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Grammys: Even without a nom, Taylor Swift wins big

December 4, 2008 |  1:36 am
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If I were a higher-up in the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, I'd be kneeling down right now and thanking whatever I worship for Taylor Swift. The 18-year-old country crossover queen didn't give the best performance during Wednesday night's hour-long live Grammy nominations special, but she did embody what makes a likely Grammy winner this year -- as well as what makes a hope-generating star in a music industry on the skids.

Swift, who co-hosted the special along with a perpetually amused LL Cool J (who had a good moment poking fun at best new artist nominees the Jonas Brothers right to their faces), is the kind of widely popular, artistically credible star the Grammy organization loves. Her brand-new album, "Fearless," was released too late to earn any awards nods, and her 2006 debut was apparently too old for nominators to remember, though it spawned two hits this year.

Yet she was the most relevant presence during the special that featured several of Grammy's top Good Children -- Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Christina Aguilera, the Foo Fighters and John Mayer were the others -- as well as elder B.B. King.

Each member of this often-rewarded Grammy set upholds the ideals of professionalism and adherence to tradition that the annual awards ceremony usually honors. Performing songs previously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, partially as a promotion for the just-opened Grammy Museum at downtown's L.A. Live, each emanated respect and enthusiasm for the classic material. Only Swift got in over her head -- her doe-eyed crooning was no match for the backing band as she covered Brenda Lee's 1960 classic "I'm Sorry."

Yet only she also got to sing a portion of her own current hit, gaining confidence as she moved into the break-up song "White Horse." She sent its most vitriolic verses in the general direction of her ex-boyfriend Joe Jonas, seated in the audience. "I'm not your princess, this ain't a fairy tale," she sang, mixing little-girl spit and ladylike weariness. In that moment, Swift had it all: tabloid heat and a firm hold on her own brand, along with songcraft and the well-contained charisma of a career artist.

She also had the of-the-moment appeal to turn this show into what it was meant to be -- a teaser that will somehow linger in viewers' minds until February, when the Grammys, whose ratings have been slipping significantly, may or may not feel like "must-see TV."

A LOOK AT GRAMMY PAST

The night's other performers have all held the coveted spot of prime hitmaker that Swift now occupies, but none seemed too interested in battling with her. If the goal was to produce moments that will live on as YouTube favorites until the Grammys show itself, only a few succeeded.

Mariah Carey's holiday number, a take on Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" that was so determinedly vintage it could have been enclosed in a snow globe, was a snooze. Celine Dion delivered a perfectly respectable version of Janis Ian's "At Seventeen," with an evocative shoulder shrug replacing her usual chest-thumping, but the song outshone the singer.

Christina Aguilera was elegant paying tribute to her heroine Nina Simone with a fine and mellow rendition of the Gershwin great "I Loves You Porgy"; it's too bad, though, that she couldn't resist the temptation to belt out the song's last phrases. The Foo Fighters tried to be fierce, but came off as forced, reworking Carly Simon's "You're So Vain."

That left Mayer, who fulfilled a lifelong dream swapping licks and solos with his acknowledged master, B.B. King. Leaning back in their chairs as if they were on a front porch in the middle of summer, the two guitarists and singers made the too-often covered "Let the Good Times Roll" feel fresh. It had to be a thrill for Mayer when the 83-year-old King murmured "you're all right" to him at the song's end.

Great songs covered by reliably oversized voices -- shouldn't this night have felt more special? Well, there's a lot of music on television now, and it's frankly almost impossible for any one performance to feel like an event. This evening's show had everything necessary to make it feel like a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, except that its stars, all regulars on the "large-scale event" circuit, as Mayer described it, provide these golden moments all the time.

The mini-concert Mayer gave after the televised portion ended was better, because it was more casual. Playing solo, working through his hits and a few covers -- best was a lovely, contemplative take on Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'" that veered toward Dave Matthews-style noodling, but somehow avoided it. Mayer was funny, displayed plenty of virtuosity, and smart. (He'll perform solo again at the theater Saturday, with this year's multiple Grammy nominee Adele opening.)

The fans who'd paid a premium for admission to this all-star revue cheered more loudly for Mayer's solo set than for anything else, except when the Jonas Brothers walked by.

AND NOW A WORD FROM OUR SPONSORS

How the show felt to those in the room only mattered so much, though; really, this was an infomercial, and on that level it worked fairly well. The actual announcements were bare-boned; Ne Yo asked for a drum roll before reading off the best new artist list, but had to made the rat-a-tat himself since no band was there to play incidental music. But they were augmented by video elements that fondly pointed toward Grammy's glories.

Excerpts from previous ceremonies filled the screen as nominees were announced, recalling indelible performances, like the duet Eminem shared with Elton John in 2001, or Outkast's crazy duet with the USC marching band in 2004. (Or was that Kanye's marching band collab from 2006?) The clips made the case that the honor associated with the Grammys leads major artists to sometimes step outside their comfort zones.

The nominations themselves provided some hope, and not only because rabble-rouser M.I.A. got a major nod. Lil' Wayne, the night's surprise contender, is always fun on television -- he's a prankster who likes to subvert the medium.

Coldplay, the other big pre-winner (a word that it seems necessary to invent for this pseudo-event), is far more predictable, but at least Chris Martin is earnest enough to care how his big moment comes off, and as the world's best ITunes ad proved, he has a way with skyward hand gestures. Maybe those dominant nominees will end up in one of those nutty awards-show group singalongs with Taylor Swift. Who wouldn't love a Grammy moment like that?

--Ann Powers

Photo: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

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