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02.01.10

The Grammys' Money Shot

Commercial success once again trumped critical acclaim at the Grammys, as Beyoncé and Taylor Swift cleaned up. Jacob Bernstein on the bestsellers' ball.

The music industry is broken beyond belief. Album sales were down somewhere in the ballpark of 12 per cent for 2009, following a decade-long slide. In the midst of all of this is the Grammy Awards, which were held at the Staples Center Sunday night. Broadcast on CBS, they were less a celebration of the year's best music than a party honoring the industry's biggest sellers. Of the five songs nominated for Record of the Year, each one was a massive hit, and all five were distributed by major labels.

Pop/country crossover sensation Taylor Swift took home the award for Album of the Year, and it's probably not a total coincidence that at 5.4 million copies sold, it's also the most successful collection of material released since January 2009.

Click the Image to View Our Gallery of the Red Carpet at the Grammys

"It's very difficult to be heard when you're an independent artist, even with the Internet and all these things," John Legend said backstage. "To become high profile, which I think you need to win a Grammy, you still need money behind you. People declare the major labels dead, but all the people up there tonight are major label artists."

The Grammys almost always vacillate between honoring merely the year's greatest unit shifters (Beyoncé, Swift) and its own perception of historic prestige, while throwing actual critical prestige out the window.

This year was no different.

Young industry darlings like Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, and Passion Pit all got ignored, while each of the men nominated for Best Solo Rock Performance were pushing AARP membership age. Prince, 51, was the baby of the bunch next to fellow nominees Neil Young, John Fogerty, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen, who took home the award for "Working on a Dream."

Watch: 8 Most Outrageous Grammy MomentsThe Recording Academy's strange nomination schedule also meant that material released in December was out of contention, while music from the 2008 soundtrack of "Slumdog Millionaire" (songs that got honored at the Oscars almost a year ago) were the recipients of awards this weekend. Similarly, Beyoncé's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)" took home Song of the Year, even though it had come out in October 2008.

A rare moment of excitement Sunday night: Lady Gaga's entrance on the red carpet (and then her performance with Elton John.) She showed up in a slew of glittery, space-age outfits from Armani Prive, a line whose image is the polar opposite of her own. By collaborating with them, she managed to be totally corporate and totally out there, all at once.

"Is it Armani the clothing line or Armani Casa?" asked Kathy Griffin. "Because I love it, but it might be a dining room table."

Alice Cooper, a pioneer of self-styled weirdness, proclaimed himself to be a big fan. "She's the new Mae West," he said. "She's the most outrageous thing out there at a time when we need outrageousness more than ever."

Too bad her signature blend of commercial savvy and pitch-perfect rock 'n' roll weirdness wasn't enough to help her where the major awards were concerned. Gaga got shut out in top categories by Swift and Beyoncé, while taking home two minor awards in the dance/electronic categories, which were not even part of the telecast.

At least the after-parties were fun.

Bashes around town included ones held by Universal Music Group, Sony/BMG, and the Kings of Leon, who took home the award for Record of the Year. The best one by far was the one hosted by WIlliam Morris / Endeavor, the industry's leading agency for music industry talent. Held at a giant house on the border of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, it was chock-a-block with celebrities, among them Common, Venus and Serena Williams, Kid Cudi, Sheryl Crow, Paris Hilton, M.I.A. and her other half, Benjamin Bronfman, Taylor Lautner, James Marsden, and Gerard Butler—who was there without Jennifer Aniston, and was being showered with attention by women from all over the place. (For the record, he was pretty well-behaved, even if he didn't have to be.)

Toward the back of the dance floor, Britney Spears and Gaga were sitting in opposite booths. Gaga was surrounded by an entourage of at least a dozen people, and crowds of people came rushing over to say hi and congratulate her—in spite of her mediocre night.

She even got some love from a mystery man, with whom she engaged in a bit of tonsil-hockey, just as a DJ was playing her smash hit, "Poker Face."

Spears sat across the way, with her agent/boyfriend, and a couple other people, looking bored and a little sad, as several onlookers put it. Eventually, Perez Hilton decided to bring Gaga over to Spears to say hello. They talked for a couple of brief moments, and then Gaga left, taking with her virtually the entire crowd of people in the room.

"What can you say?" said one onlooker. "Gaga's the new star."

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Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.