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Emotional performances elevate the evening

Mary J. Blige was the presiding spirit of last night's upbeat Grammy telecast, sitting at the foot of the stage for easy access. "This is a great night for me," the queen of hip-hop soul exclaimed while accepting one of her early awards, assuring us that she's "growing into a better human being."

The pleasure was ours. For Blige, the night was a triumph over years of personal struggle. Looking altogether regal, she had her gold-tinged hair braided up in back, her face projecting waves of those healing, self-help, distinctively Mary vibes. Mustering full emotional presence, she sang her guts out on a fully orchestrated version of "Be Without You" and later, with Ludacris, on "Runaway Love." Her flowing fashions couldn't hide all 10 miles of her famously long legs, and her monster lashes couldn't hide her big old eyes.

The only wrong Mary J. note: The repetition of Chevrolet ads featuring Blige. It was as jarring as Tony Bennett thanking Target in his Grammy speech. Ouch! A cringing bull's eye, Tony.

Alongside Blige, the Dixie Chicks helped turn the night into a celebration of women unbowed. The defiant trio won the kudos despite their George Bush-bashing. They kept returning to the podium to pick up their statues, eventually finding it hard to even know what to say. "I'm ready to make nice!!" Natalie Maines finally exclaimed as she accepted their final honor, referring to their song "Not Ready to Make Nice."

Early in the night, Maines looked formidable at the microphone performing that song, her brown hair adding new shades of sincerity to her ever-growing political awareness. (Christina "Naked-Sundays" Aguilera, who was carrying a lifetime supply of blonde Brillo on her shoulders, couldn't have pulled off such gravitas).

The Chicks' musical performance, introduced by pioneering political chick Joan Baez, could have made a dramatic opening to the telecast. But the Police did the job quite nicely indeed, with their first performance together since their 2003 Hall of Fame induction. Looking kitschily 1980s retro, Sting sang out "Roxanne" in his power whine, while Stewart Copeland went mad on the drum set. Oddly, the camera got all up in Sting's face, and it gave us ample footage of Copeland, but it all but ignored Andy Summers on guitar.

The camera did catch Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, sitting in on drums behind the Dixie Chicks (as he did on the album). It was one of the night's many unusual link-ups. Seal and a weak-looking, slow-speaking Burt Bacharach presented an award together; John Legend, Corinne Bailey Rae, and John Mayer performed three songs together; and -- odd, odd, odd -- Alyson Hannigan and Cobie Smulders from "How I Met Your Mother" took the stage to congratulate the Grateful Dead for winning a lifetime Grammy.

Some of the stage talk was good -- when Ludacris thanked Bill O'Reilly, for example. And some was painful -- when Jamie Foxx reminded us just how witty he thinks he is, reveling in the fact that he "Crip-walked on the Grammys." Kiss yourself, Jamie.

Some of the performances were strong -- Aguilera actually managed to make good with her yodel on "It's a Man's Man's Man's World." And some were underwhelming -- the Chili Peppers singing a listless "Snow (Hey Oh)" amid crazy confetti.

Justin Timberlake was definitely a force onstage, singing hard from behind the piano on "What Goes Around," with its addictive circular chorus. But then, standing alone with a camera in his hands, he finished the song by looking into the lens, giving home viewers extreme close-ups of his face. People: May I present Justin's Nasal Passage cam.

Timberlake deserves the night's Good Sport award, as he allowed himself to be included in the "My Grammy Moment" segment, where a newcomer sang a duet with him. The gimmick was the Grammy's effort to steal a little "American Idol" thunder, having the public elect the winner of the Timberlake duet. In recent years, "Idol" has won more viewers than Grammy telecasts.

The "Grammy Moment" winner, Robyn Troup, looked completely lost as she danced and sang with Timberlake. Her voice wasn't awful, but her body language was screaming "Who am I, and what am I doing here?"

Troup was introduced by "Idol"-loser-turned-Oscar-nominee Jennifer Hudson, who assured the two rejected women that they might still hit the big time. Hudson, dressed in loud red, was showing early signs of awards-show fatigue.

You couldn't get away from "Idol" before the Grammys, either. It wasn't just the presence of red-carpet runt Ryan Seacrest. The flow of celebrity brought him Randy Jackson and, later, Paula Abdul, who couldn't help but make a Simon Cowell crack. Seacrest had a warm moment with silver-gowned fox Carrie Underwood, who seems to have developed a real personality since her "Idol" triumph. And he and Hudson, who recently claimed she'd been "abused, misled, and brainwashed" during her time on "Idol," had a strained but amicable greeting via remote. "He's my favorite from 'American Idol,' " she managed to say.

One of the many grotesque little moments in the E! preshow came early on, when Seacrest caught a glimpse of Mayer and went into shark mode. For Seacrest, Mayer was a major "get," not because he was nominated but because he has been "linked" with Jessica Simpson. And so Seacrest grabbed Mayer by hand and dragged him in front of the E! cameras. "You're intrepid," Mayer exclaimed. "You're like the Anderson Cooper of E!"

Eventually, Mayer answered Seacrest's "Jess" inquiry, but in Japanese. The translation, revealed at the end of the preshow: "She's very beautiful, and you're the last to know." Poor Ryan.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at