Music

The Grammys Still Hasn’t Solved Its Biggest Problem

A Black artist won the top prize for the first time in 14 years. That’s not enough.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - APRIL 03: Jon Batiste performs onstage during the 64th annual GRAMMY awards on April 03, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)
Jon Batiste walked home with a surprise Album of the Year win. Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

It was a night that might well have left Olivia Rodrigo sighing, “Guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in your Grammy previews about me.”  Though the 19-year-old “Driver’s License” pop star won Best New Artist, along with a couple of lesser pop-specific prizes, her widely predicted major-categories sweep didn’t materialize, as the Grammys fell back into tired old patterns.

It was also a night where a Black artist collected the Album of the Year trophy for the first time since Herbie Hancock in 2008, after Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, and many other superstars failed to win the top prize in the intervening 14 years. But much like Hancock, 2022’s winner wasn’t someone at the forefront of this century’s defining hip-hop and R&B sounds. It was the affable keyboard virtuoso and late-night talk-show band leader Jon Batiste, who won for his jazz-soul collection We Are. From the look on his face when the prize was announced, Batiste himself realized it was a pretty random windfall for a record that, up until last night, had barely registered any critical or commercial impression.

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Nobody can begrudge the sweetly sincere, gifted New Orleans scion Batiste, who also gave a candy-colored cavalcade of a performance with a troupe of musicians and dancers. (They practically levitated a delighted Billie Eilish into the rafters of Las Vegas’s MGM Grand arena.) Still, the out-of-touch anticlimax of his album prize, along with several worse decisions around the margins of the 64th annual Grammys, testified to the Recording Academy’s ongoing credibility issues.

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I’ll get back to those. But I also have to say this: For the second year in a row, as a televisual musical experience, the Grammys were darned pleasant, sometimes wonderful, almost never worse than perfectly fine.

The unusually intimate, pandemic-constrained proceedings at 2021’s Grammys could have been a fluke of circumstance. But despite the return to a fully outfitted indoor venue with sets elaborate enough to blow through last year’s budget savings and then some—and in no less a capital of glitz than Vegas—executive producer Ben Winston’s second Grammys show still felt guided by a new sensibility of basic tasteful straightforwardness. That’s especially in comparison to the event’s notoriously bloated decades under producer Ken Ehrlich’s direction. Watching new-generation pop impresario Lil Nas X gaze admiringly from the crowd as his veteran rapper namesake Nas did a career-spanning medley, I could only think that Ehrlich absolutely would have tried to jerry-rig them into an onstage duet for a forced “Grammy moment.” It was symptomatic that the faded elder Nas was performing when, for example, Best Rap Album winner Tyler, the Creator was nowhere in sight. But one has to appreciate these small mercies of progress.

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The fresh gracefulness was especially conspicuous after the logy self-seriousness of last week’s Oscar ceremonies, a painful ordeal even before Will Smith’s infamous Chris Rock slap. That moment was, thankfully, only glancingly referenced during the Grammys—including once by Questlove, who had every right after his Summer of Soul Oscar acceptance last week was upstaged and ruined by the incident. The movie and music shows don’t usually fall so close together, but the winter Omicron wave delayed the Grammys this year; the comparison proved flattering as the Grammys flowed fluidly between hardware handouts and performances.

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In substantial terms, there weren’t a lot of notable winners’ speeches. There was R&B album winner Jazmine Sullivan, whom I’d feared would be shut out, speaking plainly about the space she tried to craft for Black women’s voices on her semi-narrative album Heaux Tales. In a whole other mood, there was Doja Cat’s whirlwind of waterworks: After she memorably rushed to the stage well behind her duet partner SZA to accept the Pop Duo/Group Performance prize for “Kiss Me More,” Doja explained, “I have never taken such a fast piss in my whole life,” and then burst into tears.

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Then again, any podium grandstanding would have paled next to the pre-taped message from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. With his own practiced performer’s skill, he spoke eloquently about music as a counterpoint to the violent noise and devastating silences of war—even if, for now, “Our musicians wear body armor instead of tuxedos.” While itself a calculated part of Ukraine’s campaign for more Western military aid, his speech brought almost more reality into the room than the showbiz event could bear. But the transition into a John Legend anthem for peace, accompanied by Ukrainian musicians and a poet who’d only recently escaped the warzone herself, was less cringeworthy than one might fear—especially imagining how many redundant celebrity guest cameos would have been parachuted into the number in the Ehrlich days.

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Most importantly, though, there was just a ton of good music. I’m inclined to claim that the very best performance might have been one in the online-only preshow, Allison Russell’s gorgeous rendition of her song “Nightflyer.” But in the main broadcast, Rodrigo’s live take on “Driver’s License” more than affirmed her bonafides. Her predecessor in Gen-Z stardom, Billie Eilish (who actually did sweep the Grammys in her breakthrough year), delivered a killer theatrical version of her album’s title song “Happier Than Ever,” clad in an oversized T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of the recently deceased Foo Fighters drummer Tyler Hawkins. And Lil Nas X made the most of his not-a-one-hit-wonder victory lap: He ran ebulliently through “Dead Right Now,” “Industry Baby,” and “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” on a stage bearing a giant sculpture of his head, his queerness to the forefront in costume and choreography, while tweets and audio excerpts of his detractors rolled by in the background. He didn’t win any Grammys, though—Batiste’s off-air win for best video over the culture-shaking “Montero” clip was arguably an even greater travesty than his album upset.

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Lady Gaga honored her absent singing partner Tony Bennett, 95 and newly retired from performing due to the onset of Alzheimer’s, with two songs from their Cole Porter songbook collection Love for Sale. An overcompensatingly frantic version of the title number didn’t come off. But when Gaga shifted into the ballad “Do I Love You” in front of a montage of clips of the pair together through their years of collaboration, it was hard not to choke up. At the end, endearingly, she patted her own shoulder in a self-soothing gesture that gave me nearly as much comfort as the fact that Academy members didn’t disproportionately laud their classic-Grammy-bait album with prizes. Following her touching double-act as an Oscars presenter with a frail Liza Minnelli, Gaga again proved herself one of showbiz’s most valuable citizens when she jumped out of her seat to help SZA, who was on crutches, make it to the stage by carrying the train of her gown.

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The annual In Memoriam montage, which began with a Hawkins tribute and then was aptly soundtracked by a Stephen Sondheim medley sung by a quartet of showtune ringers, was unfortunately marred by the way it was shot. The camera was pulled back to show the performers, which often made it difficult to see the roster of deceased music luminaries rolling out on the big screens. The Oscars did the same last week; it wasn’t quite as bad here, but this directorial trend needs to stop.

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Then there were the performers who fully embraced Vegas’s glamorous artifice, including an utterly goofy and transporting BTS (who left empty-handed again) in a gambling/superspy/magic-act routine; Brandi Carlile in an Elvis-esque glitter jacket and pompadour; and Bruno Mars and Anderson.Paak’s vintage-soul homage/parody duo Silk Sonic—an act that debuted at 2021’s Grammys, and is seemingly custom-tooled for the Academy’s affections. Mars’ and Paak’s campy antics were diverting throughout the evening, but the fact that, as they later declared, they made a “clean sweep” of every category they were nominated in, including Record and Song of the Year, felt like another example of Grammy voters falling for old-school and non-threatening competence at the expense of cultural and artistic potency.

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Which brings us back to the behind-the-scenes problems the Grammys haven’t solved. Many younger Black artists continue either to boycott the event explicitly, like Drake and the Weeknd, or simply ignore it, like Tyler. I’m happy to see the Grammys feature Best Country Album and several country performers on the broadcast, but not when Best Rap Album and any central younger-generation performers from the genre are absent—especially after the racially charged year-plus that country music has just been through. Hip-hop and R&B artists’ doubt that the Grammys will ever do them justice is warranted. And with all the online avenues they have to reach fans more directly, skipping a corny TV awards show is no big sacrifice for them; for the Grammys’ cultural relevance, it may spell accumulating disaster.

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Thus, as annual viewership drops, the Grammys keeps scrambling for ways to shore up populist appeal. One of its latest moves was to expand the list of nominees in major categories, from the classic five up to eight and now to 10 artists in some cases—nominally to be more “inclusive,” but intrinsically in an attempt to attract more fanbases’ attention. With these big lists of album and record nominees, up-to-date voters were likely more split (including many of the women and people of color the Academy has worked to recruit in recent years), leaving low-hanging Grammy fodder like Batiste and Silk Sonic to claim the spoils. As my Slate colleague and musical-math specialist Chris Molanphy tweeted last night, a measure like ranked-choice voting might help counterbalance those effects.

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Then there is the scandal of Louis C.K.’s comedy-album win (in absentia) in the pre-show ceremony, despite his longstanding multiple accusations (and admission) of sexual misconduct. This is partly the byproduct of another attempted reform the Grammys have made since last year. After his huge hit singles and album went unrecognized, the Weeknd complained about the “secret committees” that screened nominations. In response to him and others, the Academy announced it would abolish those committees. As I suspected at the time, that simply leaves the will of pluralities of Grammy voters to run rampant unchecked—in this case, for a contingent of defiant white-dude edgelords voting in the comedy category to avenge the supposed wrongs against CK’s reputation. They shouldn’t have gotten the option.

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However, such technical machinations do nothing to explain the Grammys inviting another alleged sexual transgressor, actor/musician Jared Leto, to present Best New Artist to Rodrigo. Abuse allegations also hang over Nas (the original) from his previous marriage to Kelis. It is as if this sort of exploitation is so rife in the business that the Academy can’t figure out how to draw any lines, because it wouldn’t know where to stop. The Academy did univite Kanye West this year after his public clash with host Trevor Noah over West’s arguable online stalking of his ex-wife, Kim Kardashian, but that’s merely an act of self-protectively heading off potential slap-like incidents in advance.

In the past few years, the Grammys have come a long way in making its packaging smarter and more attractive, to the benefit of everyone who participates. But unless the show can cure the underlying rot, it can only get so far. The question is whether that’s really about the Recording Academy, or the whole recording industry.

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