This piece is part of Rolling Stone’s second annual Grammy Preview special issue, released ahead of the start of first-round voting. We spoke to some of the year’s biggest artists about the albums and singles that could earn them a nomination — or even a statue come January — and delved into the challenges facing the Recording Academy, providing a 360-degree view of what to watch for in the lead-up to the 2022 awards.
Here’s a question we’re not used to asking after the Grammy Awards: what went right, and how can we keep it this way? The 2021 Grammy broadcast was so great, there was no historical precedent for it. First-time producer Ben Winston handed the keys over to the artists, resulting in one top-notch live performance after another. There’s no reason to ever go back. Let’s do it this way forever — even after the pandemic (hopefully) is just a memory. Here are 10 reasons why the 2021 Grammys ruled.
1. Taylor Swift on the Moss Roof
Taylor Swift took her Folklore/Evermore cottage-core concept to the limit on Grammy night. She did a medley of three tunes from her two big 2020 albums, “Cardigan,” “Willow,” and “August.” She sang on top of a moss-covered cabin, deep in the woods, with help from a couple of forest creatures named Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner. In case you missed it on the National records, Dessner is a hell of a lead guitarist, as he proved in “August.” Later that night, Taylor won Album of the Year for Folklore, becoming one of the only artists to win the award three times, along with Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, and Paul Simon.
2. All Hail Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé
Megan had a huge night, starting when she won Best New Artist and accepted her prize from Lizzo. She also did amazing live versions of “Body,” “Savage,” and “WAP.” She and Cardi B got so steamy, the censors got a little out of hand — they bleeped the word “bucket.” But Megan had the night’s sweetest tribute when she won Best Rap Song, as her idol Beyoncé joined her at the podium. (A Queen Bey sighting on live TV — a marvel in itself, especially on a night when Bey set a new record as the most-Grammy-awarded singer in history.) Megan gave a heartfelt story about seeing Destiny’s Child live as a little girl, at a Houston rodeo. Megan confessed that her motto is “‘What Would Beyoncé Do?’ — but let me make it a little ratchet.”
3. Harry Styles and the Fantastic Feather Boa
Harry was the perfect artist to kick off the night’s live performances, doing “Watermelon Sugar” in a black leather suit and a glam feather boa that was on the floor by the end. (That boa should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.) He did his bump-and-grind strut, with his band joined by Blood Orange’s Dev Haynes on bass. Then he politely picked up the boa off the floor — somehow, that felt like such an exquisitely dork-tastic Harry move. He later won a Grammy for Best Pop Solo Performance, only to get his speech bleeped out for saying, “All these songs are fucking massive.”
4. Billie Eilish Chills With Ringo
Billie and Finneas had a big night, first doing a powerful rendition of “Everything I Wanted,” then winning Record of the Year. But it was touching to see her accept the prize from none other than Ringo Starr, the world’s most beloved ambassador of peace and love. Ringo told her, “Well done, Billie!” She bowed respectfully and asked, “What’s up, Ringo?” A beautiful cross-generational moment — like last year, when she got handed her award from Smokey Robinson, it felt like one legend passing the torch to another.
5. Silk Sonic Ride the Seventies Soul Train
Bruno Mars is always a highlight at the Grammys. Something about his crowd-pleasing wedding-singer flair is perfect for the award-show aesthetic. This year, he teamed up with Anderson .Paak to give the world a taste of their brilliant duo project, Silk Sonic, reviving the spirit of old-school Seventies R&B in the mode of the Delfonics and the Stylistics. They had it all — the harmonies, the footwork, the bell-bottoms. “Leave the Door Open” wasn’t just one of the finest tunes heard all night — it was a tribute to these two talents and their expansive, eccentric take on music history.
6. Bad Bunny Enters the Eyeball With Jhay Cortez
You expect a high-concept display from Bad Bunny, and he did not disappoint. He and Jhay Cortez did a futuristic sci-fi trip into their slamming reggaeton-gone-funk hit, “Dakiti,” inside a giant glowing eyeball. And if that isn’t surreal enough for you, Bad Bunny did it all while wearing chain mail.
7. BTS Set Off the “Dynamite”
It’s BTS’ world — the rest of us just live in it. Thanks to Covid travel restrictions, BTS couldn’t get to L.A. for the Grammys — so they just brought the Grammys to Seoul, South Korea. They’re always a Grammy scene-stealer, whether they’re singing along with Lil Nas X or Dolly Parton. But this eye-poppingly ambitious performance of “Dynamite” was their long-overdue Grammy showcase. Dancing on a rooftop in front of the skyline, reigning over their own electric nightlife cityscape, it felt like BTS were taking off straight to the sky.
8. Lionel Richie Pours One Out for Kenny Rogers
A tradition of Grammy Night is mourning the legends we’ve lost in the past 12 months — and in a pandemic year as brutal as this one, there were too many legends to mourn. Brandi Carlile did a poignant John Prine tribute, singing “I Remember Everything.” But Lionel Richie had a gracious, dignified moment of triumph paying his respects to the late Kenny Rogers, crooning the Number One ballad he wrote for him back in the Eighties, “Lady.”
9. Black Pumas Give It Up to Memphis
Some fans felt the Grammy slate was light on rock acts — a familiar complaint, for sure. But Black Pumas did a scorching tour through the Memphis rock-and-soul verities with their rendition of “Colors.” It’s fair to guess this might have been the act that picked up the most new converts on Grammy night, with the ceremony’s most fiery guitar shredding. Meanwhile, H.E.R. brought plenty of new-school rock juice in “I Can’t Breathe,” while Haim ripped it up to “The Steps,” in power-trio mode, with middle sister Danielle playing guitar hero.
10. Dua Lipa Turns Into a Human Disco Ball
Remember when the Grammy honcho said women needed to “step up” to start winning awards? And when Dua Lipa won the next year and quipped, “We really stepped up!”? She just kept stepping into the stars this year, with a medley of “Levitating” and “Don’t Stop Now.” It felt like she was beaming in straight from Studio 54 — especially with that Cher-worthy beaded gown.
Honorable Mention: Bonus Dolly!
There’s nothing people love at the Grammys like an appearance from the iconic country queen Dolly Parton. But in case you missed it, she was there in spirit. For Harry Styles’ performance, Dev Hynes was playing a bass borrowed from Harry’s friend and creative director Molly Hawkins. It belonged to her dad, the legendary Nashville musician George Hawkins — who played that exact same bass on Dolly’s “9 to 5.” So if you felt that Dolly was present, that’s because she was right there in the bottom end. Sure, it’s just a tiny detail that practically nobody would ever notice. But somehow, it speaks volumes about the level of pure music devotion and passion that made this Grammy Night one for the ages. Here’s to next year.