There’s something undeniably alluring about the world’s preeminent music awards show. Even though they often divide music fans and confound journalists, the Grammy Awards bring together the biggest names in many genres (but certainly not all) to honor their own through a voting process open to all Academy members. Sam Smith, who won four awards Sunday, more than anyone, told Paste afterward that the events of the day will greatly affect his next body of work.
“I can now put the term ‘Grammy winner’ to the things which I do,” he said. The Grammys can jumpstart or resurrect a career. Whether the ceremony leaves people talking or offers any surprises is hit-or-miss. The 57th edition of the show offered the Beck-Kanye confrontation, with the former picking up a stunning win over Beyoncé in Album of the Year. Some stand-out performances included AC/DC’s two-song opening of the show and Annie Lennox rocking out with Hozier.
But the televised ceremony is only the end to a whole week’s worth of festivities and honorable mentions, including an exclusive gala hosted by Clive Davis.
I attended the ceremony this year and viewed a day of rehearsals a lot less glamorous than the final production millions watch on TV. The Staples Center was a flurry of activity as non-ceasing production tours for sponsors wound in and out of the aisles, and stage builders and rigging operators and TV producers walked through every aspect of moving equipment and stage pieces and cutting to commercials.
The musical rehearsals themselves, of course, were the most interesting part of the day. That’s the only chance most journalists actually get to see a Grammy performance live and in-person. On the day of the show, they’re split up into separate rooms with their peers, where the only view of the ceremony is on television.
Saturday’s rehearsals included a collaboration between Common and John Legend, who performed “Glory” from the film Selma, backed by a symphony and choir. The performance would go on to cap the ceremony the next day. The two ran through take after take for the good part of an hour, until a handshake cemented their comfort level with the material. That routine was repeated over and over by each performer at rehearsals that day, including Ariana Grande, Usher, Beyoncé, Eric Church, Jessie J and Tom Jones, and Madonna.
Common and John Legend were the most serious about their rehearsal time. Usher, performing a Stevie Wonder song backed only by one harpist, lost his place and forgot the lyrics numerous times, proving he is human. Beyoncé and Madonna removed everyone but working technical staff from the floor for their rehearsals. Grande marveled at the turquoise-periwinkle ice palace stage arrangement, joked around with the few people watching her rehearse, profusely thanked her backing musicians and goofily danced on her platform, soaking up every moment of her Grammy experience.
Between each act, the stage configuration was broken apart and reassembled into something new. Host LL Cool J stopped by to work on intros and outros. CBS personalities such as NCIS actress Pauley Perrette—clearly a music fan, judging by her many Grammy appearance over the years—rehearsed her speaking parts (she had a few back-stage interviews) and gamely played the part of “celebrity sighting” on the sponsor tours.
Award presenters have a huge role in the ceremony. The TV and film actors, previous Grammy winners and current nominees don’t show up to rehearsal, however. Instead, stand-ins, usually local actors, are hired to take their place and read their lines. Some of the jokes you saw on TV were equally bad when presented by the doppelgangers.
On the day of the ceremony, I began with a brief chat with Eric Church, who was nominated for four awards, including Best Country Album for The Outsiders. He didn’t shy away from his desires to win an award, and as one of the biggest names in country music and beyond, was predicted to be a frontrunner.
“Any Grammy award is the holy grail for a musician,” he said. “If you are one, you want one. So do I.”
Unbelievably, he was swept out on all four nominations, but still delivered one of the performances that left people talking, playing “Give Me Back My Hometown” in front of a backdrop of Ferguson protests, war-torn countries and Paris after the attack on Charlie Hebdo.
“Too often in music, we are scared of social commentary,” Church said. “We feel it opens us up to criticisms about values and beliefs. I’m not scared of that. I actually think it is why music exists; to help us communicate where prejudices can’t. The visuals behind us will deal in a broader view about the social challenges our world faces.”
After speaking to Church, I had a quick interview with Scott Hoying and Mitch Grassi of a capella group Pentatonix. The group was up for an award in Best Arrangement and later presented along with Barry Gibb at the main ceremony. I met them about 45 minutes prior to their big win.
“We’re excited. We’re nervous,” Grassi said. Hoying added, “When I was 12 years old, I made a vision board, and winning a Grammy was on it, and now it’s about to come true 10 years later. I knew I wanted to be a singer and tour. I know, as a group, we had dreamed of one day being nominated for a Grammy. Whether we win or not, it’s just an honor to be here.”
After that, I rushed back to Staples Center, to check in for the Premiere Ceremony (this year’s term for the awards ceremony that takes place before the telecast) while TV journalists gathered on the red carpet. The red carpet stretched about one block from the nearby Los Angeles Convention Center, where celebrities—and other Academy members who forked over enough cash to mingle with celebrities—were dropped off.
Journalists watch the ceremonies from one of several media rooms, where some winners make appearances and answer questions. Seventy-four of the 83 awards are handed out fast and furious during the Premiere Ceremony. They encompass everything from spoken word to children’s albums to album packaging. While many of the bigger names don’t come to accept these, some of them do, and the performances are often terrific.
“It never gets old,” Weird Al Yankovic told Paste. Yankovic won the Best Comedy Album category with Mandatory Fun. “Sometimes comedy is in the telecast; sometimes it’s in the pre-telecast. It’s as real for me, regardless. It’s great to be nominated, because that means I get to go to the show. I get to hang out with my peers and have a fun time. Winning is just the icing on the cake. I certainly wasn’t expecting it this year. The category was insane: Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman, Louis C.K., Jim Gaffigan.”
After accepting awards, the artists begin to filter in through the various media rooms, one by one, answering questions smart and dumb by journalists who have done their research and some who have no idea who they’re talking to.
Christian rapper Lecrae, for example, bridges the gap between contemporary popular music and gospel. The winner of the Best Contemporary Christian Performance category said he was proud of his success and proved that commercially successful music could have morals, even if many in the room did not know his music.
“I think I’m a testament to hip hop,” Lecrae said.
There were 23 performances in the three-and-a-half-hour televised ceremony, and the journalists in the print media room got to watch most of them. That’s because the majority of the winners during this time did not visit. So instead, journalists had a few good laughs about Paul McCartney getting caught dancing, some flubbed lines and the Kanye happening. The room erupted for the first time when Beck came away with his upset win.
One of the few who did stop by was Dwight Yoakam, who told Paste about partnering with Brandy Clark for her performance. Complimenting how well Clark, the Washington state native, fits into the landscape of country music, Yoakam described how Clark had asked him to perform with her at the ceremony.
“I said, ‘Yeah, [but with] a caveat that I only hope not to wreck your beautiful performance and your song,’” he said. “There’s a succinctness to the way Brandy delivers when she sings.”
And there was Smith, who showed up at the press room nearly an hour after the conclusion of the Grammys, and, happy to share his good spirits, even answered a couple more questions than initially allotted.
“What’s beautiful about this record for me is that I didn’t play a character, so I don’t have to work really hard to do that again,” he said. “It’s just me being me. I’m living my life, and I just spoke about it through music. I’m going to do the same again, and if nobody likes it, then it’s probably out of my control.”