Adele had already won best pop album and music video by the time she got a shout-out from host LL Cool J, who drew our attention to her before saying: “‘Welcome back!” It was a subtle reminder that this was to be her first public performance after throat surgery, adding considerable drama to what was expected, and turned out, to be a sweep.
But even here, she had to follow footage of Whitney’s own triumphant performance of ‘I Will Always Love You’ from the best album Grammy-winning ‘The Bodyguard’ soundtrack (yes, that actually happened). She looked like an angel back in 1994, with her white dress and a voice that even sounded heaven-sent to atheists.
But it had been sometime since Whitney had deserved an award, so it was something of a shame that her ghost threatened to overshadow Adele. Everyone else had stepped aside. Even Kanye West, whose equally epochal ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ was somehow robbed of a spot on the best albums list, stayed home and out of the way. (Though he still wound up winning four awards, including Best Rap Album, Best Rap Song and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for ‘All of the Lights’ and a shared Best Rap Performance prize with Jay-Z for their ‘Watch the Throne’ single ‘Otis.’)
There were other stories beyond the Adele and Whitney melodrama, of course, like the invasion of dance music. It wasn’t just the rock-rap-dance mash-ups out in the tent with Deadmau5 and David Guetta respectively paired with Foo Fighters and Lil Wayne. (Ironically, Dave Grohl accepted the band’s Best Rock album award by saying “It’s not about being perfect, it’s not about what goes on in a computer!”) Dance also dominated the main-stage performances of Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’ and her former boyfriend-slash-batterer Chris Brown’s ‘Turn Up the Music.’ Not to mention Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon topping his infamous Grammy disses with a pair of wins for Best Alternative Album and Best New Artist.
And there were other deaths, too. Etta James got an early tribute performance from Alicia Keys and Bonnie Rait while Gil Scott Heron got only a shout out, but will no doubt be brought back up when ‘Take Care’ — Drake and Rihanna’s reinterpretation of his song ‘I’ll Take Care of You’ — hits next year’s awards.
When Adele did finally take the stage she wrested that Grammy spotlight back with her own Whitney-esque moment, performing publicly for the first time in months and absolutely destroying her all-time classic ‘Rolling in the Deep.’
Her voice was as strong, emotion streaked and soul stirring as we’d remembered. And, dare we say it, Adele may even have the better voice. Yes, Whitney’s was more technically perfect (often brilliantly so, as evidenced by this awe-inspiring isolated vocal track from ‘How Will I Know’) but like Grohl said, sometimes “it’s not about being perfect.” Adele’s voice had little cracks and avoided acrobatics but it rose up from her gut, gained force in those powerful lungs and then escaped her throat to grab the audience by theirs. Her adorable expression when she pulled it off was the perfect capper — Whitney always knew how good she was, but Adele, well, Adele, still just a kid, is almost as surprised as we are at how powerful she can be.
Or maybe ‘Rolling in the Deep’ is just a better song — there’s a reason why it took both Best Song and Best Record as well as being 2011′s biggest-selling single despite, as Adele mentioned in her fifth acceptance speech, that “it’s not really a pop record.” At the least, it more than stood up to two performances of ‘I Will Always Love You,’ especially the tribute by Jennifer Hudson, who again has the technical chops but even in mourning was unable to match Adele’s pure-strain emotion.
Emotion was the through line for this year’s Grammys. But though it began in abject sadness over Houston’s passing, it ended in tears of joy with Adele’s sweep (as deserved an award run as any ever). If there’s one positive thing about death, it’s that it makes us appreciate life — and the loss of one legend helped remind of us what we still had with Adele, whose own was cemented one tragic yet glorious Sunday night.