It’s a testament to the cold, dead, patriarchal hand of the Grammy Awards that the institution can take one of the best-feeling music stories of the past year and turn it into kind of a bummer. But that’s what happened when Grammy voters bestowed on 18-year-old Billie Eilish the first total sweep of the four biggest award categories (Song, Record, and Album of the Year, plus Best New Artist) since “Sailing” maestro Christopher Cross rocked his yacht clear across the waterfront in 1981.
Don’t get me wrong. Eilish—a sparkling (literally, last night), genre-defying, home-schooled California kid who makes wickedly smart music in her bedroom with her older brother—deserves boatloads of huzzahs. And she seems much likelier to keep drawing them in the long haul than Cross, whose star would dwindle so fast it would seem to be permanently, well, caught between the moon and New York City. But Eilish’s sweep shut out other 2019 phenomena just as vital.
Also nominated in all four major slots, for instance, was the commercial breakthrough of the campy and passionate, long-struggling singer-rapper-songwriter-flautist Lizzo. And the very definition of “record of the year” has to be found in the one-of-a-kind saga of Lil Nas X, another bedroom auteur whose hit “Old Town Road” now stands as the longest-running No. 1 single in Billboard chart history, while both generating layers of serious debate (about race and country music history, for instance) and being as lovable as a kitten in a cowboy hat. His performance of it on Sunday had a literally rotating cast, on a roundhouse-style set, including Billy Ray Cyrus, K-pop group BTS, pint-size yodeler Mason Ramsey, producer Diplo, and, for the first time, namesake rapper Nas (here introduced as “Big Nas”). But it really should have been the show closer, with all the other performers and honorees joining in the rodeo. I’d bet they all knew the words, even lifetime-achievement-award-winning septuagenarian John Prine.
Yet the Academy seemed to fall all over itself to applaud the young white girl with the handmade, alt-pop aesthetic (who was also painstakingly cultivated by the industry) instead of the left-field, brash black innovators. On Twitter, actor H. Jon Benjamin (of Bob’s Burgers, Archer, etc.) compared the spectacle of Eilish’s repeat trips to the podium to “a crazy bat mitzvah” and (although Eilish isn’t Jewish) that dovetailed with the image I formed of white boomer Grammy voters chuckling, “Aw, she reminds me of my grandkids,” and then checking every box next to her name.
Eilish herself said in her acceptance speech that she thought Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next should have taken the album prize. Before that one was announced, some observers even thought they caught her mouthing, “Please, don’t be me,” from her seat in the crowd. By the time she and big-bro Finneas O’Connell (who handled his global-stage public-speaking debut with finesse) returned to collect their final statuettes, an abashed Eilish could barely force out another “Thank you, goodbye!” before bolting backstage again. In an earlier speech, she’d declared, “I love all fandoms,” 2020 speak for Please don’t murder me on social media. No doubt she sensed how much this was going to look like a typical Grammy fumble, as a Los Angeleno and music fanatic who’s been watching the awards, as she said, her “whole life”—so maybe way back to 2008, when she was 6, which was also the last time a black artist won the best-album Grammy. (It was Herbie Hancock, for his album of covers of Joni Mitchell.)
So no, please don’t murder Billie Eilish on social media. Instead, hope, perhaps, that the institution’s recently ejected president and CEO Deborah Dugan legally murders the Grammys in the courts. Dugan was brought in on a reform agenda less than six months ago and then was seemingly turfed for wanting to enact actual reforms, including, she says, of voting procedures and sexual harassment issues inside the Academy. Before Sunday’s ceremonies, what everyone was wondering—aside from who would be drumming for Aerosmith (and who was it, anyway?)—was whether anybody would boycott over the controversy (answer: only Taylor Swift, apparently) and how presenters and others would cope with the mess. That question was utterly displaced by the helicopter death of Kobe Bryant earlier the same day, which cast a different kind of pall over the Staples Center. It was hard not to imagine some members of the Grammys board being secretly relieved.
The task of keeping all these balls in the air was relegated to the spacey levitation powers of host Alicia Keys, who sang “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” with Boyz II Men in tribute to the late basketballer at the top of the show, and gave a soothing monologue that jokingly advocated replacing Donald Trump with Cardi B and seemed to include a veiled shot at the Academy when she said: “It’s time for newness. And we refuse the negative energy. We refuse the old systems.” Into the third hour of the broadcast, though, Keys’ rambles were still unconscionably eating up airtime that could have been used to feature more nominated performers. Or Bonnie Raitt could have been allowed to get to the second verse of Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery.” Or there could have been nothing more. Nothing would have been terrific.
In many ways the lowlight of the evening was outgoing veteran Grammys TV producer Ken Ehrlich’s tribute to himself (though supposedly to music education), a glitzy rendition by various mismatched artists of “I Sing the Body Electric” from Fame, the movie musical that came out in 1980, the same year he took up the Grammys job. But it was also like a Rosetta stone for decoding the Grammys’ deepest urges. Here was what the head programmer, whom Dugan has accused of manipulating award selections behind the scenes, really loves: creakily portentous show tunes with talent-show kids singing and dancing, backed by superfamous classical musicians.
It showcased the same out-of-step patronizing-dad gaze reflected in the overreach for Eilish—and in, for example, the way yet another (cross-promotional) Prince tribute medley featured U.K. avant-pop artist FKA Twigs climbing a stripper pole (something she also does in her own performances) and then climbing Usher but never getting to actually sing any of the Prince songs. The Grammys tried to claim she hadn’t wanted to sing, until she specified that she was never asked. The Daddy vibe was cemented by having Camila Cabello sing “First Man” directly to her own father in the audience—an OK song that she sang the hell out of, and I’m sentimental enough to have found it touching, but also sane enough to have found its Daddy-was-my-first-boyfriend subtext icky.
No matter how hard they tried, though, the Grammys couldn’t come out all bad after such a great year for music. Maybe more than anybody, Tyler the Creator brought the place alive, evoking a world (and a Grammys) on fire with his wildly gestural, exclamatory performance, then won the Best Rap Album prize with his mother weeping beside him, and then denounced the Grammys backstage for confining eclectic black creators like himself to “urban” genre ghettos—echoing some of the same themes Sean “Diddy” Combs hit in a speech at the pre-Grammys Clive Davis gala the day before. Lizzo was typically captivating in her opening slot (albeit a little musically rougher than in other performances) and in her acceptance speech for Best Pop Solo Performance. Nashville icon Tanya Tucker was accompanied by Brandi Carlile on piano to sing the wrenching (and fitting, given the show’s death-haunted mood) “Bring My Flowers Now” after winning Best Country Song and Best Country Album earlier in the day—Tucker’s first Grammys ever, 47 years after she was first nominated. It was a tear-worthy moment, and then for some goddamn reason the pair was asked to present the comedy album award.
Gary Clark Jr. brought the sole out-and-out protest song to the table with a searing version of his Grammy-winning single “This Land” with the Roots. And a different side of L.A. culture than usual was showcased when Meek Mill, Roddy Ricch, John Legend, YG, and Kirk Franklin and his gospel chorus paid tribute to the late rapper and activist Nipsey Hussle (inevitably widened to be a Bryant tribute too)—although DJ Khaled’s yelling and showboating made me almost gratified that elsewhere in the ceremonies Sharon Osbourne somehow managed to keep energetically mispronouncing his name. (Even though, dear Grammys, that kind of old-white-people-confused-by-rap schtick in general is tired, belittling, and way too symptomatic.)
Ariana Grande, who boycotted last year’s awards, proved worthy of Eilish’s faith, as sleek and professional as ever, though maybe a bit too subdued, delivering “Imagine” and “7 Rings” and a bit of “Thank U, Next” in a gown and then flouncy lingerie. The Spanish flamenco-trap artist Rosalía put the rest of the show a bit to shame by, as usual, slaying with sheer singular virtuosity. So did Demi Lovato, who (after being introduced, puzzlingly, by Greta Gerwig) made a return from her career hiatus due to addiction and mental health issues with “Anyone,” a song that addresses those subjects with a passionate clarity that made it sound like an instant classic—and after a worrying false start, Lovato destroyed the arena with it.
So I didn’t regret I watched. And of course ultimately I’m pleased for the O’Connells, who also gave a great, low-key performance of “When the Party’s Over,” showing off a contrasting facet for people who might know only “Bad Guy.” To think anything else would deserve a trademark Eilish “Duh!” But for the corruption and blinkeredness of the Grammys, the party really should be over. Ehrlich getting gone is a fine start, but now, as Combs declared at that gala, “You’ve got 365 days to get this shit together.”