From the long march of dead and living forebears, to the Aretha-led gospel invocation, to Tom Hanks shouting about the Beatles as if they were running for president -- and on up to the surprise winner for best album, Herbie Hancock's beatification of the Joni Mitchell songbook -- this year's Grammy Awards ceremony Sunday night at Staples Center was all about casting around for belief. Uncertainty permeated this night of nights for major-label pop, as its makers sought a way forward in what can only be described as a fog.
In the end, two beacons stood out, demanding a choice: Should music lovers get behind the earnest showbiz convictions of its young alpha queen, Alicia Keys, who now completely owns the pop glamour role once held by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey? Or dare they invest in the tattered dramatic realism of Amy Winehouse, whose poignant midrehab performance followed in the unpredictable tradition of rock 'n' roll?
Kanye West offered a third path, highlighting his genre-defiant collaboration with the French electronic duo Daft Punk in a live performance that was typically stylish and surreal. But he didn't own this night, even though he won four Grammys and gave one great speech, managing to shush the get-offstage music to pay proper tribute to his recently deceased mother. West's confidence is almost singular among today's major artists; he knows where he's going, no matter what happens around him. Others are less certain about whether to passionately pursue showbiz or to invest in something riskier and more raw.
The show's producers put their trust in both women. Keys opened the evening, sitting at the piano and dueting awkwardly with a hologram of Frank Sinatra (one would have hoped Celine Dion's weird dance with the shadow Elvis during last season's "Idol Gives Back" gala would have killed off this idea) and later delivering her massive hit "No One" with the bellowing fervor her many fans so admire.
Her real gift, however, is for craft and polish, for selling feeling in a package so graceful and well-measured that it utterly convinces. She represents the best outcome for pop as defined by "American Idol," country music and theatrical reworkings such as the soundtrack winner, Cirque du Soleil's Beatles tribute "Love." With her biracial mix of hip-hop and rock influences, she's a model for the mainstream in a globally minded America.
Winehouse is obviously an iffier proposition. Beamed in by satellite from a London soundstage decorated speak-easy style, she pushed her way through two songs from "Back to Black," the album that won her five statues (her creative partner Mark Ronson also won for producer of the year). Off-key at times, her drawled syllables sometimes veering uncomfortably close to blackface, she nonetheless was the most exciting performer of the evening. Her desperation to do well was palpably human, and her delivery was a gamble -- a harder push, and a more electric one, than you usually see during a staged event like the Grammys.
Cheering like a punk rocker when she won record of the year, Winehouse stood for all the rough-and-ready strivers who made popular music a rebel's sport -- and who still make it interesting in the margins, where the Grammys mostly only go off-camera.
She had companions this evening -- in fellow best-new-artist nominee Feist, whose handcrafted chamber pop also provided warmth amid the evening's glitz; in Grammy pioneer Keely Smith, who showed her wacky humor despite being saddled with collaborators Kid Rock and Dave Koz; and in Tina Turner, whose rasp is for the ages, and who, at 68, dared to wear skin-tight silver lame.
The academy, however, is mostly on Keys' side. From Carrie Underwood classily mimicking Nancy Sinatra to Beyonce slicking up Tina's style while onstage with her, the night's superstars threw in their lot with pop's razzle-dazzle masquerade. Even those old punks the Foo Fighters continued their upmarket trick of playing with a mini-orchestra.
But the classic soul that Winehouse reinterprets points toward another way -- an investment in the immediacy and daring that turned pop into a movement during the era she mines.
No matter what the numbers are, music always burns brightest when telling stories and capturing feelings we urgently need to share.
For all her over-discussed troubles, Winehouse is a force for that connectedness, and she deserved to be celebrated Sunday night. "Camden town is burning, burning down, burning down!" she shouted upon winning, referring to a real fire that ravaged her native London over the weekend. But she might have been talking about the fire she's delivered, one that we can only hope will spread.