Lady Gage and Elton John shine, Beyonce rocks, and Taylor Swift and Stevie Nicks struggle

By Leah Greenblatt
Updated February 05, 2010 at 05:00 AM EST

Trophies? Sure, they passed out a few in prime time (10, to be exact), but the three-and-a-half-hour broadcast’s true raison d’être was, of course, the tireless A-list cavalcade of spangled, sensational, and increasingly extravagant live performances. Here are the highs — some of them literal — and one unfortunate low.

Lady Gaga and Elton John
Gaga, a bedazzled disco leprechaun in a steampunk Fame Factory, recast dance smash ”Poker Face” as a lady-sings-the-blues burner before being joined by Sir Elton, likewise sooty and sequined. Their full-throated renditions of her ”Speechless” and his ”Your Song” set the tone for a night of one-up(wo)manship. A-

Green Day
Flanked by the cast of American Idiot, a new stage musical largely based on their ’04 album, Berkeley’s platinum punks turned snarling anthem ”21 Guns” into a rousing rock opera: two parts fist-pumping guitar dischord to one part Rent, with a giddy Glee garnish. B+

The army of stormtroopers behind her? Possibly there to protect Sasha from her own Fierceness?and unbe-weave-able cyclone of whipping hair. The evening’s six-time winner delivered her gender-equality anthem ”If I Were a Boy” and Alanis Morissette’s classic woman-scorned wail ”You Oughta Know” with blazing conviction. A-

Draped in a latticework of ribbons, the nearly nude star show-cased the high-altitude acrobatics of her Funhouse tour while maintaining stunning vocal form on the lovely but largely unknown ”Glitter in the Air.” (Few can nail those notes on the ground, let alone suspended 30 feet above it, soaking wet.) A-

Michael Jackson tribute
Celine Dion, Jennifer Hudson, Usher, Carrie Underwood, and Smokey Robinson sang along with the late King of Pop on a poignant, powerhouse reprise of his eco-epic ”Earth Song” — followed by Jackson’s children, whose speech felt gratifyingly awkward, heartfelt, and unrehearsed. B+

Taylor Swift and Stevie Nicks
An odd swig of soda pop mixed with merlot. Taylor, game but pitchy, lacked the aptitude for Fleetwood Mac’s sumptuous ”Rhiannon,” and Nicks on Swift’s ”You Belong With Me” was the sonic equivalent of putting the leather-and-lace icon in pigtails and Abercrombie. What befits a legend and an ingenue? Alas, none of the above. C