One would think that after the shining example of the importance of audio quality and artistic choice that was the Black Eyed Peas’ Super Bowl XLV half-time performance, we’d probably need a break from the big cultural events and their onslaught of mostly mediocre musical acts. But alas, the chill of winter has once again affected our brains and we’re at the mercy of the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards. It’s hard to understand the appeal of the Grammys once you reach a certain point in your life, the one where you magically discover music outside of the mainstream, where you’re free to pick and choose the sounds that will make up your day beyond the simplicity of what airs on the radio or makes the tops of various charts. But part of the appeal has to stem from the fact that there is an inherent comfort with the Grammys, a feeling that while all of your musical influences will grow and expand and mutate beyond the tastes you had in years prior, the Grammys will be around as a kind of universal truth, one where people of all walks of life can know the biggest, most important musical offerings of a given year and then watch in anticipation as results are revealed, dreams are fulfilled or extinguished, and betting pools are made all the more interesting.
As we usually do, we celebrate the glory that is the Grammys with some of our most beloved musical performances. This time around, however, there’s none of that “worst of” stuff; no, each of these performances stand as a monument to shared musical experiences and the power and impact a rocking showcase can have. But we should also take time to look forward to the bounty ahead of us. This year’s festivities will be marked by performances from Arcade Fire, Katy Perry, Eminem, Dr. Dre, Lady Gaga, Cee-Lo Green, Miranda Lambert, Mumford & Sons, and Bob Dylan. A mighty list if there ever was one, but what’s most exciting about it isn’t who is actually playing; rather, it’s the potential for another great musical moment possibly occurring in almost any of these showcases. Eminem could kill it, Gaga could shock us, Dylan might cement his legacy for the umpteenth time, or maybe Mumford & Sons might get that next-level-bump. Whether you love these acts or not, the performances, and the awards as well, are a chance to see a band or artist elevated to the next echelon in front of your very eyes. That is why each year, despite knowing better, we all flock to our TVs and absorb every slight, subtle moment of musical joy and every second of every guffaw-inducing disappointment.
We’d like to see football do that.
– Chris Coplan
Michael Jackson – “Man In The Mirror” (1988)
For all the excess, pomp, and circumstance that seemed to surround Michael Jackson, watching him performing “Man In The Mirror” at the 1988 Grammy awards is a great reminder of how great he could be even when he stripped it down. The seven-minute performance opens with The King of Pop taking the stage all by himself before bringing out the gospel choir and mesmerizing the crowd– just like he did so many times in his career – with his iconic vocal delivery and inimitable dance moves. He may have won almost 20 Golden Gramophones in his lifetime, but he’ll be remembered for this performance forever. -Ray Roa
Eminem & Elton John – “Stan” (2001)
Accusations of homophobia were swirling around Eminem upon the announcement of his involvement with the 43rd Annual Grammy Awards telecast, but he would make his dissenters eat their words with one of the best performances the Grammys had seen in a long time. Em kicked off with the opening of his hit “Stan”, and, in a genius move, the voice that came from behind that keyboard was not Dido but a loudly-dressed and openly gay Elton John. In one fell swoop, their duet demolished any negative press prior to that evening. Talent is as talent does. -Megan Caffery
Moby, Jill Scott, & Blue Man Group – “Natural Blues” (2001)
Anyone who has ever seen a Blue Man Group show knows how wildly interesting and entertaining the spectacle can be. Anyone who has ever heard “Natural Blues” knows how timeless and moving it is. Put them together? One word: epic. -Ben Kaye
Mary J. Blige – “No More Drama” (2002)
From time to time, even royalty have to prove why they reign supreme. Such was the case for Mary J. Blige, the queen of R&B, at the 2001 Grammys. In the midst of battling personal demons and label pressure from dwindling sales, Blige brought the soulless crowd in Los Angeles and the apathetic people at home to tears with “No More Drama”. All hail the queen, and someone please pass us the Kleenex box. -Chris Coplan
Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Little Steven, & Dave Grohl – “London Calling” (2003)
There’s no denying in the 53-year history of the Grammy that there have been a few performances worthy of being called iconic. No other such outing is as instantly certifiable than the tribute to Clash frontman Joe Strummer just two months after his passing. In this raucous, emotional ode, the punk legend’s legacy was celebrated with an explosive yet poignant moment that highlighted the power of rock music as a means of rebellion and a force for good. -Chris Coplan
Kanye West, John Legend, Mavis Staples & Blind Boys of Alabama – “Jesus Walks” (2005)
For better or worse, Kanye West has been defined by his award show appearances. But before Daft Punk collabos and Taylor-gate, the Chicago MC launched into universal super stardom when he teamed up with John Legend, Mavis Staples, and The Blind Boys of Alabama at the 2005 Grammys. It was his Grammys debut, and also proved to be one of his most captivating performances to date. Performing “Jesus Walks”, which would win Best Rap Song that year, Kanye offered us our first glimpse at his true potential. The rhymes, the passion, the over-the-top showmanship (he dressed like an angel!)… it was all there. -Alex Young
The Police – “Roxanne” (2007)
When word leaked in December 2006 of a Police reunion, the ‘net sort of exploded. Well, message boards, anyhow. Given the band’s unique breakup (they split after their most critically and commercially successful album to date, 1983’s Synchronicity), people never thought they’d hit the stage together again. Hell, their Rock & Roll Hall of Fame performance in 2003 still goes down as one of the most awkward performances to date. But, with the band’s 30th Anniversary falling in 2007, all the cards were set. Then the announcement came: The Police to reunite at the 2007 Grammy Awards. Everyone knew they’d perform “Roxanne”, but when those lush cherry red lights coated the legendary trio, little metaphorical fireworks went off in everyone’s mind. They sounded sharp, they sounded tight, and the music didn’t feel dated or forced. (Admittedly, the pre-recorded Sting harmonies sounded odd, but whatever.) Reunion? It felt like they never left! When Sting exclaimed, “We are The Police and we’re back,” millions of fans sighed in relief. In some respects, depending on whose side you take (Team Copeland all the way!), it made Sting seem hip again. How about that? -Michael Roffman
Kanye West & Daft Punk – “Stronger” (2008)
The Grammy’s provide an opportune moment for Rap Songs (their term) to come to life and pair the MC with his source material. It’s hard to imagine two more powerful artists colliding on stage than Kanye West and Daft Punk. Kanye’s energy explodes as he eagerly connects with audience members and contorts his body to Daft Punk’s dragging sample of their own “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”. When the French Duo is unveiled, outlined in neon, the whole thing just gets turned out. You even get to see a little bit of Daft Punk’s DJ setup. Um, that can’t be real, right? -Jeremy Larson
Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, T.I., Kanye West & M.I.A. – “Swagga Like Us” (2009)
Rap as a genre gained popularity because of its in-your-face attitude. While the Grammys have a history of being “safe,” they showed their wild side with one of the finer hip-hop-centric performances in its history thanks to a veritable All-Star Showdown between Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Kanye West, and T.I., with back-up from M.I.A. If the sight of four of the game’s best destroying the stage isn’t amazing, then perhaps M.I.A. in all her pregnant glory keeping pace will do the trick. -Chris Coplan
Radiohead – “15 Step” (2009)
The idea of Radiohead performing at the 2009 Grammys proved highly lucrative. Not surprisingly, fans across the web experienced conniption fits as they deciphered what song the band would unpack for the show. Would it be the ferocious “Bodysnatches”, the fragile “Nude”, the masterful “House of Cards”? As usual, the group went against the tide, bringing out the Spirit of Troy marching band for a spectacular and unique version of “15 Step”. Complete with Jonny Greenwood’s focused playing, Thom Yorke’s spastic dancing, and shouts from the synchronized musicians, it was impossible to not enjoy this performance. The greatest marching band in the world playing with the greatest band in the world? Makes sense to me. -Joe Marvili