Everyone knew that the 59th Annual Grammy Awards’ tribute to George Michael, who died on Christmas Day last year at age 53, would be one of the most talked-about moments of Sunday’s ceremony. However, no one could have expected exactly why this performance would be so newsworthy.
Grammy producers had kept the tribute’s performer under wraps, and speculation had run rampant that it might be Elton John or even another past Michael duet partner, Aretha Franklin. So it was a surprise when Adele, who’d already opened the show with her own Record/Song of the Year-winner, “Hello,” appeared onstage, alone and dressed all in black. Additionally, Adele was singing not, say, “Careless Whisper” or “Praying for Time,” but the lesser-known “Fastlove” from Michael’s 1996 album, Older — a dance track, now reimagined as a funereal dirge.
However, it wasn’t the choice of performer or song that was notable. It was the fact that an emotional, frustrated Adele stopped the tribute midway through — and dropped a couple of swear words live on the air — after her performance started off-key.
“I know what it’s like to be [s***]. I can’t do it again like last year,” she said, referring to her infamously imperfect, technical-difficulty-laden “All I Ask” performance at the 2016 Grammys. “I’m sorry for swearing, and I’m sorry for starting again. Can we please start it again? I’m sorry, I can’t mess this up for him. I’m sorry. I can’t. I’m sorry for swearing. I’m really sorry.” She then offered her teary apologies to the show’s producer, Ken Ehrlich — “I’m sorry, Ken” — before muttering the F-word under her breath.
Adele composed herself quickly, and valiantly made it through her second performance without a hitch, receiving a standing ovation from the supportive, misty-eyed audience.
However, the performance wasn’t quite the tribute that George Michael, the 1989 Grammy winner for Album of the Year, truly deserved. Of course, it was understandable, after the backlash that Lady Gaga’s glitzy, Vegas-y, fussy David Bowie medley received last year, that this year’s Grammys would feature simpler, more somber tributes — but the slowed-to-a-crawl, sad “Fastlove” arrangement, coupled with Adele’s obvious sadness, contrasted awkwardly with the production’s cheery video-screened images of Michael dancing in a “Choose Life” T-shirt or his cheeky “Outside” music video.
Still, no one could blame Adele for getting choked up — or for wanting to make her Michael homage as perfect as possible, even if that required a second take. Later, when accepting her Song of the Year Grammy onstage, she said, “I really do apologize for swearing. George Michael, I love him. He means a lot to me. So I’m really sorry if I offended anyone, anywhere.”