The Greatest Show on Earth

Barnum & Bailey called; they want their trademark back – The Recording Academy® stole, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” The 56th Grammys was a production of momentous proportions – combining three stages – two main stages and one circular stage near the front of house. Because I moonlight as a stagehand, I know too well the hard labor invested in making and executing these live performances. Overall, there must have been a couple of hundred hands working the set changes throughout the four-hour show. Having three revolving stages makes it possible for elaborate settings to be enjoyed by an audience while another is erected behind partitions. Clever use of the camera makes it appear to the viewer on television that there is a larger stage than actually exists. On either side of the main stage, two large screens show the live audience what the television viewer sees. I mainly watched the stages, but the screens were useful for close up shots of artists and to see their facial expressions. Hours before the show starts, audience members dress to the nines and line up at the venue, then are led into “pits” on either side of the main stage, to give the appearance of adoring fans. These folks are more or less human props, but they also have the best seat in the house to enjoy the show.

If you ever bought a ticket to the Grammys, then you know only members of The Recording Academy® may buy tickets. As years progress, fewer tickets are available to members, so that only one extra ticket may be purchased by a member seeking seats in the $750-$1,200 price range, and only three extra tickets may be purchased by a member seeking seats in the $200-$350 price range. These prices do not include the $200 ticket for the official after party, making the grand total between $400-$1,400 per person to attend the Grammys. For the cost of floor seating, you may end up in the filler area behind front of house with no direct view of the stage (you can still see the large screens on either side of the stage broadcasting the television performance). Often there are seats not occupied by celebrities, who reserved them; thus, these “fillers,” as they are called, are seen marching en masse into the floor seats dispersed among the stars just prior to the start of the show.

Also just prior to this year’s show, Nate Ehrlich, who has produced the Grammy awards since 1980, shared a few words with the live audience. He called a friend to the stage, and asked a couple of dapper gentlemen sitting on the front row to sing Happy Birthday – it was Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr – certainly not a birthday memory to be forgotten. And away we went! The house went dark, except for a strobe… and slowly… fans of Beyoncé screamed her name when they heard “Drunk In Love.” I felt like I was watching Madonna in “Express Yourself,” only it was 2014, not 1989. Beyoncé looked hot, and had all the right moves. Joined by her husband, Jay-Z, the power couple made for a forceful opening act, promenading hand-in-hand onstage. Shortly after, Lorde, the 17-year old wunderkind from New Zealand, performed a soulful, near-a cappella of “Royals.” She received a standing-O from her peers, who sat on the floor of the venue. Later, Lorde found herself onstage accepting her own Grammy awards, apparently suffering from stage fright and unable to follow instructions exiting the stage – she took the prop Grammy used for the show and walked back to her seat than behind the stage as directed.

And we had not even scratched the surface of music’s greatest night. L.L. Cool J as host of the evening had the important task of stringing everything together, and he did so well in his laid-back style. Introducing next performer Hunter Hayes, he asked the audience, and particularly, young people, to pay attention to the lyrics of “Invisible.” The message rang out loud and clear – “And you’re not invisible/ Hear me out,/ There’s so much more of this life than what you’re feeling now/ And someday you’ll look back on all these days/ And all this pain is gonna be invisible/ It’ll be invisible.” Hunter may be speaking to each of us at one time or another, who may have felt this way, and music helped us, too, to overcome our own personal struggles.

Next up was Katy Perry & Juicy J. with a sexy performance of “Dark Horse.” Executed bravely using pyrotechnics, it was a brilliant marketing schematic directed at the recent success of American Horror Story’s “Coven,” which just celebrated its grand television finale. Sitting next to me was someone, who remembered Chicago’s, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time it Is?” and “Saturday in the Park,” to which she sang along, obviously enjoying a trip down memory lane with her husband. After Robin Thicke and Chicago exited stage right, upon stage left appeared Gary Clark, Jr. and Keith Urban singing “Cop Car.” This was to me a political statement, for on one hand, blues is traditionally rooted in African-American heritage, while on the other, country, in Caucasian-American heritage; yet, the collaboration onstage was seamless, showing that no matter how you call it, music is the universal language we all speak from the heart. And this theme continued throughout the night.

John Legend next took the circular stage with “All of Me,” a heartfelt ballad, “’Cause I give you all of me/ And you give me all of you/ I give you all of me/ And you give me all of you,” followed by Taylor Swift’s heart-wrenching “All Too Well.” As L.L. Cool J put it, Taylor takes her songs and pours her emotions into them, so that men had better behave, or else she, and other women, will put them on blast. The Internet is now rife with her infamous piano head banging, during which there was an audible giggle as we watched it on the big screens. Next up was P!nk singing “Try.” Again with an undercurrent of positive meaning, she sang, “You’ve gotta get up and try, and try, and try/ Gotta get up and try, and try, and try,” while executing a perfect aerial performance before joining Nate Ruess (and the Ruess ‘Stache) of Fun for “Just Give me a Reason.” The entire venue gave P!nk a standing-O, which I am told is quite rare. But then again, she did perform an aerial, perfectly, while maintaining complete control of her voice. Clearly, P!nk is in top physical shape.

We were almost to the half point of the show, when it became time to introduce Ringo Starr. Singing “Photograph,” he embodied a time of eras past. Watching video clips on screens behind him, and listening to his voice, was like being transported back in time. Later, Ringo joined fellow Beatle, Sir Paul McCartney, onstage for, “Queenie Eye,” and with a little help from his friend, both men were given a standing-O by their peers, honoring both artists with the Recording Academy® Lifetime Achievement Award. Honoring another great artist of eras past was Jared Leto speaking lyrics to Walk on the Wild Side, then asking for a moment of silence to honor the passing of Lou Reed. We all stood to honor Lou Reed and remember his contributions to music, and our lives.

L.L. Cool J next paid tribute to Def Jam, a record label that played an important role in the careers of many artists, including at one time, Kendrick Lamar. And thus he led us into the next performance, of Imagine Dragons and Kendrick Lamar, performing a stellar mashup of “Radioactive” and “m.A.A.d. city.” I had always heard the word eargasm, but never actually experienced it until this performance. The relentless rapping of Kendrick, speaking about his upbringing in the streets of Compton, over the gathering force of the Dragons, slowly built over a tantric procession of aural bliss until it climaxed with an explosion of passion and beauty. Kendrick is a perfect example of how music has worked inside us, transformed us, and helped us to cope with life’s circumstances. His message though dark, was also a message of hope that we all can strive for our dreams, no matter where we begin. My jaw literally fell open, and did not close until after a few minutes had passed. I was experiencing shock, shock at being a part of music’s biggest night, gratitude for being a part of the collective experience, and happiness at being able to bring it home and share it with you all. More than once during the evening, I felt tears well into the corners of my eyes.

Thankfully, tempering the moment was Kacey Musgraves singing “Follow Your Arrow,” on the circular stage, with a sound (whistling) and props (neon cacti) suggestive of the Singing Bush from Three Amigos. This song won a lot of notorious attention for its mentioning of kissing girls and smoking joints (which thanks to Delta, I heard for free on the plane, along with other, Grammy-nominated songs). I like the message in this song, albeit controversial. It maintains the positive theme of the evening – to live your life for you, only you, and no one else. In other words, stay true to yourself.

Next up was a dueling of banjos of sorts – Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson on one hand, with Willie Nelson and Blake Shelton on the other, singing, “Okie from Muskogee,” then into “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” I watched the big screens with joy as I saw all sorts of artists from all sorts of genres, singing the words to this song like it was one of their own – what was so awesome is that EVERYONE knew the lyrics, again, bringing us together as one voice, showing that music truly is a universal language to all.

Perhaps the most anticipated performance of the evening was Daft Punk. Performing onstage with the 25-TIME GRAMMY WINNER Stevie Wonder (sighted in Atlanta the weekend prior); Chic’s Nile Rodgers, an Association of Electronic Music (AFEM) Ambassador; producer of the year, Pharrell Williams; and, RAM session players, Chris Caswell, Nathan East, Omar Hakim, and Paul Jackson, Jr.,they opened with the Grammy winning record of the year, “Get Lucky,” from Grammy winning album of the year, Random Access Memories (RAM). Stevie Wonder’s magical voice carried that tune better than the original. At that point in the evening I sang along like no one was listening, “We’ve come too far,/ To give up, who we are/ Let’s raise the bar/ And our cups, to the stars!” It was a moment, and there were so many of those that evening. Followed seamlessly by “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” and “Lose Yourself to Dance,” I screamed when I heard the familiar chords of Chic’s “Le Freak,” finishing with Stevie’s “Another Star,” and the first Daft Punk hit, “Around the World.”

Next up on the circular stage was Sara Bareilles and the MusiCares Person of the Year, Carole King in a duet mashup of Carole’s “Beautiful” and Sara’s “Brave.” In tune with the theme of positive messages that evening, Carole sang, “You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile on your face/ And show the world all the love in your heart,” with Sara’s, “Say what you wanna say/ And let the words fall out/ Honestly I wanna see you be brave/ With what you want to say/ And let the words fall out/ Honestly I wanna see you be brave.” It was as if these two singing/songwriting women were schooling the audience in how to let our inner lights shine.

By this point, we had reached about the three-hour mark, and I was feeling fidgety in my concrete stadium seat sitting in a stretch hot-pink satin, floor-length evening gown. Perhaps less fidgety than the lady wearing a tulle skirt in front of me (note to self, never wear tulle to the Grammys). I thought it was funny to spend hundreds of dollars and hours of effort on dressing and glamming up for the Grammys to sit in a seat where sports fans had sat only hours before. In fitting with the angst in the venue, next up was Metallica in collaboration with Chinese pianist Lang Lang. This is the heavy metal/classical pairing, a formula for success and a crowd-pleaser. The stage engulfed with flames in time with the opening notes of “One.” At the exposition, I could barely hear Lang Lang, but for the higher-pitched notes on the register, which stood out from his staccato delivery. However, during the song’s development, it recapitulated into gorgeous heavy metal. Essentially, Lang Lang and Metallica converted “One” into a sonata. I was yelling “YEAH” at the top of my lungs and hopping in my seat as Metallica brought down the house.

Perhaps the most historic moment of the evening started when Queen Latifah, who had been sworn in as a commissioner for the State of California just weeks prior to the show, introduced the only act to have achieved Grammy nomination status without the support of a record label and entirely on their own – Seattle’s Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, featuring Mary Lambert and Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, with “Same Love.” Shortly into the performance, an audible gasp filled the venue as several couples, same and opposite sex, walked up the aisles of the floor to the front of the main stage. While facing each other, Queen Latifah asked them to exchange vows and rings, marrying them on national television. Then, they enjoyed their first dance to Madonna, singing “Open Your Heart.”

Finishing the evening was country music star Miranda Lambert in a duet on the circular stage with Billie Joe Armstrong, “When Will I Be Loved.” And last but not least, what we were told would be a telecast, was in fact, a live performance by none other than one of my favorite bands since childhood, Nine Inch Nails. During the commercial break just prior to the grand finale, we heard the musicians rehearsing behind what appeared to be an enormous wall onstage. Stagehands had in fact, combined the two stages for the grand finale. Featuring Trent Reznor and Queens of the Stone Age in collaboration with Dave Grohl and Lindsey Buckingham, the quartet belted out “Copy of A” and “My God is the Sun.” I was disappointed to see that the television broadcast cut short the final performance. Unlike the other nineteen performances, this one lacked luster. Prior acts had done a mashup or collaboration that combined or showcased each artist’s work, but this performance did not include Grohl’s or Buckingham’s works. It was poorly planned.

And then there were the commercial breaks. It was like a networking mecca on the venue floor for all the stars. Next time, I will bring my opera glasses to watch the buzzing bees as they greet one another. With the energy in that room that felt like lightning, there was nothing short of magic happening at every moment – on the air and off.

And for those of you looking for me on the red carpet? Members of The Recording Academy® that are not stars have a separate entrance on the other side of the venue while stars have their own. It is possible to apply for red carpet credentials; but, even if granted, member non-stars still walk with a partition between the two. Thus, there are two red carpets – one for members, and on the other side of the wall, stars you will see on the broadcast.

As for the after party, we were graced with performances from Ciara and Boyz II Men. There was loads of delicious food and an open bar sponsored by Patron (tequila, anyone?). The theme was roaring 20’s, or Great Gatsby, which was also the theme for the Georgia Entertainment Gala only two weeks earlier. The acrobatic performers hired as our entertainment included a Cirque du Soleil-esque feat defying gravity with help from a trampoline, and several islands of aerials. One aerial in particular involving a man and woman was a sweet dance, like two lovers engaged in a long embrace. And there was also networking. I met a handful of fellow members, both voting and non-voting, as well as some student members. We all exchanged cards and contact numbers.

Overall, my first Grammys was the best evening of music that I have ever experienced in my life. Hence, why for me, it was truly the Greatest Show on Earth. I hope that I am so lucky to attend every year. Thank you for sharing in my experience! For photos, see my photo album. Thanks for your interest!