Rob Sheffield: Why Bruno Mars Beat Kendrick at the Grammys - Rolling Stone
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Grammys 2018: Why You Shouldn’t Be Shocked That Bruno Mars Beat Kendrick Lamar

How last night’s bizarre, baffling ceremony upheld a grand Grammy tradition

Grammys 2018: Why You Shouldn't Be Shocked Bruno Mars Beat KendrickGrammys 2018: Why You Shouldn't Be Shocked Bruno Mars Beat Kendrick

Rob Sheffield weighs in on how Sunday's bizarre, baffling Grammy Awards upheld the show's long tradition of getting it wrong.

Christopher Polk/Getty

Oh, wait – you think the Grammy is supposed to go to the year’s best album? That’s sweet. Stay gold, Ponyboy. This has literally never been the way the Grammys worked and never will be, so stop chewing that sock pretending it’s a cookie. Of course Bruno Mars beat Kendrick Lamar. Everybody knew he would. The Grammys are comedy gold, and giving Album of the Year to Bruno instead of Kendrick will go down in history as one of their all-time most hilarious gaffes. But it’s part of the grand Grammy tradition. Album of the Year never goes to the year’s best album. It always goes to some other album – usually a damn good one – so people act outraged for a few days, then nobody ever remembers again who won. That’s how the Grammys roll.

Bruno’s shocker win capped off an extremely weird Grammy ceremony – the kind of night where you keep bracing yourself for those seven ominous words, “Please welcome back to the stage: Sting!” Lorde was there, but she didn’t get invited to perform solo, unlike all the male Album of the Year nominees. So she sat in the audience, wearing a Jenny Holzer poem sewn on the back of her dress. Meanwhile, the Grammys seemed eager to bring on literally any music performance that wasn’t Lorde. Sting and Shaggy skanking through “Englishman in New York”? Patti LuPone belting an Evita ballad? By the time Bruno Mars came up to accept Album of the Year, looking as confused as everyone else, it was already in the history books as one of the most bizarre Grammy nights ever.

Most years, you watch the ceremony for the live music and ignore the actual awards. But that just wasn’t possible this year, because the winners were so out of whack. Jay-Z and SZA got shut out; Kendrick lost all the non-rap categories. It reminded me of the Grammy ceremony in 1992 – the year punk broke, when the air was full of grunge and gangsta rap – except all the big awards went to Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable,” a duet with her dead father, on a song that was already 40 years old. Irving Gordon, the old-timer who wrote “Unforgettable,” had a funny line when he won that night. “It’s nice to have a middle-aged song do something,” Gordon said. “It’s also nice to have a song accepted that you don’t get a hernia when you sing it.”

That’s why Bruno won. He passes the hernia test. He not only made an excellent record, he made one with cross-generational appeal. Look, Grammy voters are old. There’s no possible way this couldn’t be the case, since Academy Members are people with long careers in the music biz. Lifers. Fans who cherish their memories of Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra, but can’t recall their Netflix password. If you want the Grammys to reflect a younger demo, it’d be easier to start a whole new award than to magically change all the Academy members’ birth certificates. The Grammys have never not been this way. The biggest-selling album of 1968 was Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced. Jimi not only failed to win Album of the Year (it went to Glen Campbell), he didn’t get Best New Artist, which that year went to José Feliciano. Jimi didn’t get a single Grammy nomination in his lifetime. He had more commercial success than Glen or José. He just didn’t pass the hernia test.

Flash back even earlier to 1966, the year rock albums exploded as an art form, with classics like Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and Otis Redding’s Dictionary of Soul and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Beatles’ Revolver. So who won Album of the Year? Frank Sinatra, for A Man and His Music. At least Revolver got nominated; the others got shut out. For the record, Frank beat Barbra Streisand’s Color Me Barbra, Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass and the Dr. Zhivago soundtrack, all probably very nice but not exactly picks that stood the test of time.

So you can’t take the actual awards too seriously – the trophies are just an excuse for a TV party full of live performances. No way should James Corden be hosting this show while LL Cool J is alive, but at least Corden had the sense to realize he was out of his depth, so he wisely shut up and stayed out of the way. (Except his “Subway Karaoke” bit with Sting and Shaggy, which was like a horrific cover verson of the old SNL “Sting in an elevator” sketch.) Cardi B set the tone for the whole night on the red carpet, when she told E!’s Giuliana Rancic, on live TV, “I’ve got butterflies in my stomach and in my vagina.”

Kendrick and Rihanna, looking like they were on their way to a My Chemical Romance gig in 2005, took the night’s first award from Tony Bennett. (Tony gave them a double thumbs-up, a reminder that he’s been an elder statesman schmoozing with youth since the Nineties, when he was always popping up on MTV to duet with Evan Dando or the Red Hot Chili Peppers.) Kendrick had just kicked off the show with his fiery Damn. medley, featuring U2 and Dave Chappelle, but he was typically gracious in his tribute to Rihanna: “She came through and gassed me on my own record – gassed me on my own song and whatnot, man.” Kendrick’s speeches all night were pure poetry, as when he described what hip-hop means to him: “It’s really all about expressing yourself, putting that paint on that canvas for the world to evolve, for the next listener, for the next generation beyond that.” 

SZA belted a knockout version of “Broken Clocks,” her voice on fire with love galore. Little Big Town did “Better Man,” a great Taylor Swift song that would have fit right onto Red. Childish Gambino vamped through “Redbone,” starring the night’s coolest drummer – one of the show’s few female instrumentalists. Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee did a writhing-intensive “Despacito” that felt like a triumphant coronation; Justin Bieber helped by not showing up. Elton John sang “Tiny Dancer” with Miley Cyrus, although they both looked like they would have rather been ripping up “The Bitch Is Back.”

Gary Clark Jr. did a kick-ass tribute to Chuck Berry, featuring what might have been the night’s only guitar solo – the shot of Berry’s son in the audience singing along with the rapid-fire verbal barrage of “Maybellene” was a touching reminder of what pure music love is all about. Even though guitar bands kept making artistic breakthroughs in 2017, the Grammys’ interest in guitars has dwindled to the point where Dave Grohl can’t get on the show – even on a night when the Foo Fighters won a Grammy. The late Leonard Cohen won for Best Rock Performance (for “You Want It Darker”), and nobody would have savored the bleak humor of that more than Cohen himself.

Alessia Cara was a surprise winner for Best New Artist, since she’s been on the come-up for a few years now – “Here” was one of the finest pop singles of 2015. Sam Smith crooned “Pray,” because nothing says “award-show bathroom break” like a well-meaning and slightly dull crooner urging us all to pray more. (“Pray” is what Bieber sang at the VMAs the year he went with Selena Gomez and brought a snake on their date, a red carpet catastrophe that will traumatize me unto the grave.) Kesha easily outdid him with her massive performance of “Praying,” backed with a sisterly choir that featured everyone from Cyndi Lauper to Camila Cabello – one of the night’s powerhouse emotional moments.

Chris Stapleton and Emmylou Harris sang “Wildflowers” for the inevitable Tom Petty tribute. (You were expecting Sam Smith?) In a much less successful memorial, a few country stars – Maren Morris, Eric Church and the Brothers Osborne – got stuck with delivering a bungled tribute to the victims of the Las Vegas massacre, without ever being allowed to mention that guns were involved. They also had to sing an Eric Clapton hit, instead of the countless country songs about mourning the dead. (They should have done “I Still Miss Someone,” from Donnie Wahlberg’s fave Johnny Cash.) Another dud: “Wild Thoughts,” where DJ Khaled sounded like a Long Island wedding DJ huffing and puffing along with Carlos Santana’s “Smooth,” with absolutely no clue when it was time for him to just get out of Rihanna’s damn way. It was as comical as that Mamma Mia 2 ad where Cher sang “Fernando.”

Camila Cabello did an eloquent introduction to U2’s performance in front of the Statue of Liberty, a celebration of America’s dreamers and immigration. Unfortunately, Camila didn’t get to sing “Havana,” her own brilliant meditation on the immigrant diaspora. (No doubt Bono would have been honored to return the favor and introduce her.) Alas, the closest we got to a Camila performance was “Never Be the Same” – the best song on her excellent new solo debut – showing up in a shampoo ad.

For the big moment at the end of the night, Bono and the Edge came out to present Album of the Year. It was 30 years ago they won it for The Joshua Tree (the night Bono used his speech to complain about not getting enough respect from the Village Voice critics). It would have felt poetic to see them pass the torch to Kendrick. But no, it didn’t exactly work out that way. When Bruno won instead, he handled the moment gracefully, congratulating his fellow nominees and dedicating his award to Babyface, Teddy Riley, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. It was a class move from a class act. Sure, everybody except the Grammy voters thought Kendrick made the best album of 2018 – I thought so, you thought so. Rolling Stone thought so, every critics’ poll thought so, your mom thought so, Kendrick’s mom definitely thought so. Hell, even Bruno might think so. It was definitely a shocking moment. And yet somehow, that’s what made it feel like just another chapter in a long-running Grammy tradition. Making people mad is what the Grammys are all about.

Watch below: A recap of the best and worst moments of the 2018 Grammy Awards.


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