We’re as skeptical about the Grammys, the music they reward, and the industry politics behind them as anyone else. But we watched tonight for the performances (okay, and so we could play our own drinking game). And there were a ton of them! Everyone from Bob Dylan to Lady Gaga to the Arcade Fire to Muppets took the stage. Some of them were wonderful. Some were downright awful. We rate the performances from best to worst after the jump.
1. Cee Lo Green, Gwyneth Paltrow, and the Muppets: This is how you upstage Lady Gaga: Take your spot at the piano in a giant, armored, bird-alien costume on a cartoonish outer space set. Through sheer exuberance, make the audience forget that you’re playing a censored version of a song whose chief joy is its cathartic use of obscenity. Find a widely derided actress and make her fun again. And have some Muppets there for good measure.
2. Janelle Monáe, B.o.B., and Bruno Mars: On a night where it seems like everyone’s trying to be brighter, flashier, and more futuristic than the competition, this trio blew everyone away by going retro. We’re not huge Bruno Mars fans, but the black-and-white, ’50s treatment was exactly right for his retro R&B style. The real story, though, was our girl Monáe, who looked awesome in her trademark, androgynous suit and sang her android heart out. When the camera paused on Cyndi Lauper applauding like her life depended on it, we were right there with her.
3. Mick Jagger and Raphael Saadiq: Mick may be 67 years old, but he’s still got moves that put the kids to shame. Bob Dylan is only two years Jagger’s senior, but he practically had to be wheeled onto the stage. And that green jacket! Hope you’re taking notes, Bieber.
4. Eminem, Rihanna, and Dr. Dre: RiRi kicked things off like the perfect damsel in distress, and her slightly wacky dress was effing wonderful. Eminem is on top of his game. And while some are already complaining that Dr. Dre didn’t have much energy, he still had flow. Let’s not kill this comeback before it starts, shall we?
5. Lady Gaga: Hatching out of a giant, clear egg was some serious Spinal Tap shit. We’re not loving “Born This Way.” But we still adore Gaga, the dancing was hot, and the costumes that looked like they were made of human skin were fittingly creepy (if a bit more minimalist than we were expecting). If nothing else, we can always count on Gaga to give us some gratuitous male torso-and-eye-makeup action.
6. Rihanna and Drake: Points off for Drake failing to sell it at the beginning, but Rihanna totally took the song and ran with it. We are totally down with the new, sexually liberated RiRi. Also, after a night of fiery video backgrounds, some real(-looking) onstage fire was a welcome variation.
7. Lady Antebellum: Honestly, although we did not expect to enjoy a Lady Antebellum performance, the whole thing was kind of innocuous. Maybe we were just delirious after making it halfway through the show, but there was a kind of sweet, nostalgic, country-flavored Fleetwood Mac vibe happening here. (They still didn’t deserve Record of the Year, though. Especially in a year that also included “Empire State of Mind” and “Fuck You.”)
8. Justin Bieber, Usher, and Jaden Smith: There are three reasons this performance wasn’t farther down the list: A. Ninjas. B. Jaden Smith. C. Jaden Smith’s leopard pants. Also, question: What was with Usher’s costumes? A tribute to Kim Jong-Il?
9. Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Hudson, Florence Welch, Yolanda Adams, and Martina McBride — Aretha Franklin Tribute: Star-studded group tributes always seem like a great idea, and no one deserves a hearty celebration more than the Queen of Soul. But in practice, you’ve got five divas fighting for the spotlight while pretending they’re having a grand, old time together. The parts that had the ladies alternating lead vocals with each new line were just too much. And, in our opinion, McBride (and, to a lesser extent, Aguilera) just couldn’t hang with the other singers.
10. Miranda Lambert: Look, she has a nice voice. The song is fine. But when you’re the act that follows Lady Gaga, you’ve got to bring a little something more than fake eyelashes and a shiny cocktail dress.
11. Katy Perry: We prefer campy Perry to soppy Perry. Projecting your own wedding videos is just barfy. By the time she got to “Teenage Dream,” which was much more fun, it all felt like kind of a downer.
12. Arcade Fire: Strobe lights? Stunt bikes?! If there was any actual music happening here, we were too busy having a seizure to hear it. Their Album of the Year victory lap — without any silly stage conceits — was a whole lot better.
13. Barbra Streisand: You are a legend, Babs. Your voice is still beautiful. You were right not to do some kind of over-the-top, compete-with-Bieber kind of thing. But it does seem you’ve had so much Botox that your face is no longer capable of expressing emotion.
14. Mumford & Sons, Avett Brothers, and Bob Dylan: Okay, first of all, Mumford & Sons, we know this hipster jug band styling is scarily ubiquitous these days. But it’s going to be so embarrassing in retrospect. Ribbon tie and trucker hat? That’s a look? Avett Brothers, you looked a touch less silly, but only by comparison. And God help poor, old Bob Dylan, whose ailing voice was only barely audible over the freaking banjos. We don’t wanna work on Maggie’s farm anymore, either.
15. Muse: So earnest. So sparkly. So intent on making a hackneyed political statement. Police and protestors fighting onstage while you’re playing a double-necked guitar in a crystal-studded suit? Really? We have to assume Muse doesn’t realize that giant photos of Prince Charles and Camilla don’t mean much to the American Justin Bieber set. At least they had the restraint not to scream something self-congratulatory about supporting the Egyptian people at the end of the performance. Because we really feared that was coming.
16. John Mayer, Norah Jones, and Keith Urban: Any version of “Jolene” that involves John Mayer is going to ruin our night. Dolly should have rushed the stage and hip-checked him away from the mic. Also? He looked ridiculous. Johnny Depp called, and he wants his hair situation — which, by the way, only works on him — back. Norah Jones wasn’t awful, though.