PEOPLE Critic Reviews Emotional Highs and Lows of Grammy Telecast

02/13/2012 at 04:00 PM EST

PEOPLE Critic Reviews Emotional Highs and Lows of Grammy Telecast
LL Cool J and Jennifer Hudson
Kevin Winter/Getty (2)

Adele

Adele

Katy Perry

Katy Perry

The Grammys would have been (and were) a showcase for the glory that is Adele, but Whitney Houston's death 24 hours before the event turned the CBS special into a night of mourning and celebration cresting on big, pure emotions. That's what brought in an estimated 39 million viewers, the highest number for the broadcast since 1984 and the second highest ever.

LL Cool J, who handled the hosting duties without any perceptible wrinkling in his uncanny smoothness, opened with a simple prayer for Houston, "a woman who we loved … our fallen sister." This set up a clip of the six-time Grammy winner belting her signature hit "I Will Always Love You."

Ah me.

The song was reprised by Jennifer Hudson in one of the night's high points. You wouldn't have blamed Hudson if she fumbled it, but it was a strong, humble, honest interpretation – a sincere salute to Houston, and not an attempt to outshine her.



The other power moment was what had initially been the show's selling point: Adele singing "Rolling in the Deep" in her first public performance since vocal surgery last year. Like Hudson, and like Houston, she just stood there, rooted, with band and backup singers behind her, and let her voice do all the work. It was one of the most electric Grammy performances since Aretha Franklin, subbing for Luciano Pavarotti, unleashed her tsunami-sized version of "Nessun Dorma" in 1998.

And then there was the touching sight of valiant old country giant Glen Campbell, who last year announced that he's suffering from Alzheimer's, singing "Rhinestone Cowboy." Not someone gone, at least, but a sad reminder that he's going …

But all awards shows, even if marked by unprecedented solemnity, have to let in some extravagant nonsense. Thank you, blue-haired Katy Perry, for dancing around surrounded by flames and ice sculptures. And special thanks to Nicki Minaj. Her "Roman Holiday," with its theme of Satanic possession, was apparently choreographed by Inquisition fanboy Torquemada.

Oh: One more thing worth noting – of all things, a commercial about sustainable farming for Chipotle. It was a beautifully animated spot about agrarian paradise lost and rediscovered, with the reedy yet steely voice of Willie Nelson singing Coldplay's "The Scientist." Some twitter commentators even said Nelson's cover was better than the original.

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