It is, historically, the biggest party of Grammy weekend. But Saturday night’s Clive Davis/Recording Academy bash at L.A.’s Beverly Hilton may have also been the night this gala started to move into history, with a new generation of interests taking its place.

The event was studded with the usual stars, each one given the traditional laudatory introduction from Davis himself, who presides from the podium like the industry king he is. Jane Fonda was “matchless.” Jay-Z was “towering.” Les Moonves was a “titan.” For Wyclef Jean, he had “special emotion and pride.” Here and there, small pockets of celebrity glistened: Russell Brand chatted with Adam Lambert and Randy Jackson. Dierks Bentley shared a laugh with Richie Sambora. Katy Perry and Rihanna — whose attendance surprised me, seeing as how her life got really crappy after she left this party last year — bonded in the ladies’ room. Gazing across this savannah of fame from a table in the back, it was possible to believe that, like the Black Eyed Peas keep reminding us, the night was gonna be a good night.

Enthusiasm levels for the performances were low from the start. Around 9:30 p.m., the Peas (and their Mummenschanz dancers) opened with “Boom Boom Pow,” but after Fergie’s impressive howl through a Slash-accompanied cover of “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” chastized the room for not getting excited enough. Grammy president Neil Portnow then took the podium to introduce Ryan Seacrest, who took the podium to introduce Davis. Once the man of the hour at last reached the stage, the back half of the room was engaged in cocktail party conversation that threatened to drown out the legendary producer for the remainder of the evening. He soldiered on. “During these times when so many of you are questioning the vitality of the music industry, tonight, we’re out to show you… those who are at the top of their craft,” he said. Then he introduced Ke$ha’s performance of “Tik Tok.”

After more greetings from Clive — the extraordinary “teenager,” Taylor Swift; Bon Jovi, with whom Davis once hung out in St. Barts — it was Maxwell’s turn on the mic. (“This guy is gonna become an old-timer,” said Clive.) He thanked “each and every one of you for not forgetting what I do” after performing “Pretty Wings,” and then dedicated “Bad Habits” to Haiti. Harry Connick Jr. (“one of the great pop jazz singers,” said Clive) dedicated his NOLA jazz to the Super Bowl-bound Saints, and brought a bag of hilarious “What Would Clive Do?” merch he’d designed to sell in the lobby. He was then joined by Carrie Underwood for a classy duet on Sammy Cahn’s “All the Way”; Underwood would later return for a stab at “Cowboy Casanova” that would sadly demonstrate that rowdy song’s inability to be sung properly in a hotel ballroom by a girl wearing a pretty cocktail dress.

It was up to Mary J. Blige to recapture the attention of the audience as she honored Universal Music chairman Doug Morris, the recipient of the night’s Presidential Merit Award, who was given significant praise from Portnow, Davis, and Motown records founder Berry Gordy. Blige blew the doors off the joint with “No More Drama,” then brought the remaining portions of the house down with “I Can See In Color,” her song from the Precious soundtrack. When she ended, curled on the floor with one hand clutching the piano, the applause was thunderous.

And then everybody left.

There were competing events taking place around town — Ne-Yo had a thing happening, and the Roots were hosting their annual jam — but to see the flood of celebrities hit the exits at the stroke of midnight was alarming to say the least. Santana and Rob Thomas were tasked with playing the emptying room (“Yay, us!” Thomas said, upon reaching the mic), and those left were treated to the amusing sight of Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa jamming out to “Smooth.” He was more or less the only one. Oh. Glee‘s Corey Monteith was still there, too.

Thus did Jennifer Hudson’s lovely tribute to Barbra Streisand fall on deaf chairs, though her nuanced renditions of “People” and “The Way We Were” deserved better. Streisand’s expression throughout this performance remained inscrutable — no telling how the consummate career artist took to being honored by a a former Idol contestant, even one as accomplished as Hudson, after most everyone who was anyone had taken off — but when he got back to the podium, Davis was pissed. “It’s less than three hours of music,” he told the room. “If you can’t take it, you’re in the wrong business.”

To borrow a phrase from final performer Jamie Foxx, one could ostensibly blame it on the alcohol, as the party’s cocktail hour had opened its doors more than five hours earlier. It could be nothing more significant than a lack of showstopping headliner — like last year’s Whitney Houston return — or the fact that folks just wanted to get to bed before Sunday’s main event. But I can’t avoid the sneaking suspicion that the mass ditching of the Clive Davis party indicates something of a sea change, a shift in power to a younger generation that isn’t interested in the amber-trapped traditions of the old guard, sitting quietly at tables with wine and chicken and applauding the past. The night was indeed flush with the “elegance and good taste” promised early on by Portnow — but do those qualities still matter in a “Boom Boom Pow” world?

Tune in to the 52nd annual Grammy Awards, live on CBS tonight at 8 p.m. ET/PT — and don’t forget to sign up for our Grammy live blog!

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