Christian Cieri, Illustrator

The 2015 Grammy Awards highlighted a paradigm shift in modern music–as it moves forward, it takes more from the past. Case in point, Kanye West–he performed not one but two songs he co-wrote with Paul McCartney. Or, look at Sam Smith, who swept the floor with awards for a song whose chorus Tom Petty owns the rights to. Like other Grammy shows, the night had its highs and lows. While it might not be written up in history books 100 years from now, it painted an intriguing portrait of the future of music and pop culture.

Some of the night’s highest points came from collaborations between artists across generations. Ed Sheeran proved he’s got talent for the long haul with his incredible performance of “Thinking Out Loud” with ELO, John Mayer and Questlove. Ed Sheeran busted out impressive guitar comping which held its own to John Mayer’s guitar chops. Everything that went down on the stage, from Questlove’s tight drumming to John Mayer’s epic guitar solo on a Pink Jackson guitar, was part of a display of top-notch musicianship. Simply put, this was good music.

Also impressive was Hozier’s collaboration with Annie Lennox. Lennox joined Hozier on the stage during the middle of his song “Take Me to Church,” after which the duo sung a cover of the Jay Hawkins’ classic, “I Put a Spell on You.” Annie Lennox commanded attention immediately with the conviction and urgency of her presence; however, she didn’t steal the show from Hozier, who was clearly euphoric to be sharing the stage with Lennox (not to mention he delivered the night’s second epic guitar solo). While some of the night’s performances were lip-synced, Hozier and Lennox’s was real in every sense of the word.

Kanye West delivered an arresting performance of his new single, “Only One,” a ballad about his daughter which he co-wrote with Paul McCartney. It was disappointing that McCartney didn’t share the stage with West, but the performance still had its merits. From the minimalist stage design to West’s beautifully curdled, autotuned vocal delivery, the performance was intriguingly futuristic yet unvarnished, a bizarre union of the past and the future. Also, the backing track West was singing to included a bass synthesizer that was not in the studio mix of the song, which was neat.

A surprise star of the night was Usher, who covered Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic”– and did it justice. Usher’s rendition of the song was earnest and faithful to the original recording, right down to the harp accompaniment. Wonder joined the stage with Usher near the end of the tune, laying down a beautiful solo on the chromatic harmonica. The performance was tender, honest and chilling.

At their worst, the performances was simply forgettable. Ariana Grande delivered a performance of “Just a Little Bit of Your Heart” which was technically sound but ultimately uninteresting. Standing amidst an icy stage design, Grande’s performance felt as cold as her aesthetic. While her breathy pop vocals were pretty, the song didn’t build up very much, and neither did her singing. Hopefully, this talented pop singer will come out with more captivating performances in the future.

Adam Levine and Gwen Stefani performed the song “My Heart is Open,” a ballad off of the latest Maroon 5 album. With its string section, the song was grandiose and elegant, but it was also boring. As usual, Adam Levine was vocally tight. However, Gwen Stefani’s contributions as a guest singer bordered on irritating; her pop sensibilities didn’t add anything to Levine’s hopelessly generic love song. Considering the outstanding collaborations of the night, this performance faded into obscurity as soon as it ended.

There were some wildcards of the night. Pharrell’s re-worked “Happy,” juxtaposing the song’s universally uplifting message with an apocalyptic gothic choir. Pharell’s ambition with this performance was admirable, but it came off as campy and ultimately got dragged down by its own ambition. Still, the most confounding performance of the night was Paul McCartney, Rihanna and Kanye West’s “FourFive Seconds.” Seeing McCartney share the stage with West and Rihanna bordered on surreal. While it was somewhat compelling to see country, pop and rap music fused together in such an unprecedented fashion, West and Rihanna’s presence felt unjustifiably angry, confrontational and bitter. In particular, it felt like West got so caught up in egomania, he was scolding his audience for possessing a closed-mindedness that just didn’t exist. The performance embodied everything music shouldn’t be. Hopefully, “FourFive Seconds” will be relegated to pop-culture’s dustbin of awful things, sharing the company of every Jet song ever written and “Mambo No. 5.”

Overall, the 2015 Grammys, with its highs and lows, was a success. The night provided a sneak peek of this era’s future superstars (Ed Sheeran?) and brought together the past and the present in exciting ways with its collaborations. We might be looking backwards for inspiration more than we ever have before–but we’re moving forward too.

Howard is a member of the class of 2017. 

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