. “Because it’s been mental.”
In recent years, the Grammys have become increasingly reliant on blind-date collaborations between musical odd couples that, on paper, shouldn’t work and — in practice — usually do, at least as a fleeting curiosity.
So it was that nimble-tongued Compton, Calif., rapper Lamar shared the stage with Las Vegas arena-pop outfit Imagine Dragons and Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong paired with new-country earth-scorcher Miranda Lambert.
Given the pop-leaning nature of Macklemore’s radio-friendly rap, there was already controversy swirling in rap circles over his sweep of categories that included critically beloved records from West, Drake and especially Lamar, who helped to illustrate why during the unlikely marriage of his hard-hitting “M.A.D.D City” and Imagine Dragons’ heartstring-mashing “Radioactive” — which benefited from the ferociously talented wordsmith delivering a new and nuclear guest verse.
Some of the other intentionally eccentric pairings made for more interesting one-off unions than others. Metallica’s sweeping, pulverizing classic “One” was a snug fit for the theatrically furious piano stylings of Chinese classical superstar Lang Lang, who added a flurry of eerie keys while duelling with frontman James Hetfield. Robin Thicke, never afraid of veering slightly into camp, did so again while trilling lead vocals on soft-rock institution Chicago’s “Beginnings,” “Saturday in the Park” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” before the band’s famous horn section buoyed his sleazy summer hit “Blurred Lines” for the close.
Wonder slipped effortlessly into a performance of “Get Lucky” that prompted the night’s most convincing dance party. With the stage dressed as an old-school studio, Wonder traded vocals with a grinning Williams while Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers wailed away in his inimitably funky way. Eventually, Daft Punk were revealed behind the boards and the studio set transformed into a silhouette framed by neon lasers.
That wasn’t the only ambitious bit of staging in the lengthy show.
A purple-caped Katy Perry emerged out of a semi-opaque crystal ball (shades of “This is Spinal Tap”) to sing her throbbing “Darkhorse” on a dark forest-themed stage covered with twisty trees and prowling black-clad dancers. By the end of the song, Juicy J watched on while Perry — now wearing, for whatever reason, a light-up bikini top — posed with her head tilted back in a tower of flames.
Pink dazzled without props in a flashback to her gravity-defying “Glitter in the Air” performance of four years ago. Suspended high in the air by four wires, she twirled, somersaulted and flipped as she delivered her “Try” before being caught by a shirtless dancer and joined onstage by Nate Ruess of fun.
And yet, some of the evening’s most memorable performances opted for stark minimalism.
Beyonce began her show-opening performance of “Drunk in Love” with steam-sopped hair, cavorting suggestively around a chair before a tuxedoed Jay Z bopped onstage and led his partner down the stairs by the hand, serenading her with his guest verse.
(Jay Z also delivered the evening’s most winningly off-the-cuff speech, first saying “all the typical things” before adding: “I want to thank God — a little bit for this award, but mostly for that and all the universe for conspiring (and) putting that beautiful light of a young lady in my life. I want to tell (daughter) Blue that, look, daddy got a gold sippy cup for you.”)
Lorde performed “Royals” unadorned, from a small circular stage in the centre of the arena, flanked by a drummer and keyboardist. She even dressed simply, pairing a sleeveless white blouse with baggy black pants and striking matching lipstick.
And a sparkly but sombre Taylor Swift played “All Too Well” parked at a grand piano, her backing band barely visible in the shadowy background. Although she remained stationary, she did eventually toss her head around violently, whipping her blond locks in a frenzy with a scowl fixed to her face.
Also notable, of course, was the reunion of surviving Beatles members Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, who joined forces on “Queenie Eye” with the former seated at a brightly coloured piano at centre stage while Starr gamely slammed away on the drums behind him. The cameras captured Yoko Ono swaying to the music in the crowd, and the rock legends embraced and bowed together at the end.
McCartney also won a Grammy for best rock song (an honour he shared with the former members of Nirvana), while Bruno Mars won for best pop vocal album for his “Unorthodox Jukebox” and delivered a touching dedication to his late mother.
“Ma, I know you’re watching,” he said. “I hope you’re smiling. I love you.”
Drake went home empty-handed despite scoring five nominations, though he didn’t appear to be in attendance (the only victorious Canadians were Michael Buble, winning best traditional pop vocal album for a fourth time, and Montreal-based children’s songwriter Jennifer Gasoi, while Toronto-raised pianist Chilly Gonzales earned an album of the year trophy for his contributions to Daft Punk’s opus).
The 27-year-old Drake did have company among underperforming superstars — Taylor Swift didn’t win despite four nominations, Jay Z came in as the leading nominee with nine but won only one trophy for music and Timberlake won twice but also lost out in the few higher-profile categories in which he was nominated.
It was, largely, a night for the breakouts. Kacey Musgraves, a two-time winner, upended the likes of Swift and Keith Urban to win best country album. And of course there were the main trio of Macklemore, Lorde and Daft Punk, whose legendary reputation internationally hasn’t always translated to the United States — or to shows as mainstream as the Grammys.
And the final image struck by the duo, who hugged touchingly with their last win and seemed to shake onstage, landed somewhere between absurd and surreal. It certainly seemed to tickle Pharrell Williams, left again and again to handle microphone duties.
“On the behalf of the robots, I’d just like to say, first of all, man, thank you, thank you, thank you,” said Williams, whose floppy tan hat — a little like a Mountie’s — inspired its own Twitter parody account even before the show started.
“Of course they want to thank their families,” he added to laughter after their first win.
On the occasion of their record of the year win, he again poked fun at the strangeness of the situation — before getting earnest.
“Honestly, I bet France is really proud of these guys right now,” he said. “We appreciate it. This has been awesome this year.”