The Grammys Finally Managed to Lower the Bar Enough to Clear It

But with so many artists abandoning ship, is it too little, too late?

It was a surprise that Drake even showed up. The Grammys may wish he hadn't.
It was a surprise that Drake even showed up. The Grammys may wish he hadn’t. Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Last night will be recorded as the point when the Grammys finally managed to hammer expectations down so far that the outcome actually exceeded them.

As I predicted last year, the major figures in rap and R&B have gotten sick enough of being spurned by staid Grammy voters in favor of safer and usually whiter winners (e.g., Adele, or Beck, or Macklemore) that they finally stopped bothering to show up. Album, Record, and Song of the Year nominee Kendrick Lamar, as well as Jay-Z and Beyoncé (nominees and winners in smaller categories) were absent. Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) took both Record and Song of the Year with “This Is America,” making him, astonishingly, the first rapper to snag either award. He was also one of the few living winners ever in any of the four premier categories (Song/Record/Album of the Year and Best New Artist) not to turn up to claim his golden gramophones, and the first in more than a decade.

Drake was reported in advance to have rejected an invitation to perform, but then made a surprise cameo to accept his Best Rap Song trophy for “God’s Plan”—only to manifest his ambivalence by launching into a speech about how meaningless the awards are, which was cut off midsentence to go to commercial. (Let’s just hit that again: The Grammys cut off arguably the most popular artist in the world to go to commercial.) And a few days before the show, Ariana Grande, the current reigning chart-pop diva, also pulled out, sniping on Twitter at the Grammys’ producers for refusing to let her perform the song she wanted to do, “7 Rings,” which happens to be this week’s No. 1 song in America. (Her album Sweetener was awarded Best Pop Vocal Album in the non-broadcast afternoon ceremony.) Both Grande and Gambino were visible during the Grammys broadcast, it turned out, but only in ads for other products.

The Grammys also have been dogged by outgoing President Neil Portnow’s reply last year to critics who complained about the low rate of nominations for and performances by women, when he called for women to “step up,” as if female artists somehow had been slacking off. It fell to Best New Artist winner Dua Lipa late in the night to snark, “I guess this year we’ve really stepped up.” Gratingly, the next thing that happened was the Grammys’ farewell tribute to Portnow himself, which felt considerably longer than the following tribute to Aretha Franklin (though at least the latter, with Yolanda Adams, Fantasia, and Andra Day singing “A Natural Woman,” did justice to the Queen of Soul). Portnow delivered a non-apology worthy of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam—emphasizing how his gaffe had caused a valuable conversation, instead of accounting for himself.

Still, all bets by late last week were that this year’s Grammys would be even more of a disaster than the genial train wreck littered with baffling award choices that loyal Grammy viewers have come to expect. To the contrary, though, the twist was that much of this show was more enjoyable, if often oddball, and most of the award picks less infuriating than usual.

“This Is America” strikes some critics, including me, as much more potent a video than a stand-alone song, and Gambino as an outlier to the major currents in hip-hop. I thought almost all the other competitors for Record of the Year (except Post Malone, about whom more in a bit) were stronger. But the song’s double win (plus two more for the video) was still historic, and defiant of the backlash that its provocative, violent vision of racism drew when it came out last year. It also lines up with the critics’ poll of record, the Village Voice’s decades-running Pazz and Jop survey (which hearteningly carried on this year even after the demise of the Voice itself), where “This Is America” was also voted the top single.

The Album of the Year winner was even more directly aligned with critical consensus, with Nashville maverick Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour having topped not only P&J but a huge share of other critics’ lists at the end of 2018. That’s rare for the Grammys. So when Musgraves (who was also showcased early performing “Rainbow,” one of her album’s less distinctive, more award show–friendly, but still lovely tunes) took the stage to accept Best Country Album—not an award that usually makes the prime-time broadcast—I read it as her consolation prize. I was glad to be proved wrong. Beyond being a singular stylistic concoction, mellow yet subversive and retro-futuristic, Golden Hour has accrued symbolic import in country, where women have been shunted to the background by the commercial mainstream for most of the decade. As I wrote when the album was released, “In a year when the entertainment business has been declaring ‘Time’s Up’ for the second-class treatment of female artists … time is well past due for all the pent-up power of Nashville women to overcome hidebound expectations.” An Album of the Year Grammy sure seems like that kind of overcoming.

It tasted all the sweeter because one of the other album nominees, country/Americana artist Brandi Carlile (whose wife was in the audience), kiboshed the doubts of many who’d wondered what this relative unknown was doing on that list with her gravity-warping performance. Even compared to more extroverted acts, Carlile seemed like she was having the greatest time, maybe because, as the soaring key line of her song proclaims, “I’ve seen how it ends/ And the joke is on them.” Who knew “it gets better” could apply even to the Grammys?

Part of the explanation might be some reforms the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences has made to its rules, including expanded nominations in some categories as well as an attempt to widen, diversify, and youthify its voting pool. But the Grammys’ producers were also obviously trying to banish thoughts of last year’s sausage fest by putting women onstage at every opportunity. They brought in Alicia Keys and made her much more of a constant presence than most Grammy hosts, radiating the laid-back, name-dropping intimacy of an old-school late-night Quiet Storm radio DJ. After the opening musical theater–style set piece for “Havana” by Camila Cabello with Ricky Martin, J. Balvin, and Arturo Sandoval, Keys delivered a brief sermon about the power of music. Then, for backup, she brought out her “sisters” Jennifer Lopez, Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett-Smith, and startlingly, Michelle Obama, who could barely quiet the screams of the crowd in order to get across her own stirring and (naturally) dignified statement about music’s healing graces.

Along with the Aretha tribute, there was a great sequence with this year’s Musicares honoree Dolly Parton, who took center stage instead of leaning back and letting the young’uns laud her. Katy Perry got it off to a rough start, but once Dolly’s goddaughter Miley Cyrus was serving as her right hand, I kind of wished we could just skip the rest and let the Dolly cavalcade go on all night. Diana Ross celebrated her 75th birthday in indelible style (introduced surreally by her diminutive look-alike grandson), in old-fashioned Grammy-gown flounce and voice, shouting “Happy birthday to me!” repeatedly, even though her actual birthday is about six weeks away.

Cyrus, in her new “let’s forget my hippie and hip-hop–appropriating phases and just notice what a self-possessed, you-can’t-look-away showbiz professional I am” persona, also joined up with Shawn Mendes and made him seem so much better than ever before that one wished they’d taken Lady Gaga’s place to do A Star Is Born’s “Shallow.” Janelle Monáe, the hardest-working woman in what’s not exactly showbiz but some kind of viral grad-school performance art, executed “Make Me Feel” expertly with a phalanx of vinyl-clad fembots, plus enough of a detour into “Django Jane” and “Pynk” that she could include the line “let the vagina have a monologue!” But she was to be a little out-Princed by H.E.R.’s purple-sparkled suit and guitar heroism, as well as Cardi B’s violet-upholstered, vaginal-couch-cavern stage design, wit, and costume quick-changes. (Although to be fair, H.E.R. didn’t have choreography, and Cardi was almost certainly lip-syncing.)

Cardi B, to no one’s surprise, also gave us the most charming acceptance speech of the night when she got Best Rap Album, so excited that she told partner Offset (of Migos), “Baby, I can’t breathe” and then reflected, “Maybe I need to start smoking weed.” But it was her dedication of the award to her infant daughter that was the really telling women-in-music moment of the night, when she explained that she’d discovered she was pregnant while making the album and realized she had to rush to finish the tracks and videos before she started showing—not the kind of dilemma a male star ever has to sweat.

Did women do anything that wasn’t great? For sure, because we were also subjected to a Motown tribute led by, for some reason, Jennifer Lopez, to which Smokey Robinson was unforgivably made party. Sadly, too, Gaga did “Shallow” solo. Bradley Cooper was off in England at the BAFTAs, while Gaga was in ’70s-glam catsuit sparkles and a fit of ungainly, near-heavy-metal rage. I assume the anger is about award season not going the way we all expected, with “Shallow” sweeps everywhere. I sympathize (Gaga and Ally forever, really), but still.

And did men do anything good? Thankfully, yes. Dan and Shay played “Tequila,” a song that was a real country hit in 2018, rather than a what-non-country-fans-like hit, but also one that has meaning and soul. Best of all, though, Travis Scott appeared with James Blake, the Earth, Wind and Fire horns, Metro Boomin, and other people I didn’t catch—and not to play his hit “Sicko Mode,” his 2018 worldbeater, with any standard award-show schtick. Instead, they started out performing “Stop Trying to be God,” which between Blake’s and Scott’s vocodered voices was practically an avant-garde vocal chorus, and then ended with “No Bystanders,” during which Scott scaled a cage (presumably meant to recall children in cages on the Mexican border), hung off the other side, stage-dived, and crowdsurfed, still rapping, into the waiting audience below. (Has there been crowdsurfing at the Grammys before, ever?) Partly because so much of the audio was cut out for cussing, it wasn’t the best-sounding Grammy performance, but it was probably the most alive moment of the night.

Or perhaps that along with Donald Glover’s Swedish producer Ludwig Göransson, who was the only one to try to squeeze rapper and ICE detainee 21 Savage’s name into the proceedings, even though the exit music was already playing over his words. Certainly Post Malone didn’t make the effort during his set with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which I can only describe as the most accurate cross-generational collaboration ever. Also, a crowd shot of Post Malone, eyes rolled back, nodding along hard with Brandi Carlile almost redeemed not only him but the whole idea of the Grammys.

Redemption, on the other hand, is not really the point of the Grammys. While the Oscars are at their best when they ascend to high camp, that is partly because of the resiliency of the movie business, at least so far. The more abstract and destabilized nature of music makes the Grammys always on the borderline of contempt, the verge of disgust. The crass underpinnings of the music industry are somehow harder to face than in other fields, and things like the Portnow tribute montage are tough reminders that those circuits of exploitation remain intact. Just surpassing our most cynical feelings doesn’t quite seem enough to build on. Given the abandonment of the Grammys by a chunk of its most significant players, it feels quite plausible that before too long, this 20th-century remnant might be going the way of the northern fjords.