Trapped in the Grammys funhouse.
We sidled up to last night's 49th Annual Grammy Awards (CBS) already feeling sorry for the Police. The boys had gotten the band back together and designated the Staples Center as the launch pad for their reunion, implicitly promising a pop spectacle for the ages. But they opened the show, and, as such, were following Prince, whose ridiculously majestic Super Bowl performance the week before had set a new standard for pop spectacle, with God thoughtfully supplying the heart-rending purple rain. After that deluge, three guys playing "Roxanne" could only seem cute. When the Police took the stage, there was neither vision nor ecstasy, so you just watched Sting's biceps and felt confident his yogi has been earning his keep.
Still, the band was tight—noteworthy for a broadcast marked by an unusual number of glitches, miscues, and deflating juxtapositions. Tony Bennett caught on to this early. When Bennett and Stevie Wonder won the Grammy for pop collaboration with vocals, Wonder dedicated the award to his mother, who died last year, and then Bennett paid thanks to Target, "the greatest sponsor I ever worked for in my life." Elsewhere, Dixie Chick Natalie Maines, celebrating the victory of a recording distinguished by its poise and steely dignity, invoked the two-toned taunt of The Simpsons' Nelson Muntz. The immortal Booker T and the MGs were announced as the winners of a lifetime achievement award by the highly mortal Black Eyed Peas, whose frontwoman would shortly be high-fiving a Doberman in a commercial for Candie's. Mary J. Blige poured herself into her number—stomping, hopping, conjuring a world of pain, and then healing it in crescendo. She finished, the viewer was tingling with catharsis, and then the announcer went and said, "Please welcome Mandy Moore, LeAnn Rimes, and, soon to be seen in Vacancy, Luke Wilson!"
Because this is 2007, the Grammys now have a reality-show component, so Queen Latifah was soon on stage explicating a gimmick called My Grammy Moment. We could vote via text message for one of three unsigned songbirds to perform alongside Justin Timberlake later in the broadcast. There they were, Robyn and Brenda and Africa. It was gonna be a tough call; Brenda and Africa and Robyn were, as heard in clips and glimpsed in the audience, entirely indistinguishable—the same warm contralto, the same mechanical melisma, the same ingénue's bounce.
Africa and Robyn and Brenda sat in the front row, clutching one another like pageant girls, the same heavy gloss on the same hopeful lips, watching the same performances that we did. John Mayer, John Legend, and Corinne Bailey Rae combined for an act, and watching it was like chasing eggs Benedict with Bordeaux. (They were outdone for fuzzy brunch-friendliness only by James Blunt, who was like eggs Florentine and two Ambien.) Shakira came on to do "Hips Don't Lie" one more time. We've seen a lot of Shakira this past year. Her ilia had been trustworthy at the VMAs. Her pelvis had demonstrated the utmost candor at the World Cup final. Once again, Shakira's hips proved fantastically forthright. At his point, you feel they could credibly co-host the news with Walter Cronkite.
Every now and then, an artist performs a rendition of a classic that wholly reinvents the song—revealing the secrets of the original even as it deepens them. Rascal Flatts' cover of "Hotel California" was not that performance. For such transcendence, you had to wait around for Christina Aguilera. In a flash, this woman—white from hair to heels, with a cadmium-red mouth for power and passion—was on her knees pleading with the ghost of James Brown: "This is a man's, a man's, a man's world/ But it wouldn't be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl." It was peerless and strange and every bit as mind-warping as Prince's having beaten Hendrix for lust and Dylan for wrath in his Super Bowl "All Along the Watchtower."
Thus, Aguilera provided the spectacular pop of the 49th Grammys. Her performance kept buzzing around the chest while Robin or Brynda or whoever was making a perfectly competent debut. And while Queen Latifah and, uh, Al Gore presented the trophy for best rock album to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And long after Scarlett Johansson (whose hair looked terrific) and Don Henley (who looked like, uh, Al Gore) wrapped it all up by striding out to announce the album of the year in a funny, suitably absurd bit of teleprompter patter.
Henley: "So, I hear you're recording your first album."
Johansson: "Yes, that's right, I am, Don. You got any advice for me?"
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Photograph of Sting by Kevin Winter/Getty Images.