Unlike last year’s ceremony, the 19th Annual Latin Grammys lacked a powerhouse like uber-hit “Despacito” or deliberate rebukes of the Trump administration. Instead, the ceremony took on a celebratory tone — one focused on the depth of quality within its diverse genres. Latin trap got its moment in the sun alongside iconic salsa stars of yesteryear; the new blood of traditional Mexican pop proved their worth; and Spanish “It Girl” Rosalía turned her showcase into a coronation. These (and more) make up the best, worst and most WTF moments of this year’s Latin Grammys.
This year’s Latin Grammys served as a well-earned victory lap for Jorge Drexler, with the venerable Uruguayan singer’s “Telefonía” scoring big wins for Song of the Year and Record of the Year. Drexler also scored an early slot in the telecast, performing the track with young superstar singer-songwriters Natalia Lafourcade, Mon Laferte and El David Aguilar. The low-key, acoustic performance was an encapsulation of Drexler’s singular songcraft: sweet, no frills, instantly timeless melodies that can’t help but leave you smiling. He’s already halfway to an EGOT — let’s hope we get to see him finish it out someday.
Marc Anthony, Will Smith and Bad Bunny open the ceremony with a whimper — the Recording Academy busted out the big guns to start the show with…mixed results. The producers were right that the alchemy of salsa icon Marc Anthony, Latin trap king Bad Bunny, and all-around superstar Will Smith would generate attention, and the MGM Grand audience definitely ate it up. On TV, however, this was a mess. Anthony and Bad Bunny were clearly squeezed out by Smith’s presence — as if the Latin Grammys is the time and place for a U.S.-centric pop showcase — which led to a flat performance. Ultimately, the opener lacked the spark that Residente provided to last year’s show, with his heartfelt ode to hurricane-recovering Puerto Rico.
In the night’s only serious commentary on the U.S. government’s current immigration policy, the Mexican norteño group Calibre 50 delivered a moving rendition of their “Corrido de Juanito.” The story of a middle-aged migrant worker living in constant fear of deportation while raising American child oblivious to their Mexican heritage draws serious comparisons to Los Tigres del Norte’s “La Jaula de Oro.” In the current political climate, however, it’s almost harrowing. The performance was also well-served by clever staging in the form of a dreamy southwestern landscape, with storm clouds gradually rising and falling, suffocating any light threatening to pass through. It was the perfect backdrop for a tale of ICE-induced paranoia (“No han sentido miedo, aquel que no ha visto, una camioneta, de migración, o una deportación”). If that sounds bleak, that’s the point. Especially within a celebration of music and celebrity, it was important that someone brought it back down to Earth.
Carlos Vives has been making charming, effervescent pop for almost 40 years. Songs like “Hoy Tengo Tiempo” pour out of him like water out of a busted hose. But damn if that didn’t make his performance of the song any less infectious. The track itself combines sounds and styles from countries across the Western Hemisphere, which was embellished on the telecast by the bright and colorful set. Towards the end of the performance, Vives and his duet partner, the delightful Monsieur Periné, made their way into a shuffling audience, which was the sort of jumpstart the telecast needed. If there’s one complaint, it’s that Monsieur Periné were unable to perform their charming “Bailar Contigo.” Then again, I doubt there’s a screen that could have handled that much brightness in one sitting.
Let’s set the stage: the Latin Grammys pulled a classic Grammy move, awarding the Album of the Year award to an icon 20 years past his prime. Sadly, that’s not the shocking part. But in this circumstance, Luis Miguel didn’t bother to show up to accept his award (likely because he double-booked his salon appointment in Monte Carlo). In his stead, Mexican pop star/gossip magazine mainstay Thalía accepted the award, promising to “give him the award personally.” Except that, literally 15 seconds later, the Univision cameras caught her tossing the award back to a stagehand. Were we to assume that Thalía was going to interrupt Luis Miguel’s tanning session to give him his award? No. But that didn’t make the occasion any less awkward (or hilarious).
This isn’t so much a negative assessment of Ozuna’s performance (aside from his woefully bad lip-syncing), as much as the Latin Grammy’s showcasing of the Latin trap superstar in general. It’s certainly the most relevant style of the moment (perhaps to the industry’s detriment), but rather than give Ozuna, one of the more important stars of the genre, an opportunity to create a focused performance, there seemed to be a mandate to shoe-horn multiple tracks into a three-minute window, sapping the energy from what should have been a rousing spectacle. Indeed, Ozuna’s simple re-workings of “El Farsante” and “Unica” weren’t even as memorable as his cut-for-time pre-show performance of “Síguelo Bailando.” I mean, the guy was rapping in front of a swimming pool in a jacket seemingly modeled after a designer suitcase. Let the man cook, this isn’t that hard, Latin Grammys.
This was a bittersweet night for J Balvin, who took home only one award for his eight nominations. But he nevertheless dominated the telecast, with multiple commercials and mentions throughout. So it proved surprising when, rather than dedicate more time to one of his established bangers, J Balvin cued up the chill combo of “Vibras” (highlighted by a stunning extended note from Carla Morrison) and “Ambiente” to winning effect. In his only acceptance speech of the night, J Balvin noted “it’s time to make new legends.” Based on the amount of exposure he received this year, it seems that he already has his place in the club.
The stars were aligned for Spanish songstress Rosalía Vila Tobella on Thursday night. After the English and Spanish-speaking media world taking note, the entire Latin Grammys was ready to bow down before their new queen. After winning the award for Best Urban Fusion early in the night — locking down her indie bonafides by shouting out Kate Bush and Björk — the stage was set for her coronation. Her performance of “Malamente” began with a tight shot of her profile, her face staring daggers at a camera begging for a reaction. As lights and pyro slowly engulfed the stage, Rosalía kept her cool — flashing her Cardi B nails while large Versace-esque chains rotated behind her. That’s some advanced, Mariah Carey-like flex. In an evening packed with emerging superstars, Rosalía showed that she’s already arrived.
That Nicky Jam is one of our most reliable hitmakers is WTF enough. But his performances of his two biggest hits were a testament to literal interpretation unseen since the days of Bone Thugs -n- Harmony. For example, when it was time to perform “X,” Nicky Jam — rocking his finest board shorts — performed…in front of a giant X. J Balvin souped it up with an outfit best described as “Jesse Pinkman with a Supreme store credit card,” but otherwise they just…kinda stood there? Transitioning to club track “Jaleo,” accompanied by superstar DJ Steve Aoki performing inside of a repurposed submarine, they just — again — stood there before being joined by the a group of male dancers from the Steve ZissouDance Academy. Even then, the crowd ate up that big dumb banger. Many others just stared at the screen like Krusty the Klown.
Maná is one of the most endearingly popular bands in Latin pop. As such, they’ve taken a few jabs over the years. Whether it’s being called “the Police with better chest hair,” or “the first artist whose Walk of Fame star was made entirely out of pleather and Corona bottle caps,” or “the musical fusion of U2’s earnestness and Bon Jovi’s secondhand clothing.” But jokes aside, they’ve been noteworthy humanitarians over the past thirty years, and were deserved winners of the Latin Grammy’s “Person of the Year award.” Their brief three-song set of mega-hits “En El Muelle de San Blas,” “Labios Compartidos”, and “Me Vale” rightly brought the house down — the type of big ticket artist that buoy the Grammy telecast. That the Latin Grammys were able to honor them without impeding the momentum of the telecast or pandering to younger audiences is something from which the U.S.-based Grammys could learn a thing or two.
My Lord, that Bad Bunny medley was good. But it was also completely unexpected. First of all, this was Bad Bunny’s second performance on the telecast (after the disappointing Marc Anthony/Will Smith opener). Second, he was given a five-minute medley even though he only one nomination for the night! So you’d probably forgive him for keeping his performance straightforward a la Ozuna earlier in the program. Except, Bad Bunny didn’t use his time on the pulpit to perform shortened, glitzy versions of his radio hits. Instead, this was Bad Bunny proving his versatility, and indeed the versatility of Latin trap in general. Backed by a four-piece rock band, Bad Bunny transformed Latin trap anthems “Soy Peor” and “Chambea” into nü-metal headbangers, while “Estamos Bien” became an 80s hair metal rave — even down to the bikini-clad models. This wasn’t to prove that Latin trap is the new rock & roll — why would it want to be? — instead, it’s to prove that it’s the latest in the lineage of music built on the exuberance of youth. And as the youth of America becomes increasingly Latinx, it’s appropriate that this was the night that Bad Bunny staked his claim as one of its most important mainstream voices.