Grammys 2013: Grading the Performances
Taylor Swift, ''We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together''
Taylor Swift opened the 2013 Grammys with literal heat, in the form of some dude with a blow torch and a sort of flame-belching umbrella contraption. In a circus-cum-Alice in Wonderland motif, Swift stalked her way through ''We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together'' with reckless abandon and laid out the night?s first great reveal: An anonymous stand-in for an ex-boyfriend, strapped to a target. Though it seemed like she was going to toss knives in his general direction, Swift stuck with lyrical barbs and the drop-in line, ''I'm sorry, I'm busy...opening up the Grammys.'' Still, it would have been cool to see T-Swizzle (as LL Cool J called her) tossing some steel in some dude's general direction. B+
Ed Sheeran and Elton John, ''The A-Team''
Now that Taylor Swift has already proclaimed herself Queen of Wonderland, she could allow her redheaded footman to have some screen time. Ed Sheeran arrived on stage dressed in his version of formal attire (black T-shirt, black pants) to play his song ''The A-Team,'' backed by none other than Elton John. Their duet sounded very refined — whenever there's a piano involved, the Grammys might as well bedazzle the words ''IT'S CLASSY TIME'' across the bench, and they get extra sophistication points whenever the people playing that piano are British — but would it have killed these two golden-voiced gentlemen to up the drama a bit? As it is, the only real razzle-dazzle here belonged to the real star of the show: Sir Elton's rainbow-sparkle blazer. B-
fun., ''Carry On''
For their Grammy debut, fun. broke out their latest single as opposed to either of the two songs (''We Are Young'' and ''Some Nights'') that got them to this dance in the first place. But ''Carry On'' deserves to be as big a smash as those other two, and their lock-step rendition proved the road-tested band had impeccable chemistry and electric presence. In fact, the on-stage rain storm was a tad distracting, and though a bit of theatricality usually goes a long way at the Grammys, fun. already had plenty of charisma without forcing guitarist Jack Antonoff to constantly wipe the water from his eyes. B
Dierks Bentley and Miranda Lambert, ''Over You''/''Home''
Dierks Bentley and Miranda Lambert are both dynamic performers, but they couldn't quite find the groove during their one-two punch of Lambert's ''Over You'' and Bentley's ''Home.'' The former's lovely melody got lost in the too-big arrangement, and the former shunted Lambert to the background. Bonnie Raitt and John Mayer introduced the duet as a tribute to the greatness of country music, but Lambert and Bentley delivered the evening's first whiff. B-
Miguel and Wiz Khalifa, ''Adorn''
Can someone please make an update of Twins starring these two? They looked adorable in their complementary black and white suits, and it was so gracious of Wiz to hang back while his pattern-matching friend powered through his Best R&B Song winner ''Adorn,'' offering the occasional ''uh!'' and ''yup!'' in support. There was plenty of dramatic high-note singing, buddy-comedy chemistry, and high-five mutual appreciation. These guys didn't forget anything — except Whiz?s shirt. B
Mumford & Sons, ''I Will Wait''
Mumford & Sons' rendition of the hit ''I Will Wait'' eschewed traditional showmanship (no fire, lightning, or rain during this one) in favor of a bunch of passionate dudes strumming the heck out of their now-signature tune. It was every Mumford & Sons performance you've ever seen, but it's always pretty killer. B+
Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z, ''Suit & Tie''/''Pusher Love Girl''
Next up, Bruno Mars! Oh wait, that was Justin Timberlake. But with the black-and-white, Ed Sullivan Show set-up and the black-tie attire, it could've been Frank Sinatra and your grandma never would've never noticed the difference. Timberlake went old-school for ''Suit & Tie,'' a song that was pretty much made to be performed at awards shows. (He released it the night of the Golden Globes.) Backed by a group called ''JT and the Tennessee Kids,'' which seemed to feature at least one Janelle Monáe impersonator, he sounded pretty good, too, working that falsetto as hard as he could. Jay-Z stopped by to offer red-carpet fashion commentary (''Tom Ford tuxedos for no reason!'') before everything changed, Wizard of Oz style, from black and white to full color, and Timberlake segued into his latest single, ''Pusher Love Girl.'' New songs for a classic performance — if by classic, you mean circa 2005. B+
Maroon 5 and Alicia Keys, ''Daylight''/''Girl on Fire''
Maroon 5 and Alicia Keys don't make a whole lot of sense on paper as a collaboration, and for their tag-team at the Grammys, they mostly performed separately. Keys was almost entirely silent during Maroon 5's ''One More Night,'' then the band faded into the background while Adam Levine dropped in backing vocals in between Keys' ''Girl on Fire.'' The performance hinged on both tunes' (massive) hooks, and Keys gets a few extra points for jettisoning her piano in favor of pounding the drums. Like Mumford & Sons, there were no real fireworks, but both Maroon 5 and Keys were smart enough to get out of the way of their hits. B
This is how it's done: No booming dubstep breakdown. No backup from some random legacy artist. No ill-advised performance of that duet with her ex. It was just Rihanna, standing there by the piano in a simple black dress, ripping out her heart and her lungs and probably one or two of those red-lacquered nails she kept chewing on. Her already emotional rendition of ''Stay'' was made even more dramatic by the fact that the words — ''Funny you're the broken one / But I'm the only one who needed saving'' — may or may not have been aimed at her former (and possibly current?) boyfriend Chris Brown, who was sitting in the audience, looking about as broken as it gets. Mikky Echo showed up to play the part of the bad boyfriend, but the whole performance belonged to Rihanna. It was the best reminder of why she's famous in the first place: not because of those headlines from the 2009 Grammys, but because the woman can really sing. A-
Black Keys, Dr. John, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, ''Lonely Boy''
The Black Keys wore leather, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band donned New Orleans second line cool, and Dr. John dressed as a condor-worshipping voodoo priest. This raucous combination blazed through an extra-jumpy rendition of the Keys' ''Lonely Boy,'' overflowing with spicy fuzzy guitar and a cavalcade of punchy horn skronks. It was a lively, thrilling stomp that represented the evening's five most adrenalized minutes. A
Kelly Clarkson, ''Tennessee Waltz''/''(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman''
Don't panic: Carole King is not dead! She just got a Lifetime Achievement Award, along with the great Patti Page (who did, in fact, die this year — sorry). And Kelly Clarkson is the perfect pick to pay tribute to these women. Part Hollywood earth mama like King, part sassy Southern lady like Page, she's the everywoman who can work whatever role you bring her, from Aretha Franklin?s R-E-S-P-E-C-T-demanding diva from ''(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman'' (which King wrote) to Page's lonely torch singer from ''Tennessee Waltz.'' And it's a good thing she pulled it off, too, since Clarkson now calls Tennessee home. Maybe now they'll let her stay there a little bit longer. B+
Bob Marley Tribute
Bob Marley never won a Grammy during his lifetime, but his influence is still felt deeply not only in reggae but across R&B, hip-hop, and rock music. All of those elements were represented during the salute to Marley's legacy. The participants wisely mixed together Marley-inspired constructions — Bruno Mars' ''Locked Out of Heaven,'' the Police's ''Walking on the Moon'' — and finished with Marley's own ''Could You Be Loved'' (which Rihanna belted out with the help of Ziggy and Damian Marley, two of Bob's sons). Props to Mars for playing next to Sting and tacitly admitting that ''Locked Out of Heaven'' is basically a Police song, and a little extra for Mars' tremendous skills as a ringmaster. When Ken Ehrlich is ready to hang up the spurs as this show's producer, he should tap Mars as his replacement. A-
The Lumineers, ''Ho Hey''
What's the best way to ensure that everyone in the crowd will sing along? Make sure there?s only two syllables involved. Just as soon as these suspenders-rocking, kick-drum-stomping folk breakouts got to the chorus of their hit song, everyone was ''Ho! Hey!''-ing along in the crowd, from Melissa Etheridge (who looked very, very serious about her chanting!) to Hunter Hayes (who actually gave them a standing ovation) to Taylor Swift (who whipped out the signature heart symbol to demonstrate the universal hand gesture for ''I belong with you / You belong with me''). It's official: Either people really love suspenders, or they really love this song. B+
Jack White, ''Love Interruption''/''Freedom at 21''
Both of Jack White's bands — the all-female Peacocks and the men-only Los Buzzardos — got the spotlight during his powerful appearance. The ladies floated through a lovely, lilting take on ''Love Interruption'' (complete with dreamy harmonies from singer Ruby Amanfu), while the bros tackled the stomping, dissonant ''Freedom at 21.'' Both showed off White's ample grace and grit, but they also proved that the musicians behind him have been as vital to his success as his own blues-bent mind. A
Carrie Underwood, ''Blown Away''/''Two Black Cadillacs''
What just happened? Yes, Hunter Hayes played five seconds of ''Wanted'' — but that whole performance was quickly forgotten as soon as Carrie Underwood's dress dropped acid and started losing itself in some kind of LED nightmare. The fabric changed into roses! And then butterflies flew out from underneath it! And then a rabid unicorn galloped out onto the stage and ripped off Underwood's dress with its teeth! Okay, that last part didn't happen. But the whole performance was such a failed experiment, it felt like a very bad trip. Nevermind that Underwood's voice sounded amazing. It was impossible to distract yourself from the dress. Was a very tiny person hiding underneath it, finger-painting with glow-in-the-dark acrylics from the inside? We don't know. But whatever was happening, it was wrong. C+
Levon Helm Tribute
A lot of tributes are somber affairs that try to capture the gravity of a beloved artist's passing. The joyous hat-tip to Levon Helm was not one of those tributes, and everybody was all the better for it. ''The Weight'' is about uplift and relief, and the entire lineup — Elton John, Zac Brown, T-Bone Burnett, Mumford & Sons, Mavis Staples, and Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard — dove deep into the song's effervescent, shout-along friendly nooks and crannies. In fact, Staples was so overcome by the power of ''The Weight'' that she spun the song-closing vocal run into something resembling a spasm. Levon — always looking to push the limits of his own music — probably would have wanted it that way. A-
Frank Ocean, ''Forrest Gump''
This was about as experimental as the Grammys gets (i.e., not very). First, Colombian metalhead-turned-Latin superstar Juanes sang Elton John's ''Your Song,'' partly in Spanish. Then Frank Ocean performed his concept track ''Forrest Gump'' — sung from the perspective of Forrest's hippie muse, Jenny — in front of a large screen that projected Forrest's long run across the desert. Under the podium, it looked like Ocean's legs were running, which was kind of funny, but it still begged the question: Why didn't Ocean play his awesome breakthrough single, ''Thinkin' Bout You''? ''Forrest Grump'' might've been a bold choice, but it wasn't necessarily a smart one. B
LL Cool J, Chuck D, Z-Trip, Tom Morello, and Travis Barker, ''Whaddup''/''No Sleep Till Brooklyn''
In a strange transition from host to show-closing performer, LL Cool J took over for the show-closing performance at the Grammys. He brought out Chuck D, Z-Trip, Tom Morello, and Travis Barker for a pumped up run through LL's guttural new blaster ''Whaddup.'' The combination of Morello's noisey guitar, Z-Trip's jittery scratching, and Barker's Armageddon-summoning drums made a lot more sense when the troupe transitioned into Beastie Boys' ''No Sleep Till Brooklyn'' as a tribute to the late Adam ''MCA'' Yauch. The shout-along to the refrain of ''No Sleep'' made for a lively Irish wake for the fallen Beastie, though the show had such an uneven energy throughout the night that the blast of hip-hop aggression at the end made for some awkwardness (as did the cut to a series of sponsorship shout-outs while LL was still rapping). The idea was an A, but the execution was a C+