The music show that happened during the Grammys

I’m sitting in for Alyssa a few times this week. Thanks to Alyssa–and you–for having me.

This year’s Grammy Awards were a little disorienting. Putting aside Lady Gaga’s red carpet entrance (and the downright uneventful performance she gave in contrast) and Lady Antebellum’s baffling tribute to Teddy Pendergrass, there seemed to be a weird tug-of-war between music and pop culture. American music has always influenced culture, but this is the first time I’ve watched a Grammys show that focused more on the personalities than the music. From the red carpet stunts to the performances and presenters, music took a back seat. But when musicians instead of walking cultural phenomena won awards, the disconnect was even more pronounced.

Watching the pre-show on E! made me uneasy–when one of the biggest arrivals at the Grammys is Kim Kardashian, something’s a bit off. From there, the show itself was a study in clashing aesthetics. The show’s opening number, a tribute to ailing (?) soul queen Aretha Franklin, was an ambitious mix of singers: Jennifer Hudson, Christina Aguilera, Martina McBride, gospel diva Yolanda Adams, and Florence Welch from Florence + and the Machine.

Other performances were less music and more spectacle: Justin Bieber holding a guitar for a few minutes and dancing with Will Smith’s son really isn’t the same as Mumford and Sons stomping the hell out of their stage platform and playing the hell out of their instruments. Then…there was Cee Lo and Gwyneth Paltrow. And Muppets. Still trying to figure that out. Throughout the show–from Barbra to Mick Jagger’s tribute to late soul great Solomon Burke–there was a pronounced difference between the musicians and the performers.

And when actual musicians won awards, there was confusion. The biggest of the night might have been the winner for Best New Artist, bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding; despite teaching at Berklee, releasing three damn good jazz albums and playing the White House–and the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony–all before turning 30, no one knows who she is. That Justin Bieber didn’t win Best New Artist was an outrage only to those whose musical tastes don’t stray beyond the boundaries of their radios. And Album of the Year winner Arcade Fire reminded viewers that big, noisy rock on a small label could still get attention from the Academy.

Watching the MTV Music Awards has become less of an imperative because instead of new music, we usually get that year’s hottest trend. The Grammys this year attempted to balance trend with talent. I still don’t know if it succeeded.