It's a tribute to the Grammys' success at becoming more a musical spectacle than an awards show that on the night she made history, Beyonce was just another face in the crowd.
Pop's reigning diva earned six Grammys on Sunday, more than any woman on a single night of the 52-year-old awards show. Her anthem "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" was song of the year. But she didn't come onstage to accept that — her collaborators said she was prepping for a performance — and four of her other awards came during the non-televised pre-show.
The Grammys' four biggest awards were split four ways: 20-year-old country chanteuse Taylor Swift won album of the year; family rockers Kings of Leon won record of the year for "Use Somebody"; and the Zac Brown Band was named best new artist.
The Grammys in recent years have tried to emphasize the music more than the awards, particularly by pairing younger performers with veterans. This year, producers nailed it, with a double album's worth of memorable performances.
Among the best were the Black Eyed Peas, who sang "I Gotta Feeling" with a stage filled with what looked like dancing tomatoes and robots. Lady Gaga was predictably over the top, singing "Poker Face" and getting tossed into a bucket of fire before emerging singed and combining forces with an equally dirtied and bemused Elton John.
Green Day turned its "21 Guns" into a soaring beauty by joining the cast of a new musical based on its "American Idiot" album, with songs from "21st Century Breakdown." Opera singer Andrea Bocelli held his own with Mary J. Blige in a powerful, and heart-breaking rendition of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," done for the benefit of Haitian earthquake victims.
An acrobatic Pink turned her "Glitter in the Air" into a Cirque de Soleil-like performance, hanging suspended over the audience as she sang. "That was amazing," an impressed Keith Urban said after she was done.
Memorable pairings included the white-haired, white-bearded and white-hatted Leon Russell joining the Zac Brown Band; Maxwell and Robert Flack singing a silky-smooth "Where is the Love"; and Stevie Nicks, looking like a protective mom, joining Swift on her "You Belong With Me" and Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon."
An arresting performance of "Forever" and "Drop the World" with rappers Lil' Wayne, Drake and Eminem was rendered virtually incomprehensible by craters of silence inserted by CBS censors. And the 3-D tribute to Michael Jackson proved overrated, with Celine Dion, Jennifer Hudson, Usher, Smokey Robinson and Carrie Underwood looking like they'd joined a production number from "American Idol."
Swift, who won four Grammys, was the night's most visible winner. She beamed during her duet with Nicks, and seemed thrilled in her two acceptance speeches — while staying poised enough to thank her record company for letting her write her own songs, and express pride at bringing the album of the year prize to Nashville.
"This is for my dad," she said. "Thank you for all the times you said I could do whatever I wanted to do."
Beyonce was low-key during her one time on stage to accept her sixth trophy of the night, for best female pop vocal on the ballad "Halo." She offered thanks to her fans for their support.
Stagecraft was smooth; Lady Antebellum singer Hillary Scott, hit in the head by a falling curtain, calmly brushed it aside without missing a note.
Host Stephen Colbert followed the new model of awards show hosts: coming out in the beginning for a handful of jokes then disappearing — except to accept a Grammy of his own, for his surrealistic Christmas musical.
He bemoaned the absence of Susan Boyle from Grammy night.
"You may be the coolest people in the world," Colbert said, a barely amused Jay-Z looking on, "but this year your industry was saved by a 48-year-old Scottish cat lady in sensible shoes."