TO say "The Grammy Awards" is essentially to say "The Grammy Awards Show." Winning one of those little Victrolas may shift some additional units, and might add some lasting luster to a mantelpiece or bathroom shelf -- and indeed what you see on TV is merely a sampling of the apparently thousands of Grammys that are given out each year. But for the world the moment that counts is the moment the camera catches.
The Grammys have an inherent advantage over the other three big "academy awards" -- the Oscars, the Emmys, the Tonys -- in that the show is composed of the very thing the awards are being given for. They have a kind of "authenticity" the other shows lack: You get U2 and Coldplay appearing in the same sort of venue, Staples Center, where they would normally appear. Big rock shows have come to look like awards programs anyway. And Wednesday night's set was unusually elegant and effective, adaptable to each performance. A few rows of dancing fans were placed in front of the stage to give the impression of a musical event and not a television production; for the most part the illusion held.
It was, on the whole, a very good show that emphasized performances -- 26 in three hours -- and did not stand on ceremony as to the relevance of the material: Madonna, who opened the show with the cartoon band the Gorillaz, wasn't even nominated; Paul McCartney was allowed to play "Helter Skelter," a song from the 1960s; U2 and Mary J. Blige performed "One," a song from the last century that she covers on her current album.
CBS made much of its intention to supply water-cooler moments with unusual groupings of performers, but these pairings often look better on paper than they do in person. The Gorillaz-Madonna mash-up, which opened the show, amounted to a few minutes of uneasy overlap between the animated pop concept and the fleshly Material Woman. (She came into her own once she was on her own.) Too many cooks can spoil the broth: The all-star Sly Stone tribute was something of a stylistic train wreck even before Sly appeared in wraparound shades and a blond Mohawk. His performance didn't argue for an extended comeback. Better, if only because it wasn't advertised beforehand, was McCartney's joining Linkin Park lead singer Chester Bennington and Jay-Z on a hip-hoppy "Yesterday." The singalong to "In the Midnight Hour" that capped the evening was sweet, if not inspiring.
Other highlights included Stevie Wonder and Alicia Keys duetting a cappella on Wonder's "Higher Ground"; Kanye West's "Gold Digger," presented as a kind of compressed hip-hop college musical costarring Jamie Foxx that seemed to have the whole crowd on its feet; and Kelly Clarkson's thin-skinned rendition of "Because of You," in which her whole being seemed involved.
There were the usual thanks to God. West, who caused a stir during an earlier TV appearance with comments about the president and black people, also thanked his publicist. "Imagine being my publicist," he said, "how hard that's got to be." The show was low on such unscripted moments; Bruce Springsteen's quickly uttered "Bring 'em home" at the finish of his focused solo performance was as radical a political sentiment as the evening saw.
CBS hyped its lineup with appearances by Jennifer Love Hewitt ("Ghost Whisperer"), improbably with Black Eyed Peas, and Jenna Elfman ("Courting Alex"), though they were kind or careful enough to also include an ABC star, desperate housewife Teri Hatcher.