BY BRIAN McCOLLUM
FREE PRESS POP MUSIC WRITER
It was a dozen years ago that we met her as a bright-eyed 16-year-old. Five years ago that she left her first big stamp on the Grammy Awards.
Sunday night Beyoncé Knowles walked out of Los Angeles’ Staples Center firmly astride the music kingdom — and with a six-Grammy haul, top female tally in history.
Shoring up her place as popular music’s leading lady, the R&B-pop superstar was the big winner at the 52nd annual Grammys, taking song of the year and best female pop performance for work from her record of bold female empowerment, “I Am … Sasha Fierce.”
But it wasn’t an unstoppable romp for Beyoncé. In a uniquely splintered night for music’s top awards show, major wins went to young country songstress Taylor Swift (album of the year for “Fearless”), rock revivalists Kings of Leon (record of the year for “Use Somebody”) and breezy Georgia act Zac Brown Band (best new artist). The latter two were dark horses given little chance by Vegas oddsmakers.
Beyoncé’s two big competitors coming into Sunday — Swift and Lady Gaga — earned four and two trophies, respectively.
Hot breakout star Gaga was given opening duties, kicking off the 3 1/2 -hour show with a lively medley that included “Speechless” — a surprise dual-piano song with a makeup-streaked Elton John. It was a highlight in a slate of hot and cold live sets, which ranged from Green Day’s tepid, squirm-worthy performance of “21 Guns” to Swift’s shaky Stevie Nicks duet to Jeff Beck’s stylish Les Paul homage, “How High the Moon,” with Irish vocalist Imelda May.
But it was the mid-show tribute to Michael Jackson that was the Grammys’ most-ballyhooed moment. It was a mixed effort: The night’s best collection of singers — including Jennifer Hudson, Usher and Carrie Underwood — put their voices to Jackson’s syrupy “Earth Song,” a clunky, politically driven option for celebrating the legacy of pop’s biggest solo star.
Brief, poignant speaking appearances by the late Jackson’s children, son Prince Michael and daughter Paris, were sure to dominate today’s chatter.
“Daddy was supposed to be here,” said 11-year-old Paris as she helped accept Jackson’s posthumous lifetime achievement award.
The extensive pre-telecast ceremony, where most of the night’s 109 awards were doled out, had given Beyoncé four wins and momentum going into the big show, which she promptly affirmed by taking the first televised trophy, song of the year for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It”). Even as commercial breaks implored us to stay tuned to see who’d become “queen of the Grammys,” the suspense of a showdown with Swift and Gaga seemed solidly in Beyoncé’s favor.
That win serves as its own kind of milestone: Song of the year, a songwriting honor, has typically gone to melodic, traditionally crafted compositions. The trophy for “Single Ladies,” an assertive rhythmic number, marks the increasingly prestigious status of urban dance music.
It was just the start for Beyoncé, whose hip-hop beau, Jay-Z, smiled on from the audience. (He had his own pair of awards, including best rap solo performance for “D.O.A.”) By the time she was done, she’d notched her 16th career Grammy.
Swift, who had earlier professed her giddiness about seeing “some of my heroes” Sunday night, accepted the statuette for best country album by reminiscing about her childhood.
“I just feel like I’m standing here accepting an impossible dream right now,” said the 20-year-old, whose award-show glory was famously interrupted by Kanye West in the fall.
On the Detroit ledger, Eminem took his career tally to 11 — the best of any hip-hop act — with a pair of wins, including best rap album for his comeback disc, “Relapse.” He also made a rare but proficient live appearance, nailing his lines on Drake’s “Forever.”