Grammy Night Met With Big Surprises

The 51st Grammy Awards honored the biggest names in music last night. There were some surprise performances, and even more surprising absences. Danyel Smith, editor in chief of Vibe magazine, and Jordan Levin, a music critic for the Miami Herald, recap the evening.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, we'll have more on the nation's unemployment picture. We're going to talk about why those who have just a high school diploma are so heavily affected. It's our Behind Closed Doors conversation, and that's a little later.

But first, let's take a break from grim financial news and talk about the Grammys. Last night was the 51st Grammy Award ceremony. There were some eye-catching performances. Among them, a very pregnant MIA joined on stage by Jay-Z, TI, Kanye and Lil Wayne, and some last-minutes absences, most notably hip-hop couple Rihanna and Chris Brown. Joining us to talk about the awards are Danyel Smith, editor in chief of Vibe magazine, and Jordan Levin, music critic for the Miami Herald. Welcome to you both. Thanks for joining us.

Ms. DANYEL SMITH (Editor in Chief, Vibe): Hi. How are you?

Ms. JORDAN LEVIN (Music Critic, Miami Herald): Hi. Great to be here.

MARTIN: Well, I'm sorry to do this, but I have to ask about the headline, being the absence of Rihanna and Chris Brown. He was arrested last night on allegations of battering a woman. We don't know who that woman is, but of course, the speculation runs to Rihanna, who's his girlfriend. Danyel, did this cast a pall over the proceedings last night?

Ms. SMITH: I was there last night. I don't think it cast a pall over the actual proceedings, but I do think that some of the after-parties, especially those sponsored by the labels that those artists are signed to, that there was - there was a little bit of a pall over those events, yes. But I had actually seen them together the night before at the Clive Davis pre-Grammy banquet, and I don't know what it means, but the two did look very much in love and very affectionate with each other that evening.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about the awards then. Let's talk about the program overall. So Jordan, any surprises in the awards last night?

Ms. LEVIN: I was surprised that Robert Plant and Alison Krauss won Album of the Year.

MARTIN: Because?

Ms. LEVIN: It's a nice album. I'm not that familiar with it. But it's a - I don't know what they call it - it's a country, new country, new pop, new blues kind of amalgam, and with the things that it was up against, I don't know if I see that reflective as the best Album of the Year.

MARTIN: You weren't feeling it?

Ms. LEVIN: No.

MARTIN: You were not feeling it. Well, can we play a little clip? We do have a little clip of them performing "Gone, Gone, Gone," and one of the songs from the album(ph). Here it is. Let's play it.

(Soundbite of song "Gone, Gone, Gone")

Ms. ALISON KRAUSS and Mr. ROBERT PLANT: (Singing) Some sunny day, baby When everything seems okay, baby You'll wake up and find that you're alone 'Cause I'll be gone Gone, gone, gone, really gone Gone, gone, gone, 'cause you done me wrong...

MARTIN: Jordan wasn't feeling it. Danyel, what about you?

Ms. SMITH: I wasn't necessarily feeling it either. It's just you almost could guess it just because Alison Krauss is a Grammy favorite. I mean, she has 21 Grammys. And then, you know, Robert Plant is from Led Zeppelin - it's almost like someone went in their room and decided what would be an album that would win Album of the Year at the Grammys and this is what you would pretty much come up with. It's like an older rock-and-roller Grammy favorite, American blues music that, you know, it's the same production crew that put together the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" album that won Album of the Year back in 2002. So, while I don't necessarily agree, I just think that the older voters of (unintelligible) spoke up.

MARTIN: Ouch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms SMITH: It is. It is, loudly(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEVIN: Well, I think that happens a lot in the Grammys is people tend to - once you start winning them, you tend to keep on winning them. And I think they are a lot of older people in the music business and nobody can listen to everything, and it's easier for people to vote for what they know than for something new.

MARTIN: But what about previous award winners? Jordan, you specialize in Latin music, and Juanes won for Best Latin Pop Album. He'd been a previous winner at the Latin Grammys. Does that tend to have an affect - you know what I mean, does recognition in another areas spill over to the Grammys in the way that the Golden Globes seems to affect the Oscars?

Ms. LEVIN: Latin music still tends to be on its own planet, but that aspect where once you start winning, once you become famous it just perpetuates itself is even stronger in the Latin music world because it's a smaller field, it's a smaller planet. I'm a big fan of Juanes and have been from the beginning since before he became famous, but he's so dominant at every Latin Grammy Award, and you want other people to start to get heard. It was a big deal when he got heard at the beginning, when he got seven nominations and three awards when he was nobody because he represented something fresh. I still think he's a great artist, but I think other artists should get recognized as well. It opens up the music.

MARTIN: Did you hear how he slipped in, well, I knew him when he - before he was famous, so I was feeling him back when he - before he was famous. But I love how you slipped that in, Jordan. But - well, now I feel a little bad. I kind of want to play a little bit of Juanes - what Juanes won for, even though you're saying it's already sort of time to open up the airwaves to other folks. But can we play just a little bit of "La Vida Es Un Ratico"?

Ms. LEVIN: Yeah, let me say - honestly, I love that record. I gave it four stars. I thought it was incredibly moving. I thought he combined really personal songs. It's basically about the almost breakup of his marriage, and I think it's a very powerful record. He's a great live artist. I just go, like, you know, where's the next Juanes? And does the - you know, will he or she get a break?

MARTIN: OK. Well, let me just play a little bit of a clip, just for people who don't know what we're talking about. Here it is. Here's Juanes in "La Vida Es Un Ratico." Here's a short clip.

(Soundbite of song "La Vida Es Un Ratico")

Mr. JUANES: (Singing) todavia hay muchas cosas por hacer no dejemos que se nos acabe que la vida es un ratico, un ratico nada mas no dejemos que se nos acabe que vienen tiempos buenos y los malos ya se van, se van, se van...

MARTIN: Speaking of moving, Danyel, do I have this right? At home - that Jennifer Hudson's performance, I think, seemed like a very emotional experience. Was it like that there? She was - she won Best R&B Album for her performing "You Pulled Me Through," and it just seemed like - the whole thing seemed almost overwhelming.

Ms. SMITH: You know what, I think there are - there wasn't - there weren't too many dry eyes at Staples Center last night. It's - it was amazing, especially with the group I was sitting with, for her to even be there and singing so beautifully. And you know, it's a tragedy, but it was - it's still, as we watched these artists, to see how tragedy affects somebody, and as horrifying as, you know, what she has gone through is, you can't help but think, has this added some depth to her as an artist and as a performer? Because I think that, frankly, Jennifer Hudson was more moving last night and again at the Clive Davis pre-Grammy function the night before than I'd ever seen her.

MARTIN: For those who may not remember, Jennifer Hudson lost her mother, her nephew and I believe another relative earlier this year. They were murdered, it's believed to be, by a former husband of her sister, and just a terrible situation, and she had not been very much seen in public since that.

I think we have time just to play a short clip of her performing the song "You Pulled Me Through," and here it is.

(Soundbite of song "You Pulled Me Through")

Ms. JENNIFER HUDSON: (Singing) When I was so confused You, oh, you, you pulled me through I was in the shadows, lost...

MARTIN: We only have a couple of minutes left, and we did want to talk about rap a little bit. Lil Wayne won Best Rap Album for "Tha Carter III." But since you were there, I wanted to ask about the live performances. I wanted to ask each of you, what did you think were the best live performances? The Grammys did something kind of interesting. They did some kind of unusual pairings, though I do have to ask, what was up with Stevie Wonder and the Jonas Brothers?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I just can't quite process that situation.

Ms. SMITH: I just wanted them to call him Mr. Wonder. They kept calling him Stevie, and I was like, something about that - I don't know. I really liked the Chris Martin and Jay-Z. That moment was - it was stunning. It was made for TV. It was Grammy all day, and I thought that - I think that Jay-Z is in the prime of his career, and it was amazing to see him at work.

MARTIN: And Jordan, what about you?

Ms. LEVIN: I'm terrible at picking, so I'll try to quickly say several that I loved. I loved the Rap Pack, the "Swagger Like Us." I just thought they were dynamic together. And I loved the sight of MIA and that little polka-dot thing over her pregnant belly...

MARTIN: Oh, my God.

Ms. LEVIN: I thought Paul McCartney...

MARTIN: She looked like a bumble bee...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I'm sorry. I'm just...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Maybe I'm old school.

Ms. LEVIN: I came to the Latin Grammys when I was six months pregnant. I really appreciate women who go to it even though they're getting ready to have a baby.

MARTIN: Well, me too. I mean, but you know - I'm - but I guess covering public affairs and sitting on the Sunday morning talk shows isn't quite the same thing as, you know, getting jiggy with it at the Grammy's when you're that far along. OK.

Ms. LEVIN: Walking(ph) on egg shells is all I can say.

MARTIN: That's right. That's right. We were all - she has our respect.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Jordan Levin is a music writer for the Miami Herald. She was kind enough to join us from WLRN in that city. Danyel Smith is the editor in chief for Vibe magazine. And let's just play a little bit of "Swagga Like Us" to go out. Thank you both for joining us.

(Soundbite of song ""Swagga Like Us")

LIL' WAYNE: (Singing) No one on the corner has swagga like moi, Church But I'm too clean for this choir I require what I desire, I got stripes...

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