Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X were the twin superheroes of Grammy Night 2020, with her green hair and his pink cowboy hat as signs of electric youth. Billie swept the top prizes. It was so poetic to see her accept the Best New Artist award from Alicia Keys — since Alicia won Best New Artist the year Billie was born. And it was poignant to see Smokey Robinson, America’s greatest living songwriter, embrace Billie with a warm hug when she won Song of the Year for “Bad Guy.” It felt like he was passing her the torch. Smokey had his first Motown chart hit in 1959 — the year Billie’s mom was born. It was called “Bad Girl.”
Billie and Lil Nas X did the Grammys a huge favor just by showing up: The Academy needs their “newness” more than they need the trophies. “Let me be honest with y’all — it’s been a hell of a week,” host Alicia Keys said at the start. “Real talk, there’s been a lot going on.” You don’t say, Alicia. The Grammys this year took place under a cloud of scandal, not to mention the shocking death of Kobe Bryant just a few hours before showtime. The Recording Academy is imploding amid accusations of rigged voting, sexual harassment, racist bias, fraud, and corruption. You can’t blame her for sounding desperate for inspo as Music’s Biggest Night began. “It’s a new decade,” she declared. “It’s time for newness. And we refuse the negative energy. We refuse the old systems. You feel me on that?”
You want newness? You got it. Eilish accepted her awards with her usual sullen charm, saying, “This is my brother Finneas, and he’s my best friend.” On winning Album of the Year, she said, “Can I just say that I think Ariana deserves this?” Her sibling/producer Finneas O’Connell added, “We stand up here confused and grateful.” (He also thanked his “girlfriend” and — full disclosure — that broke a couple hearts in my circle of friends.) They performed a fantastic “When the Party’s Over” — just two kids, a piano, and a killer song they wrote in their bedrooms. It was enough to crush everybody else’s smoke machines and anono-dancers.
Lil Nas X seized his big coronation moment with the night’s music highlight in “Old Town Road”: one of the splashiest and best Grammy performances ever, riding with BTS, Billy Ray Cyrus, Diplo, Mason Ramsey, and the original Nas. When he and BTS got wiggly while belting “Seoul Town Road,” it was a blast of unbridled joy and exuberance — the kind of raw emotion that pop music is supposed to be all about. And to think that this time last year, he was just a broke nobody crashing on his sister’s couch. Like Eilish, he gave a jolt of teen spirit, badly needed on a night when the Grammy honchos were so bored they tossed a Best Rock Album nomination to the Cranberries. Also, they couldn’t even spell Ric Ocasek’s name right in the In Memoriam tribute, calling him “Rick.” (It’s a three-letter name!) You couldn’t miss the contrast: the corrupt old establishment vs. the idealistic new kids.
Of course, the whole night was touched by the grief over Kobe Bryant and his daughter. Alicia Keys paid tribute, with Boyz II Men reprising the Cooley High funeral song, “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.” Lizzo began the show by declaring, “Tonight is for Kobe!” then doing an amazing medley of “‘Cuz I Love You” and “Truth Hurts,” complete with a Sasha Flute solo. When she won for Best Pop Solo Performance for “Truth Hurts,” she gave an eloquently emotional speech, saying, “You guys create beautiful music. You guys create connectivity.”
The night’s biggest disaster: The Prince tribute, which ended up in the same “how did this happen?” crater as last year’s Jennifer Lopez Motown tribute. Usher sang three Prince hits, while the genius FKA Twigs got reduced to a backup pole dancer. What could have been less Prince-like? The Purple One always wanted the women-not-girls who ruled his world to sing. Always. He wanted Vanity to sing. He wanted Apollonia to sing. He wanted Wendy and Lisa and Sheila and Sheena to sing. He begged Cat to rap. Nothing bored Prince like the sound of men singing.
And FKA Twigs just released her masterpiece Magdalene, exactly the kind of mega-ambitious, turbo-emotional, art-damaged heartbreak soul Prince lived for. It would have made much more sense for her to sing a few Prince songs and let Usher do the dancing. (Why didn’t she sing “Adore”? Or “International Lover?” “Anna Stesia”?) What a humiliation (while Sheila E. had seemed to say that FKA Twigs declined to sing, the artist later clarified in a tweet that she “wasn’t asked” to sing.) Especially after last year, with its brilliant Prince tributes: Janelle Monáe’s “Make You Feel” and Dua Lipa’s throwdown with St. Vincent.
The Keys stoner-mom mojo started to flow early when she sat at the piano for a rambling introduction, borrowing her tune from Lewis Capaldi. True to form, she taught us all a few valuable lessons: “Music changes the world/Like Beethoven said/Old dude in a wig/But I still give him some cred.”
Aerosmith played, but the best you can say is Post Malone didn’t show. For all of us who love the Bad Boys from Boston, part of their mystique is their tireless self-sabotage — these guys are always breaking up, as rock & roll’s longest-running dysfunctional family. They’re currently battling with drummer Joey Kramer, who allegedly isn’t up to their standards. (Breaking news: The band that released Night in the Ruts has standards.) All week they beefed with Kramer about whether he was allowed anywhere near their MusiCares Person of the Year tribute — then at the Friday concert, Kramer appeared arm-in-arm with Steven Tyler: A classic Aerosmith mess — it’s why we love them.
Sadly, the band wasn’t in shape to play last night, flubbing — of all songs — “Livin’ on the Edge,” a justly forgotten drag that flopped even worse than it did at the 1993 VMAs. As Beavis and Butt-Head put it: “These guys live on the edge … of Wuss Cliff!” Instead of salvaging the moment with a blast of “Toys in the Attic” or “Rag Doll” or “Sick as a Dog,” they dragged out Run-D.M.C. for the umpteenth godawful rehash of their 1986 novelty-hit remake of “Walk This Way.” Honestly, this should have been retired the night they sang it with Britney at the Super Bowl. It was downright depressing to see sworn enemies Run and D.M.C. onstage. Finally, Run and Darryl get back together … and it’s for this? A sad moment for both groups, who deserve to be honored for literally anything else in their careers besides this fluke duet they blew off in a few hours in 1986. (See Geoff Edgers’ book Walk This Way for the fascinating and horrifying history of how this hit resurrected Aerosmith but completely destroyed Run-D.M.C.)
Rosalía did a flamenco-style “Juro Que” and “Malamente” — like so much this Barcelona provocadora does, it evoked the great tradition of Spain’s radical Eighties New Wave scene. (Alaska y Dinarama walked so Rosalía could run.) Tyler, the Creator put on a special-effects blitz with Boyz II Men and Charlie Wilson, while H.E.R. and Gary Clark Jr. brought the old-school guitar heroics. Bonnie Raitt sang “Angel from Montomery” to John Prine, an intimate acoustic moment. Tanya Tucker, a first-time winner at 61, did an awesomely weathered version of “Bring My Flowers Now” with Brandi Carlile — like the Georgia sun, it was blood red and going down. Carlile added, “And now for something completely different” — her shout out to the late Terry Jones?
The Nipsey Hussle tribute featured John Legend, Kirk Franklin, Meek Mill, Roddy Ricch, and YG. Also, some rando wandered onstage and started screaming about a friend of his named “DJ Khaled,” who’s apparently quite awesome. Sharon Osbourne pronounced Khaled’s name wrong, just before he won Best Rap/Sung Performance — but don’t worry, he shouted it a few times. Demi Lovato sang her new “Anyone,” her first Grammy appearance since she did the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” three years ago. Camila Cabello dedicated “First Man” to her dad, while Ariana Grande subtly revised “Thank U, Next” to de-salt her own paternal reference, changing the lyrics to: “I’ll be thanking my dad, cause he’s kinda awesome.” Yet again, we all grow from her drama.
Taylor Swift bailed at the last minute, shrewdly picking her spots as always and realizing this was a chump gig. The fact that Lover barely got mentioned gave new resonance to the fact that “The Man” is the next single. Smokey Robinson deserved a do-over after having to witness last year’s Motown debacle, so it was a joy to hear him casually croon “My Girl” and “Being With You” at the podium with Little Big Town. Hey, should we mention Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton? Naaah. Longtime Grammy impresario Ken Erhlich decided to call in a few chits on his way to retirement and torment some stars by making them sing a deep cut from the 1980 movie Fame. Arm-twist victims including Camila Cabello, Cyndi Lauper, and Common squirmed for six or seven (honestly, it felt like 18) minutes. It was everything the Billie and Lil Nas X performances weren’t — and a perfect metaphor for any decadent bloat you might suspect in the Grammy establishment.
The In Memoriam loop had a gracious tribute to the New Orleans trio of Dave Bartholomew, Art Neville, and Dr. John, which led to Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue paying respects second-line style with the Preservation Hall Brass Band. They left David Berman out of the memorial reel, a shock to Silver Jews and Purple Mountains fans. But truth be told, DCB wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. (Though with his sense of humor, he would have loved that people were arguing about it.) His lifelong friend and bandmate Bob Nastanovich’s reaction: “Thank goodness.” Even more shockingly, they forgot Robert Hunter — the Grateful Dead just won a Grammy last year. Such a long, long time to be gone, and a short time to be there.
Neil Peart got honored in the In Memoriam loop, a year after Travis Scott rocked the 2019 Grammys wearing a Rush Counterparts tour T-shirt. Just a couple of weeks after his death, it still felt like a shock to see the Professor there. But then, it’d be a shock to see Neil Peart anywhere near the Grammys. The great man’s words have never rung truer: Glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity. Duh.