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Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Hudson, Martina McBride, best new artist nominee Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine, and gospel singer Yolanda Adams gave their soulful, riffing best in an ear-popping tribute to a recovering Aretha Franklin that kicked off the show.

The Queen of Soul, who had surgery for an undisclosed ailment late last year, made her first televised appearance before a national audience and thanking well-wishers: “I wish that I could have been with you all tonight, but since I couldn’t, next year.”

That performance was followed shortly afterward by a typically over-the-top one by Gaga, who debuted her new anthem “Born This Way” by being “born”: She appeared out of an “Alien”-looking cocoon and seemed to transform into Madonna, circa 1987, as she pranced through the uptempo song, the first off her upcoming album.

Eminem was the leading nominee with 10, but his chance of a huge Grammy sweep was diminished as he lost five of the awards in the pre-telecast ceremony. He still picked up one _ best rap solo performance, for “Not Afraid.”

Eminem still had a chance to win the top awards of the evening, including the elusive (for him) album of the year category. But the gifted and twisted rapper might get tripped up by some fierce competition, including a song that rivals him for coarseness _ Green’s “(Expletive) You,” which is in competition with Eminem’s “Love The Way You Lie,” featuring Rihanna, in the record and song of the year categories.

Eminem’s “Recovery” was 2010’s best-selling album and a favorite to win in the album category. It marked a major comeback for the rapper, considered one of the greatest but who had been addled by a prescription drug addiction and critical malaise in recent years. It is the third time he’s been nominated for album of the year; he’s lost twice before.

But he also faces tough competition in the category, from the likes of Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” and Lady Gaga’s “The Fame Monster.” Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” are also nominated.