Billie Eilish was the evening's big winner, but Kobe Bryant's death earlier in the day dominated the awards show

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It was a solemn Grammy night on Sunday, with the news of Kobe Bryant's death earlier in the day sending shock waves through the telecast. 

Bryant was not a musician, but he's probably the most famous, recognizable athlete of his generation, one of only a few figures whose sudden death could impact the awards show so strongly. And with the show unfolding in the very arena where Bryant played most of his career, it was impossible for his death not to loom large over the telecast. Not since Whitney Houston's death just 24 hours before the Grammys in 2012 has a singular event made such an impression on the show.

"Tonight is for Kobe," Detroit-born Lizzo said in her show-opening performance, and indeed it was: tributes to Bryant poured in from host Alicia Keys, performers who held up his jersey on stage and others who thanked him and honored him over the course of the evening.

Bryant aside, it was Billie Eilish's night to shine, as the 18-year-old won five awards and swept the show's big four categories — Album of the Year ("When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?"), Record of the Year, Song of the Year (both for "Bad Guy") and Best New Artist — becoming only the second artist in Grammy history to achieve across-the-board dominance in those fields. (The other was Christopher Cross in 1981, so surely the industry is hoping things pan out a little better for Billie.) 

With Bryant and Billie commanding the evening's chatter, the Grammys avoided the embarrassment of having its dirty laundry aired for all to see, which was the story heading into the show. Last week, ousted Grammy head Deborah Dugan dropped a bomb when she alleged the Grammys are rigged and that its voting process is subject to favoritism and conflicts of interest, after being unceremoniously relieved of her duties just 10 days before the show. 

It's the Houston Astros cheating scandal of the music world, and at a pre-Grammy gala in L.A. on Saturday night, Sean "Diddy" Combs ripped the Recording Academy, stating, "truth be told, hip-hop has never been respected by the Grammys. Black music has never been respected by the Grammys to the point that it should be. … And that stops right now," he said, adding, "you’ve got 365 days to get this s--- together."

The massive, still-unfolding controversy was only hinted at on the show, with Keys noting vaguely in her opening remarks, "let me be honest with y’all, it’s been a hell of a week. Damn! This is a really, this is a serious one. Real talk, there’s a lot going on.” She went on to talk about energy and positivity like she was selling herbal tea on Instagram, effectively letting the Academy off the hook for its litany of alleged transgressions, which have turned "Music's Biggest Night" into a fixed popularity contest.

Family was a big theme throughout the night. Eilish shared her trophies with her brother, Finneas, who is also her producer (and who won the Producer of the Year, Non-Classical award). Tyler, the Creator brought his mother on stage and thanked her, telling her "you did a great job raising this guy" while accepting the Best Rap Album award for "Igor." And Camila Cabello sang her song "First Man" directly to her father, who was in the audience and whom she approached and embraced as the song came to a close.   

The show's performances were a mixed bag and lacked megawatt superstar firepower; several of music's top stars — Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Post Malone, Taylor Swift and Drake among them — were nowhere to be seen. 

In their place were rising stars and veterans looking to make a few waves or reignite some buzz for themselves. Lizzo — who won three awards, two of which came in the pre-show ceremony — opened with a medley of "Because I Love You" and "Truth Hurts" and hit a solo on her flute which was lowered to her on a platform sent from the heavens above, or at least the rafters above the stage. "Welcome to the Grammys, b----!" she said, clearly elated to be using the b-word on CBS in the 8 o' clock hour, as it was the fourth time she said it in her few minutes on stage.

MORELizzo scorecard: How the Detroit native did at the Grammys

When picking up the Best Pop Solo Performance trophy for "Truth Hurts," Lizzo said the issues she tends to stress over are minor, an apparent reference to Bryant's death. "In an instant, all of that can go away and your priorities really shift and today, all of my little problems that I thought were big as the world were gone and I realize that there’s people hurting right now," she said. She went on to extol the value of music as a healing property, which was another prevalent theme of the evening. 

A pair of tribute performances missed their mark. Aerosmith and Run-DMC teamed up to perform "Walk This Way," their 1986 rock-rap crossover smash, because, um, the song's 34th anniversary is coming up? They didn't seem too sure of why they were performing it either, and they ran through it like they skipped rehearsals and never worked out their parts in advance. 

Usher did a tribute to Prince, performing "Little Red Corvette," "When Doves Cry" and "Kiss" with little of Prince's magic or mystery. Again, the timing was odd: Prince died four years ago this coming April, and not that you need an excuse to honor Prince, but what was the reason for this now? Ah, it's because the Grammys are taping a special Grammy Salute to Prince on Tuesday that will air on CBS later this year. Essentially, this was a commercial, and not a very good one. 

Lil Nas X, who has ridden "Old Town Road" just about as far as he can take it, scored with a performance of his signature tune that encompassed the various remixes of the song he released last spring and summer. Starting on a stage outfitted to look like his bedroom — a Bryant jersey was draped over a seat — he launched into the "Old Town Road," entering various rooms on the rotating stage where he encountered BTS, Diplo, Mason Ramsey and finally Billy Ray Cyrus, giving proper respect to the song that defined 2019 that we now never have to hear again in 2020. 

In her return to the stage after overdosing last year, Demi Lovato debuted her new song "Anyone" with an emotional performance that saw her tearing up in the opening verse. She stutter-stepped the beginning of the song, choking back the lyrics and taking a pause while her piano player reset and started over. It was a genuinely human moment that made her soaring vocals that followed land that much heavier. 

And Eilish's performance was quiet, understated and elegant, unfolding on a small stage while Eilish sat on a stool. She performed "When the Party's Over," a fitting title for an all-around somber evening where everyone was just trying to get to the end in one piece.  

agraham@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @grahamorama

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