The Grammys had a lot of dead legends to pay homage to this year, and the tributes took several forms: Adele slowed down (and restarted) “Fastlove” for George Michael; a Tribe Called Quest stood silent to let Phife Dawg’s recording take his verse on “We the People.” For Prince, the Grammys played it straight. First, Morris Day and the Time took the stage to perform “Jungle Love” and “The Bird,” just the way they did onscreen in 1984’s Purple Rain—right down to the belt-grabbing back-and-forth dance movies and the bit where Day combs his hair in a mirror mid-song. Then the stage fell dark except for the glow of the symbol that briefly replaced Prince’s name at the end of his Warner Bros. contract. We heard Prince’s own voice, doing a cut-down version of the fire-and-brimstone intro to “Let’s Go Crazy,” and the baton passed to Bruno Mars, done up in a ruffled shirt and a sequined purple jacket for the occasion. He wasn’t going to reinterpret Prince’s song or put his own spin on it: It was more like a performance by the world’s most accomplished tribute band.
As Variety critic Daniel Fienberg quipped on Twitter, Mars might have been “concocted in a laboratory” for just such an occasion, and he didn’t disappoint—unless you were looking for something deeper than a fluid and highly professional facsimile. Something like, for instance, D’Angelo’s garment-rending take on “Sometimes It Snows in April” on The Tonight Show last year, or Janelle Monae’s shape-shifting medley from the BET Awards. Mars and his band hit every mark and every note, and they had the audience, from Beyoncé to Paul Williams, on their feet. It was just close enough to remind you how great the real thing was.