Music

This Year, the Grammys Were Actually … Good?

The typically overwrought awards show reinvented itself for the pandemic era.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA: In this image released on March 14, (L-R) Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B perform onstage during the 63rd Annual GRAMMY Awards at Los Angeles Convention Center in Los Angeles, California and broadcast on March 14, 2021. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)
Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B perform onstage during the 63rd Annual GRAMMY Awards at Los Angeles Convention Center in Los Angeles, California and broadcast on March 14, 2021. Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Maybe my brain is just pickled in a thick brine of year-long lockdown logyness, but is it possible that the Grammys award show this weekend was actually kind of … good?

This realization leaves me at something of a loss. Usually these annual, post-show recaps are mainly a chance to make bad jokes and excoriate the Recording Academy’s membership for once again honoring the least representative and relevant music its aging, musically conservative majority can get away with. Last year’s review opened like this: “It’s a testament to the cold, dead, patriarchal hand of the Grammy Awards that …” This year’s nominations and final award picks merit a few of the same criticisms, but way less egregiously so. Much more startling was how light the show itself was on the kind of puffed-up, misbegotten production numbers and incongruous musical pairings that tend to be the Grammys’ trademark—and that lack was to its benefit.

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Unlike other virtual awards ceremonies of the pandemic era, this year’s Grammys actually took place with artist in the same, physical space—no wonky Zoom connections or mixed-quality camera work here. Originally scheduled for January before a last-minute delay, the ceremony was held on a collection of sound stages beside the Los Angeles Convention Center, while the awards were given out in an adjacent tent full of physically distanced tables of masked attendees. Especially early on, this made for an unaccustomed intimacy. Billie Eilish was sitting on one stage bopping along to Harry Styles’ opening rendition of “Watermelon Sugar” on a neighboring set; a few minutes later, Styles (wearing one of the three different feather boas he sported that night) was swaying in his own quadrant to Eilish’s performance of “Everything I Wanted,” which would later be named the record of the year. This casual collegiality was so much more enjoyable to watch than the awkwardly performative crowd chair-dancing at a standard Grammys event. The transitions from one stage to another gave the show a music-festival-like feel, and, as several of my fellow critics observed on Twitter, also recalled the format of the beloved BBC series Later… with Jools Holland, which hasn’t had a U.S. equivalent since the brief late eighties and early nineties run of Night Music.

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As the clock on Sunday night’s Grammys approached the two-hour mark, I scribbled in my notebook, “Has there really been nothing bad yet? Bizarre.” Sure, one could quibble with a few things, such as Bruno Mars and Anderson.Paak’s new retro-pastiche duo Silk Sonic, which kind of hovered between loving tribute to sixties and seventies romantic-soul vocal groups and a Lonely Island-style sendup of them sans punchlines. (There was one chuckle-worthy couplet that went something like, “If you smoke, I got the haze/ If you’re hungry, I got filets.”) And I’m not sure the otherwise spectacular “spotlight on women in country,” with Mickey Guyton (the first Black woman ever nominated in the genre) singing her powerful “Black Like Me” and Miranda Lambert (who won country album of the year for Wildcard) cruising through “Bluebird,” really needed John Mayer to guitar-doodle all over Maren Morris belting out her hit “The Bones.” But these were minor, mostly painless wobbles.

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There were more strengths to come, chief among them Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B’s unbridled first TV duet on their ribald hit “WAP” (capping off a medley of some of their other, individual hits), which took place first under the heel of a gigantic stiletto shoe and then on an enormous raised platform dressed up as a bed. (This was only slightly ruined by host Trevor Noah then regressing into a 1970s TV-variety-show host and wink-nudging about it being his dream to be in bed with Cardi B.) Rapper Lil Baby gave a cinema-scaled presentation of his 2020 protest single “The Bigger Picture,” with actors and dancers acting out a police-brutality scenario on a street-level set, featuring guest Killer Mike of Run the Jewels as well as Black Lives Matter activist Tamika Mallory delivering uncompromisingly political addresses of their own. And that’s not to mention the more purely sound-and-vision pleasures of Dua Lipa’s dance number, Taylor Swift moss-and-country-cottage medley of tunes from Folklore—eventually awarded album of the year—or Bad Bunny and Jhay Cortez’s neon-and-laser-lit run through “Dakiti.”

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Meanwhile, when the concert proceedings were occasionally interrupted to hand out an award or two, that too was generally done in the least obnoxious way possible. While Noah’s hosting humor often seemed a little forced, he didn’t hog the camera, and there was none of the unbearable scripted banter between mismatched celebrities that usually drag things out. A sincere note was struck early on when Lizzo, before presenting Best New Artist to Megan Thee Stallion, accidentally blurted out the word “bitch” in her intro and then could hardly stop laughing at her own blunder. Later, Megan herself would be caught momentarily speechless when her fellow Houstonian, Beyoncé, who guested on Megan’s “Savage,” made an appearance to accept the rap award alongside her. Megan confessed she’d wanted to be “the rap Beyoncé” ever since she was little, under the guiding philosophy, “What would Beyoncé do—but make it a little ratchet.”

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Given the events of the past year, one might have expected more emotive and politicized speechifying from the winning artists, but a mix of spontaneity and restraint seemed to prevail. Maybe it’s the subduing effect of having to remove your haute-couture mask first. Even when Grammy darling H.E.R. won song of the year for her George Floyd-inspired protest anthem “I Can’t Breathe,” she spoke simply and briefly about keeping up “the fight we had in us in the summer of 2020”—as well as about writing the song on FaceTime with her composing partner and then playing it at home for her dad. Heartfelt beat grandstanding all night.

The producers also chose to highlight the nation’s suffering live-music venues by asking staff members from such legendary spots as Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Nashville bluegrass hub the Station Inn, and L.A.’s own Troubadour to present some of the awards. Hearing them describe their venues’ backgrounds and esprits de corps was a moving way to acknowledge the dire times for live music without any celebrity high-horsing.

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The show’s relative elegance on all these fronts speaks well of new Grammy producer Ben Winston, taking over this year from the heavy-handed Ken Ehrlich, who steered the proceedings for four decades. The one glaring flaw was that the show ran even longer than usual, verging on four hours. But we’ll have to see how next year compares to make any broader call on how the Winston era will play out, assuming the British-born Carpool Karaoke producer stays the course.

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Likewise, it’s mysterious what’s shaking down at the Recording Academy itself, which, at Grammy time last year, was in the throes of a fraught, combative attempt at reform. Interim CEO and president Harvey Mason, Jr., made a video appearance Sunday night including the requisite blah-blah about transparency. But nobody seems to know. In advance of the awards, the Weeknd, who was shut out despite having big hits this year, said he would no longer let his record company submit his music for Grammys because of the “secret committees” who select nominees. But in relative terms, the award outcomes this year look like progress.

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The “big four” prizes (album, song, and record of the year as well as the best new artist) all went to women, and not just white women either. With Folklore, Taylor Swift became the first female artist to have won album of the year three times, but the slate was weak (only Dua Lipa, and maybe Haim, looked like real competition). It was the only win among Swift’s six nominations. Besides new artist, Megan Thee Stallion shared best rap performance and best rap song for “Savage” with Beyoncé—which, along with Beyoncé’s R&B peformance prize for “Black Parade” and music-video award for “Brown Skin Girl” (also bestowing the first but surely not last Grammy on her and Jay-Z’s nine-year-old daughter Blue Ivy), made Mrs. Carter the first female artist and the first singer of any gender to have won 28 Grammys. Beyoncé greeted the milestone with genuine-seeming emotion, although it’s notable that only one of those 28 has been a top-category prize, the song of the year award for “Single Ladies” back in 2010.

When Lemonade didn’t take the album prize in 2017, that year’s winner Adele objected in her own acceptance speech that it should have gone to Beyoncé. This time it was Eilish’s turn to play the “I’m-not-worthy” card, when the teenage singer (who swept the top categories last year) said that her record of the year award by rights belonged to Megan Thee Stallion. The sentiment was no doubt sincere, but the moment confirmed how awkward it is to express it that way. After all, the winners don’t have power of transfer over their prizes, so at the end of all their protestations, they’re still standing there holding the golden gramophone while the Black artist who lost remains empty-handed in their seat. It’s an embarrassing anticlimax, unless, say, you have a sledgehammer hidden in your purse that you can pull out to shatter the statue on stage.

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That’s what Fiona Apple—who took best alternative album for Fetch the Bolt Cutters but gave the ceremonies a miss—at first threatened to do if she did attend, especially if producer and accused sexual-assulter Dr. Luke won anything for his work under a pseudonym on Doja Cat’s “Say So,” which was also up for record of the year. (He didn’t.) At least that’s a move that has some music-history cred, back to the Who demolishing their guitars in concert. But as multiple nominee Phoebe Bridgers learned when she smashed her own guitar on Saturday Night Live in February, a lot of music fans out there don’t seem to find that macho flourish so cool when a young woman does it instead.

I was disappointed that Bridgers came up empty-handed last night (partly by losing to Apple), but presumably not as much so as Elton John, who jokingly threatened this week to “hit someone” if Bridgers didn’t get a Grammy. I’ve often had that impulse to smack somebody after watching this show. The novelty this year is that I’m short on suggestions of who might deserve one.

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