Sam Smith was the big at the 57th Grammy awards in Los Angeles on Sunday night, and dedicated his wins to an ex-lover for making it all possible. “Thank you so much for breaking my heart,” Smith told the assembled music royalty, “because you got me four Grammys.”
The 22-year-old English soul singer crowned his breakthrough into music’s top ranks by winning four awards: best newcomer, best song and best record for Stay With Me, and best pop vocal album for his debut In the Lonely Hour.
Smith’s wins had been widely expected. More of a surprise was the identity of the winner of the best album prize – which was Beck, for his lyrical, melancholic Morning Phase, which trumped Smith and Beyoncé, who had been tipped for the top honour.
Beyoncé was consoled with awards in three other categories. Pharrell Williams also nabbed three gongs.
The event seen in the record industry as music’s biggest night capped Smith’s breakout success since appearing as a guest vocalist on Disclosure’s Latch and winning last year’s Brits Critics Choice award. In the Lonely Hour, an ode to romantic devotion, has been a smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
Smith was favourite for best newcomer but faced stiff competition from Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off for best record, which recognises production, engineering and performance, and best song, which recognises songwriting.
“Before I made this record I was doing everything to try get my music to the world,” he said from the stage of the Staples centre. “I tried to lose weight and was making awful music. It was only until I started to be myself that the music flowed.”
Critics had hailed Beck’s Morning Phase, which dwells on heartbreak and hope, for its lush, intimate instrumentation. But few predicted the softly spoken 44-year-old born Bek David Campbell would win best album. An astonished expression when his name was called out suggested he did not expect it either.
Kanye West briefly feigned an attempt to interrupt Beck, an apparently joking reprise of his notorious 2009 stage invasion at the MTV VMAs, when he disputed an award for Taylor Swift, which West felt Beyoncé should have won.
Beck also won in the best rock album category, edging out Ryan Adams and U2.
Beyoncé won for best R&B song and best R&B performance for Drunk In Love and the less coveted award for surround sound for her self-titled album, Beyoncé.
Pharrell took home best urban contemporary album for G I R L, a blend of funk and pop, and best pop solo performance and music video for his smash hit song Happy.
During his performance of Happy his back-up dancers made the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture, a post-Ferguson symbol about police violence against African Americans,
Prince, presenting an award, also made a reference to the Black Lives Matter campaign: “Like books and black lives, albums still matter.” John Legend and Common injected a civil rights theme by singing Glory from the Selma film soundtrack.
Eminem won best rap album, prompting relief among those who had feared a row if the Australian Iggy Azalea, whom critics accuse of appropriating African American urban culture, took the gong. Eminem, nevertheless, is white.
Other winners included Miranda Lambert, best country album, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, best traditional pop vocal album and St Vincent, best alternative rock album.
Critical response to the show, broadcast by CBS, was mixed. The Los Angeles Times called it “rather tepid”, while the New York Times’s reviewer called it “a night full of soporific performances”.
The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which awards the Grammys, made a play for older viewers by having AC/DC open the show. The veteran Australian rockers raised eyebrows by apparently using a teleprompter.
Madonna spiced up the evening with a revealing matador outfit and troupe of dancing minotaurs which accompanied her rousing performance of Living for Love, taken from her new album Rebel Heart.
Tom Jones and Jessie J earned brickbats for a version of You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling which invited unflattering comparisons with Tom Cruise’s karaoke version in Top Gun.
Kanye West returned from a self-imposed six-year Grammy exile to croon Only One but was diminished by a bare stage and minimalist lighting. “Takes a lot to make Kanye boring. Congrats,” tweeted the Los Angeles Times’s Lorraine Ali.
President Barack Obama provided an abrupt change of tone by appearing in a public service announcement condemning sexual violence, saying, “It’s not OK – and it has to stop.” It was the latest installment in a White House campaign urging public figures to denounce sexual assaults on college campuses. The Grammys have been criticised for nominating Chris Brown after he assaulted his ex-girlfriend Rihanna.
The rapper LL Cool J hosted the ceremony for the fourth consecutive time.