Grammys 2021: The Best Grammys Ever And It's Not Even Close - Rolling Stone
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Surprise! The Best Grammys Ever

The pandemic meant this year’s Grammys were a true music celebration like never before. Let’s never go back

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 14: (EDITORIAL ONLY, NO COVERS) In this image released on March 14, Taylor Swift performs onstage for the 63rd Annual GRAMMY Awards broadcast on March 14, 2021. (Photo by TAS Rights Management 2021 via Getty Images)

Taylor Swift performs onstage for the 63rd Annual GRAMMY Awards broadcast on March 14, 2021.

TAS Rights Management 2021/Getty Images

What can you say about a Grammy Night that begins with Harry Styles in a feather boa and ends with Billie Eilish saying, “What’s up, Ringo?” Just this: They should always do the Grammys this way. Last night was the best Grammy show ever, by an absurd margin — nearly four hours focused on artists doing their own songs, every performance excellent. No audience, and barely any awards. No stupid comedy bits. No presenters reading scripted banter. No Zoom screens. No “let’s ride the subway with Sting” montage. Just music. This is totally out of whack with history. I’ve been watching the Grammys since the days when David Crosby was handing them out to Fleetwood Mac, and I can tell you this has never happened before.

The Grammys did it this way out of necessity, to adapt to the Covid pandemic. But there’s absolutely no reason to go back. The best touch was the artists hanging around the soundstage, cheering each other on. Harry Styles singing along with Black Pumas. Mickey Guyton singing along with Miranda Lambert. Bad Bunny grooving to Dua Lipa. First-time producer Ben Winston gave us a totally new show, and let’s hope it stays this way after the pandemic is over.

The Grammys paused for a rethink after the horrible news last December of Charley Pride’s death from Covid, soon after singing at the CMAs. The show, originally set for January 31st, got bumped to March. A brave move, but a wise one. The new format looked a lot like Jools Holland’s BBC show in the U.K. — just keep the tunes rolling. They cut the hype about “Music’s Biggest Night,” and just let it be a night of music. No overblown dance numbers with pyro. No speeches from Recording Academy suits about how we’re all listening to music wrong. No contrived “Grammy moments.” (Remember last year, when they did a Prince “tribute” where FKA Twigs got to pole-dance but wasn’t allowed to sing? Never again.)

Harry Styles kicked off the show in full glam-god splendor, doing “Watermelon Sugar” in black leather and his feather boa. His band funked it up, joined by Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, while Harry did a burlesque swivel-and-bump with the boa that would make Gypsy Rose Lee proud. And then — in an inspirational and very Harry move — he picked the boa off the floor and put it back on to listen to Haim and Black Pumas. He made it the most spectacular Grammy opener in a quite a while. (Has anyone checked in on that boa? It’s had quite a journey.)

Billie Eilish and Finneas, the most lovable sibling duo in the music world, did a beautiful version of “Everything I Wanted.” Haim rocked out with “The Steps,” while Black Pumas dug into a fantastic Seventies-style Memphis soul groove for “Colors.” That performance had the night’s shreddiest guitar solo, which felt like an unspoken tribute to the late Eddie Van Halen. A huge surprise during the first ad break: We got a first taste of Taylor Swift’s re-recorded “Wildest Dreams (Taylor’s Version),” in an ad for a Disney movie. It was just a snippet, but it was enough to whet the appetite for the remade 1989.

Taylor was one of the night’s big winners. She took Album of the Year for Folklore, becoming the first woman to win that award three times, joining Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon, and Stevie Wonder. She won for Fearless and 1989, but this one meant more — partly because Folklore is her deepest, most personal, most experimental, and most perfect album. But it also represents a bold new phase of her life, taking full control of her music. This was something new: Album of the Year (Taylor’s Version). Her moving speech had a shout-out to boyfriend Joe Alwyn, a.k.a. William Bowery. “I had the best time writing songs with you in quarantine” is the new “I had the time of my life fighting dragons with you.”

Swift also did a mind-blowingly brilliant performance, with a medley of gems from her two 2020 albums: “Cardigan,” “August,” and “Willow.” She went full cottage-core, building a house out of moss (Taylor invented moss) deep in the woods (Taylor invented woods), with wingmen Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner. She recreated the cabin vibe of her Long Pond Studio Sessions from last November, getting lost upstate. The camera moved in on Dessner’s face as he was about to strum the opening notes of “August,” and he looked almost apologetic, like he was sorry in advance for doing this to us emotionally. (Not forgiven.)

Megan Thee Stallion had so many of the night’s biggest moments, first when she won a hugely deserved award for Best New Artist. (Get your boxing gloves on, Elton.) Lizzo handed her the prize, and let slip an accidental “bitch” that got past the censors. When Megan won Best Rap Performance for “Savage,” she gave a poignant speech alongside her idol Beyoncé, talking about how she worshipped Destiny’s Child as a little girl. She said her motto is “ ’What Would Beyoncé Do’ — but let me make it a little ratchet.” Megan did “Body” and “Savage,” complete with a tap-dance interlude. Cardi B joined her for “WAP,” which got censored to a hilarious extreme. (They bleeped out the world “bucket”!) Yet it still sounded as filthy as ever, with Cardi and Megan reigning atop a giant purple bed.

Everybody looked happiest when cheering for Beyoncé — everybody feels blessed to be anywhere near her, whether it’s a stadium or a setting like this one. The Queen made history with her wins for “Savage” and “Black Parade,” setting a new record as the most Grammy-rewarded female artist ever, a title previously held by bluegrass star Alison Krauss. (Time for a duet — maybe “Daddy Lessons”?)

Dua Lipa did a glittery medley of “Levitating” and “Don’t Start Now,” inducing a disco-ball swoon. When she won Best Pop Vocal Album for Future Nostalgia, she accepted in a beaded gown that Cher could have worn to Studio 54 — and maybe did? Bad Bunny and Jhay Cortez did a high-concept sci-fi version of “Dakiti.” Lil Baby presented a mini-movie of “The Bigger Picture,” a condemnation of police brutality, featuring Killer Mike. H.E.R. won for her Black Lives Matter anthem “I Can’t Breathe.” Mickey Guyton, the first black woman nominated for a solo country Grammy, did her amazing “Black Like Me,” followed by Miranda Lambert torching up “Bluebird.” DaBaby conducted an orchestral “Rockstar” with Roddy Ricch. Post Malone did “Hollywood’s Bleeding,” with an intro where he explained he was inspired to seek a career in music by playing Guitar Hero.

By now, BTS are used to stealing the Grammy show — even when they’re only on camera for a few seconds, as when singing with Lil Nas X last year, or dancing to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” the year before that. But they finally got their long-overdue showcase, the Number One hit “Dynamite,” beaming in from a Seoul rooftop in a performance practically exploding with joy. “Cup of milk, let’s rock & roll,” indeed.

Bruno Mars — that guy was basically born for the Grammys, and he didn’t fail last night. He and Anderson Paak debuted their excellent new project Silk Sonic, in the spirit of old-school 1970s Soul Train R&B romance. “Leave the Door Open” was their gorgeous Delfonics tribute, so lovingly precise in every detail — leave it to Bruno to nail those distinctive Delfonics drum fills. (The Delfonics jam everyone knows is “La La Means I Love You,” but the real killer is “When You Get Right Down To It.”) Later in the show, Bruno and Anderson gave it up to Little Richard, banging out “Good Golly Miss Molly.”

The Grammys always have an In Memoriam tribute, but after a year ravaged by the pandemic, it was fitting to approach it a different way. Lionel Richie honored his old friend Kenny Rogers, singing the hit he wrote for him, “Lady.” Brandi Carlile did a phenomenally moving acoustic version of John Prine’s “I Remember Everything.” Brittany Howard belted a rapturous “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” with Chris Martin on piano.

When Harry Styles won Best Pop Solo Performance for “Watermelon Sugar,” he looked downright humbled. They bleeped out the part of his speech where he praised his fellow nominees, saying, “All these songs are fucking massive.” But the camera caught a touching detail — when Harry won, Taylor was the very first to leap to her feet to applaud. It was almost like the rest of the world was in black and white … but they were in screaming color. (Honestly, the whole night was such a Haylor journey, some viewers might need some time to recover by the refrigerator light.)

Billie Eilish won Record of the Year for “Everything I Wanted,” just as she won last year for “Bad Guy.” And just like last year, she spent her big speech graciously saying it should have gone to one of her music heroes — last year it was Ariana Grande for Album of the Year, this year it was Megan. It’s proof that she’s a true-blue music fan before everything else. Ringo Starr, one of the few 20th-century artists to appear on the show, gave her the award, telling her, “Well done, Billie! Peace and love!” Like last year, when she accepted this same award from Smokey Robinson, it was sweet to see the torch passed fom the living legends of yesteryear to the new generation.

As a host, Trevor Noah was no Jools Holland — more like Regis Philbin times DJ Khaled with a dash of Jimmy Fallon. But his schtick was fortunately kept to a minimum. This streamlined version of the Grammys makes you hope they keep it this way. It’s remarkable how many shrewd decisions were made. For one thing, let’s hope this marks the end of Zoom screens on award shows. (Sorry, but when people see Zoom screens, they think of work. Fair warning to the Oscars next month.) This year’s Grammy show was so great, there’s no historical precedent for it. But even in pandemic conditions, this was a Grammy Night that felt like a true music celebration.

 

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