The Grammys Once Again Took the Sharpest Voices for Granted

Why should artists like Kendrick Lamar even continue to show up?

Kendrick Lamar performs onstage at the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 2018 in New York City.
The game is rigged. Christopher Polk/Getty Images

It’s early, but after last night’s 60th annual Grammy Awards, I already have a prediction for next year’s ceremony: It’s going to be tough to get major stars in hip-hop, and maybe some from R&B, to agree to perform.

Although Jay-Z was the most-nominated artist this year, with eight nods, he maintained his usual refusal to take the Grammy stage, even relocated to his hometown of New York, because of the perpetual second-class treatment given to hip-hop. (And remember that Lemonade, by his spouse, Beyoncé, lost to Adele last year.) Jay probably foresaw what was coming: He didn’t win anything. That was partly because Kendrick Lamar, who opened the show with exactly the sort of mind-blowing, socially conscious theatrics that he always brings to big moments, rightfully swept the rap-specific slots. (At least Macklemore wasn’t around to thwart him this time.) But both Jay’s 4:44 and Lamar’s Damn were shut out from any wins in the major categories—this time due to an avalanche for the much more upbeat, pop-and-Grammy-friendly Bruno Mars. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lamar, too, felt hesitant to lend so much effort to the institution in future.

Many women might feel the same way: The late-breaking story of the day was that critics’ favorite Lorde, up for album of the year for Melodrama, chose not to appear because she wasn’t offered a solo spot, unlike the four men nominated alongside her. The show we saw should have had plenty of room for her, given that it included multiple appearances by Sting, some sketches, a lame new U2 song (performed outdoors with a red-white-and-blue bullhorn, all but astride the Statue of Liberty), a leisurely chat between host James Corden and his parents, and a tribute to Andrew Lloyd Webber (granted, it was the sexagenarian goddess Patti LuPone blowing all the cobwebs off “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” but still).* Meanwhile, both SZA, who gave a mesmerizing debut turn, and Kesha, who stole the show with an exorcism-intensity performance of her anti-abuse anthem “Praying” alongside a coven of women in white, lost all their awards to men. (Neil Portnow, the president of the Recording Academy, which runs this circus, didn’t help later by blaming women’s underrepresentation on women.)

The awards’ bias toward the safer and more traditional side of the pop spectrum has been a constant throughout their existence, and in some ways getting too exercised may seem silly. As several jaded observers have put it, “Grammys gonna Grammy.” This year, at least, the Recording Academy managed to manipulate the nominations to reflect a more diverse and forward-looking roster. (With some exceptions, such as the near-total absence of women from the rock and alternative categories.) But the voting membership held on to its habits tenaciously: You can lead a bunch of old, white studio workhorses to water, but you can’t make them respect rap. Even if it’s been the ascendant and often dominant form of pop for a quarter century. The TV broadcast is what matters to the Grammys internally, so a performance boycott is the only leverage that artists really have.

Only two hip-hop albums have ever won the top-shelf hardware, Album of the Year, and both were “crossover” works in many ways, by Lauryn Hill and by Outkast. Outkast’s coup was 14 years ago now. So unless the Recording Academy finds some more potent way of countering its veterans’ prejudices, why should rappers bother? Those prejudices, at least on the surface, are more musical than racial—Mars, as a Hawaiian artist of Puerto Rican, Jewish, and Filipino heritage, is the quintessence of a “diverse” pick, and as a consummate lifelong showman (in his final acceptance speech, he reminisced about performing new jack swing covers at 15 in a professional show called “The Magic of Polynesia”), he deserves no hostility for his hard-earned success. His performance of “Finesse” with breakout hip-hop star Cardi B showed how much sheer joy he can generate on stage. But the voters’ musical biases are assimilationist in effect. This polarized year in particular, it didn’t seem too much to ask that there be more reward for standing up for less compromising perspectives.

As a program, the Grammys did seem to be striving—in their characteristically strained way—to put across that sentiment. Lamar’s virtuosic opening mix of segments from Damn, billed as “A Satire by Kendrick Lamar,” featured comic Dave Chappelle interjecting spoken-word statements such as, “The only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America is being an honest black man in America.” It’s up to the observer whether Chappelle also meant that as a salvo against critics of his jokes about transgender people in his recent comedy specials. (Disappointingly, when Chappelle returned later to collect his award for best comedy album, a category that was clearly only televised for his benefit, he gave perfunctory thanks, with nothing much cogent or amusing to add.)

In support of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements against sexual harassment and assault in entertainment and beyond—which mostly have not yet shaken the notoriously sexist music industry the way they have other fields—many performers wore white roses or dressed all in white. The swan-songing Elton John had his white rose gracefully rested on his piano, while his “Tiny Dancer” duet partner Miley Cyrus, otherwise for better or worse reinvented from a radical brat to an elegant, gown-wearing sophisticate this year, posed on the red carpet with her long-stemmed white rose gripped in her teeth. But, after Lamar, more forceful statements were slow in coming.

Behind her white feather–draped piano (the Grammys love a piano), Lady Gaga quickly stated “Time’s up” to transition from her most recent album’s title song, “Joanne,” to the more thematically pointed “Million Reasons.” But for a while after, it seemed like the programmers were waiting for the Fox News portion of the viewership to get tucked into bed. It wasn’t until halfway through, when the hyper-poised and hyper-eloquent Janelle Monáe appeared in a flower-brocaded black tuxedo to introduce Kesha, that anyone made an extended point:

Tonight, I am proud to stand in solidarity as not just an artist, but a young woman, with my fellow sisters in this room who make up the music industry. … We come in peace, but we mean business. And to those who would dare try to silence us, we offer you two words: Time’s. Up. We say time’s up for pay inequality, time’s up for discrimination, time’s up for harassment of any kind, and time’s up for the abuse of power. Because you see, it’s not just going on in Hollywood, it’s not just going on in Washington, it’s right here in our industry as well. And just as we have the power to shape culture, we also have the power to undo a culture that does not serve us well.

Monáe is one of the few artists who’s able to balance an insider-outsider role in the music industry, so she can say that kind of thing without her own “people” trying to shut her down. As crushing as Kesha’s subsequent song was, about reclaiming power from her alleged abuser, her former producer Dr. Luke, it was difficult to watch, with the knowledge that many industry people in the room had resisted believing and supporting her, thus stalling her career for years. (Luke has denied the allegations, and the legal fallout is still in process.) That pain was plain on Kesha’s face.

Likewise, when Cuban-born Camila Cabello—whose song “Havana” is currently atop the singles chart—gave a speech about immigration and the first-generation “Dreamers” whose future is still being fought out in Congress, she was introducing U2. Many on Twitter pointed out how much more it would have meant if it had been the other way around. Or if she’d been introducing Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito,” the rare Spanish-language track to attain the status of U.S. song of the summer, thankfully performed without Justin Bieber’s English-translated guest vocal Sunday night. (Or if U2 had the humility to restrict their appearance to their guest turn with Lamar—but, come on, we’re still on planet Earth here.)

The least predictable moment of the night was a sketch in which musicians like DJ Khaled (who facilitated an iconic Rihanna performance elsewhere in the show) and Snoop Dogg “auditioned” to voice the audio book of Michael Wolff’s Donald Trump exposé, Fire and Fury. Cardi B gave the funniest reaction, to Trump’s apparent cheeseburgers-in-bed habit (“I can’t believe this! This is how he lives his life?!”). But the shock was that it was capped by a passage read by Hillary Clinton. That was a level of Washington trolling most award shows don’t attempt, and no doubt we’ll endure the resultant Trump tweets for days, until something else ruffles his ego. But the disconnect with the way the awards rolled out (“Despacito” didn’t win anything, either) made all these gestures feel rather token.

Then there were the usual Grammys crimes against aesthetic decency, such as having country stars Eric Church, the Brothers Osborne, and Maren Morris pay tribute to the victims of the country-festival Las Vegas mass shooting in October by singing, not a country song, but Eric Clapton’s drippy chestnut, “Tears In Heaven.” It was a Grammy schmaltz cliché of the highest degree, and, worse, unsuited to any of these excellent artists’ voices. Then, when (by-now-automatic) country-album winner Chris Stapleton harmonized with Emmylou Harris, it was to sing the late Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” over the year-in-deaths montage.* So the country content this year consisted only of rock covers, aside from Little Big Town’s very fine (but getting dusty) “A Better Man,” which was emphatically announced as “written by Taylor Swift!”

It also seemed in dubious taste that the death sequence was immediately followed by the young-and-earnest crew of Logic, Khalid, and Best New Artist winner Alessia Cara doing their suicide-prevention anthem “1-800-273-8255,” alongside a group of suicide-attempt and loved ones’ survivors. That was also the first time I can recall the Grammys copping a number directly from the previous year’s Video Music Awards. (Logic did interject one of the sharper speeches of the night, calling out Trump’s “shithole countries” remark, but those words were muted in the broadcast.)

The other theme of the evening was the Grammys’ return to New York for the first time in 15 years, dovetailing with the awards’ 60th anniversary for an overflow of nostalgia. Along with a load of New York–themed song references, we had to suffer through a subway edition of Corden’s signature and now-tiresome “Carpool Karaoke” shtick, which was somewhat redeemed by the fact that none of the other (planted) passengers wanted to hear him bellow hits with Sting and Shaggy, either: “It’s for the Grammys!” protested Corden. “Not for this grammy,” snarked back an older lady. New York, it perhaps too optimistically suggested, will not swallow all your L.A. bull.

Similarly, the unexpected benefit of the geographical shift was that the Madison Square Garden space conveyed a kind of stagey intimacy, in a very New York way, that the usual L.A. Staples Center venue doesn’t. The production numbers felt more put-on-a-show, raggle-taggle, and human than the big-machine spectacles that the Grammys usually present. It made me want the awards kept there, to see what changes that dose of modesty might bring over time. But for that, the Recording Academy would need to figure out how to persuade the day’s most vital artists to keep showing up. The Grammys aren’t the Oscars, after all. If this ritual died, it’s hard to say how many people would really miss it.

Read more about the Grammy Awards in Slate.

Correction, Jan. 29, 2018: This article originally misidentified Patti LuPone as a septuagenarian. She is 68. 

Correction, Jan. 30, 2018: This article originally misidentified the Tom Petty song “Wildflowers” as “Wallflowers.”