Much like the music world itself, the Grammy Awards is a colorful train wreck of a television show.
Inexplicable results and mesmerizing performances mixed with the mundane added up to a generally unsatisfying evening for CBS Sunday. Unless, of course, you're Lady Antebellum.
The Grammys are barely an awards show anymore. As the music business has splintered and sputtered in recent years, the Grammys have become a performance show, advertising musicians who need the attention. Show producers don't even bother with a host anymore. For the first hour of Sunday's show, only one trophy was given out — for a live version of a Train song done better in the studio.
In theory, it's a great idea. If you're unfamiliar with an artist's work, it's much better to watch him or her in action than to listen to speeches thanking managers, producers and hairstylists. Or, in Train's case, Howard Stern.
In practice, the show's success or failure is tied to whether the artists can bring the goods.
Whether they took trophies home with them or not, the night's winners included Janelle Monae, Eminem, Cee Lo and Rihanna. Among the losers were Christina Aguilera, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Rihanna.
Yes, you read that last part right. Rihanna was spellbinding for her part in Eminem's ominous "Love the Way You Lie." When she returned later to perform "What's My Name" with Drake, she curiously dropped her hand-held microphone to her waist a few times while the vocals continued on.
The opening Aretha Franklin tribute continued Aguilera's lousy month. Unlike her four collaborators, she seemed intent on making the moment more about her, losing the song in the process. Were she there, you can imagine the famously competitive Franklin hip-checking Aguilera — and that silly decorated microphone stand — out of the picture.
Let's pray that the ailing Franklin's taped message that she'll see us on next year's show comes true.
Lady Gaga emerged from an egg to lay one, debuting her new song, "Born This Way," which apparently refers to pointed shoulders. The song's uncanny resemblance to Madonna's "Express Yourself" distracted from the dance production. And when Gaga later received an award for "The Fame Monster," her bleeped expletive distracted from what became a touching tribute to Whitney Houston.
Maybe, on some nights, Justin Bieber can sing, but he sounded distressingly flat on Sunday. He was out-danced by Usher, of course, and Jaden Smith (loved watching dad Will Smith mouthing, "That's my baby," from the audience).
We'll give Bieber credit, though: He looked good.
The rock band Muse gave a strong performance of "Uprising," although we're still trying to figure out what those dancers were trying to do. It seemed a missed opportunity to explicitly tie the song's message to Egypt's revolution.
There were highlights, though. Bruno Mars sang "Grenade" in a soulful homage to James Brown, the screen even going black and white. Monae's "Cold War" was a star-making turn.
The acoustic set with Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers was terrific, too, sweeping and anthemic. Bob Dylan came out to croak "Maggie's Farm" with the two bands' backing him, his voice almost lost beneath the desperate strumming. But the fun was infectious. And did we actually see a dance step or two from the old master?
Cee Lo, who looked like a cross between Elton John and George Clinton with an outfit that used the blender at a paint factory, did the "Forget You" clean version of his big hit, with a backing band of puppets and vocals from Gyneth Paltrow, who deserves props for not tumbling over while standing on a piano in gigantic heels.
Arcade Fire's first performance had such an intense, flashing light show that the band itself was barely visible. It was much better when they played again after winning album of the year, it what suspiciously seemed like killing time for a show that ran short.
Don't want to say Mick Jagger's Solomon Burke tribute went on too long, but we meant to go back and check. Is he still dancing?
Good thing for the Grammys that the awards continue to be de-emphasized, because it was a strange night even for a recording academy with a long history of head-scratching choices. Esperanza Spalding for best new artist? Song and record of the year "Need You Now" by Lady Antebellum? We doubt anyone will remember that song five years from now as they will, for example, "Empire State of Mind."
Without a host, the Grammys bring a variety of celebrities on for introduction. That's fine most of the time, but it misses a humorous touch. A Top 10 list put on to promote David Letterman's show was the night's most intentional funny moment.