Grammys 2019: 20 Best, Worst and Most WTF Moments
The 2019 Grammys were a melee before Sunday’s telecast even began, as Ariana Grande’s very public beef with producer Ken Ehrlich threatened to overshadow whatever might actually go down on music’s biggest night. And it only got worse from there, with Drake and Dua Lipa using their podium moments to throw further shade at the Academy. But a few stellar performers — not to mention audience VIPs BTS — managed to dispel the bad vibes, making the near–four-hour slog feel at least somewhat worthwhile. Below is our rundown of the good, the bad and the can’t-look-away ugly.
Best of the Night: Everything. Cardi. Touched.
In a show more obsessed with navel-gazing nostalgia than relevance, Cardi B was a exhilarating if fleeting reprieve. Dynamic, sensual and animal-themed, her “Money” performance was a pocket dimension of kinetic energy within the comatose body of music’s biggest night. Chloe Flower looked possessed as she artfully slammed the piano keys, Offset was in the crowd sticking his tongue out in lust and Wakanda (unnecessarily) got a shout-out, but even in the midst of the chaos nothing was more vital than the Invasion of Privacy star.
Cardi’s acceptance speech for “Best Rap Album” was a rare moment of unfiltered emotion. She was visibly shaking as she tried to comprehend her win, joking that weed might calm her nerves. It’s easy to be ambivalent about the Grammys, but witnessing Cardi’s awe at her breakout success proved why we still bother to watch the three-hour slog. (Her classy backstage declaration that she was sharing her Best Rap Album award with the late Mac Miller was the coup de grâce.) C.H.
Worst: Motown in Short Supply During J. Lo’s 60th Anniversary Tribute
The sheer dynamism Jennifer Lopez brings to any stage is nothing short of electrifying — and it’s been that way for nearly three decades. But on Sunday night, the Boricua pop star played a tourist in a new town, far, far away from her native Bronx. She certainly pulled out all the stops — she belted notes well beyond her usual register for songs like the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street.” She shimmied circles around her backup dancers, dramatically crawled onto Ne-Yo’s piano and even got an assist from Smokey Robinson — who joined her in a performance of “My Girl,” which he sang affectionately as “My J. Lo.” (Before the show, he told reporters, “Anyone who’s upset [about Lopez’s performance] is stupid.”) Grammys host Alicia Keys also stepped in to throw Lopez a lifeline, but whether it was actually solicited is for them to know, and us to never find out. Meanwhile, in the audience sat an arsenal of black performers whose legacies were closely intertwined with the label — present that night were legends like original Supreme Diana Ross and hitmaker Berry Gordy Jr., who notably received no love. Apart from her solo number earlier in the night, Ross seemed criminally underutilized during the medley — perhaps so much so that, during her own featured performance, she had to sing herself “Happy Birthday” more than a month before the actual date. S.E.
Best: Rock Gaga Roars Back
How great: our pop rock & roller is back in full form. Lady Gaga landed at the Grammys in a sparkling, skintight bodysuit to perform “Shallow,” the mid-tempo power ballad that’s become the runaway hit from her feature-film debut A Star Is Born. Prior performances of the song have been highly emotional: In her Vegas show, she closes the night by weeping behind a piano while singing it. On Sunday, she was down one Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper was on BAFTA duty in the U.K.), so Gaga gave her all as she performed the song alongside the rest of its songwriters, including Mark Ronson. She slithered across the stage like a rock & roll suicide, staring down the barrel of the camera as she jerked her body with gusto. It was pure glam camp with Gaga having the type of award-show fun she had when she first started doing the damn thing in the first place. There could be a hundred people in the room, but you need only one eccentric Gaga performance to make you believe in Grammy performances again. B.S.
WTF: Alicia Keys’ Cool-Aunt Hosting Turn
Live from the Staples Center — it’s your cool aunt, Alicia Keys! Amid the public feuds, boycotts and shows of Academy power leading up to the annual event, the 15-time Grammy winner countered the music industry’s high drama with a decidedly laid-back approach to her high-profile hosting gig. Keys was certainly there to make friends, generously passing artists compliments like she was passing them joints. She regaled the audience with her own Grammy stories, and seemed perfectly at ease bantering with everyone, including a cute bit with John Mayer. Best of all was her live dual-piano karaoke, in which she performed a stream-of-consciousness series of songs she wished she had written, by Juice WRLD, the Kings of Leon and others. (Still, she couldn’t help but throw in a song she did write: “Empire State of Mind.”) Shouting out legendary music mogul Clarence Avant, dubbed the godfather of black music, she mistakenly ID’d him as a “Mongol” … but she just rolled with it. By night’s end, she capped off the show by plugging her personal Instagram — a different kind of mic drop that felt perfectly 2019. S.E.
Best: BTS Further K-Pop’s Cause From Their Seats
With their 2018 album, Love Yourself: Tear, world-famous Korean idols BTS became the first and only K-pop act to debut at Number One on the Billboard 200, and on Sunday night, they became the first representatives of the genre to grace the stage at the Grammys. Although BTS sadly took home no awards, it was hard to miss their polished black tie looks and hair dyed in various shades of pastel during their ample screen time. Led by the multilingual rapper RM, the group presented the award for Best R&B Album to the night’s most elusive chanteuse, H.E.R., whose live performance would prompt a spirited sing-along from BTS in the audience. The Grammy Cam also caught all seven members rocking to Dolly Parton and Miley Cyrus’ high-flying rendition of “Jolene.” Fingers crossed they make it back next year to sing their own songs! S.E.
Best: Drake Treats the Grammys Like One of His Exes
Drake’s acceptance speech for Best Rap Song was less a celebration and more a shade-filled, “it’s not me, it’s you” break-up. In a year where rap (mostly) ignored the Grammys, Drake inexplicably showed up seemingly just to slight the significance of the awards themselves.
“We play in an opinion-based sport, not a factual-based sport,” he said. “The point is, you’ve already won if you have people who are singing your songs word for word, if you’re a hero in your hometown. Look, if there’s people who have regular jobs who are coming out in the rain and snow, spending money to buy tickets to your shows, you don’t need this right here,” he continued, pointing to his trophy. “You already won.”
Drake’s animosity is understandable. He’s the biggest pop star in the world, relegated to the rap-category doldrums, while wins in the general categories elude him. Tonight didn’t change that. C.H.
Worst: The Endless String of No-Shows
Many of them had good excuses. Bradley Cooper was in England for the BAFTAs. Taylor Swift is busy filming Cats. Ariana Grande was understandably upset that the night’s producers objected to the song she wanted to sing. But when you throw Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Rihanna, Kanye West, Ed Sheeran and Childish Gambino (a guy that won Song of the Year and Record of the Year, the latter of which was accepted by Swedish producer Ludwig Göransson, a face unfamiliar to the vast majority of viewers) onto the list, it becomes clear that Music’s Biggest Night isn’t big enough to get music’s biggest names into the Staples Center. In an era when stars can deliver music and video to their fans whenever they want via the internet, the Grammys need them a lot more than they need the Grammys. But somehow or another, even with so many huge names AWOL, they still couldn’t bring the event in under the three-and-a-half–hour mark. A.G.
Best: Dua Lipa and St. Vincent Shared a Glance and Now They’re Married, Sorry!
There’s no denying that queer women, from Janelle Monáe to Brandi Carlile, were among the evening’s biggest winners. Annie Clark, patron saint of modern-day avant-rock, had the great satisfaction of performing her Grammy-winning hit “Masseduction” on Sunday night, and in thigh-high leather boots, no less. As if that wasn’t sufficient gay bait, British pop star Dua Lipa emerged from the shadows — with a matching dark bob cut — to sing a sultry version of Aretha’s “Respect,” as well as her own dance-pop number “One Kiss,” as St. Vincent stoked teasing wails from her guitar. Lipa circled the stage in a black-and-white dress hooked precariously by gold pins — what fellow Rolling Stone reporter Amy X. Wang identified as a tribute to Elizabeth Hurley’s audacious Versace look circa 1994 (which has its own Wikipedia article). There were no frills, no backup dancers — just levels upon levels of sexual tension. We’ll take the screenplay now! S.E.
Worst: Nostalgia Casts a Too-Long Shadow
The Grammys are known for lionizing veterans at the expense of young acts, but it was still surprising how much of the telecast was devoted to oldies revues. A five-track Dolly Parton tribute, a pair of throwbacks from Diana Ross, an extremely long and very misguided homage to Motown, covers of Donny Hathaway and Aretha Franklin — at times it felt that there was barely any room for new music at all. Showcasing standards from Parton and Smokey Robinson is obviously a safe play for a show that wants to avoid any possible controversy, and the Aretha tribute was packed with formidable singers (Fantasia, Andra Day and Yolanda Adams). But neglecting contemporary pop doesn’t help the Grammys overcome a reputation for being out of touch. And a throwback-parade certainly doesn’t bring in any new or young viewers. E.L.
Best: Janelle Monáe Gives a More Than OK Computer Performance
Janelle Monáe must have known that her Grammy performance had to be the exclamation point for a ground-breaking year, and she didn’t let anybody down, especially fans of vagina pants. Wearing a black vinyl suit, Monáe managed to pay homage to everyone from Prince (the lead-off performance of “Make Me Feel”), Michael Jackson (via a bit of moonwalking) and James Brown (the knee-drop move) while still being her mesmerizing pan-sexual–cyborg self. Between the phalanx of dancers and the incorporation of other songs from her latest LP (“Django Jane” and “Pynk”), the riveting performance also made you wonder: Were we seeing a preview of a Dirty Computer Broadway show? D.B.
Best: For Once, Grammy Pianos Actually Rocked
Grammy voters and producers alike love nothing more than A) an earnest ballad and B) making pop stars prove they can sing and play instruments, and nothing quite satisfies both those fixations than the sight of a piano onstage. Anyone hoping Kacey Musgraves would romp out “High Horse” had to settle for — you guessed it — her ballad “Rainbow,” featuring perhaps the world’s longest grand piano (appropriately rainbow-hued). Pianos made multiple appearances throughout the telecast, but at least this year, they rocked. Fog and beams of light emanated from the one Shawn Mendes emoted from. Cardi B’s pianist, Chloe Flower, played a keyboard encased in sequins. And during her tribute to songs she wished she’d written, Alicia Keys rocked two pianos at once, as if she were also saluting Rick Wakeman during his Yes days. Elton John, where were you? D.B.
Best: Ariana Grande Skips Out, Still Shines
In the days leading up to the Grammys, the show’s failure to book major stars for performances repeatedly made headlines: No Kendrick Lamar, no Childish Gambino and no Ariana Grande. Producer Ken Ehrlich made things worse by getting into, and immediately losing, a war of words with Grande on Twitter. The Thank U, Next star continued to casually overshadow the Grammys during the broadcast Sunday night. She posted a series of popular photos on Instagram that showed her lounging in the gown that she would have worn if she felt like attending the ceremony. And after the Dolly Parton tribute, Grande’s Number One single “7 Rings” blared during an Apple Memoji commercial. These were effective reminders of what viewers were missing: the presence of one of pop’s most exciting stars. E.L.
Best: Latin-Pop Royalty Build Bridges in Opening Medley
Excluding the triumphs of Dominican-Trini-American rap queen Cardi B, Latinx representation among Grammy nominees was scant in comparison to their formidable showing on U.S. charts and streaming platforms in 2018. Which is why it mattered when Havana-born Camila Cabello opened the Grammys with her earworm of an ode to her hometown, co-starring Young Thug, who later scored an award for Song of the Year with Childish Gambino. Dressed smartly in an all-white suit, Puerto Rican royalty Ricky Martin and his mustache emerged from beneath the stage to regale the audience with his 2006 plena hit, “Pégate” — set positively aflame by legendary Cuban-American trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. And hiding behind a newspaper that read, “Build bridges, not walls” — perhaps the night’s only jab at Trump’s border wall — Colombian reggaetonero J Balvin played it extra cool in his rendition of his international super hit “Mi Gente.” S.E.
Best: “Club Keys” Opens for Business
Keys is a medley specialist: At the Clive Davis party the night before the 2018 Grammys, she sped through an impressive set of Jay Z covers, and at the 2019 ceremony, she performed a series of “songs she wished she’d written.” The conceit was goofy — “Club Keys, where the music is cool and timeless and the vibe is sensational.” But the set-up was an easy win, a chance for Keys to display her virtuosity as both a pianist (she played two of them!) and a singer. She was easygoing during Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song” and imposing during Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing).” Keys also made several unexpected left turns, such as moving from Coldplay’s “Clocks” into Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody,” and serving up a straining and theatrical rendition of Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams” that was boldly at odds with the original hit. These surprises were welcome during an otherwise by-the-book show. E.L.
Best: Dua Lipa Subtweets Neil Portnow IRL
A little over a year after Recording Academy president Neil Portnow told Variety that women need to “step up” if they want to win as many Grammys as men — comments which played no small role in him stepping down from his position after a nearly two-decade run — Dua Lipa threw some major shade his way when she said “so many women, I guess we really stepped up” after winning Best New Artist. Near the end of a long evening that seemed designed to clean up Portnow’s mess, they were words that many wanted to hear. A.G.
Best: H.E.R. Jolts the Ballad Parade to Life
The ceremony was packed with plodding ballads, a decision that often prevented the show from gaining any semblance of forward momentum. But not all ballads are buzzkills. H.E.R.’s rendition of “Hard Place” was one of the night’s most stirring performances, building slowly but surely to the type of satisfying, lighter-in-the-air moments that the Grammys love. H.E.R. strummed her guitar, putting her multi-instrumentalist chops front and center, and she was joined on stage by a squad of vigorous violin players and head-bobbing backing vocalists. “Hard Place” is about persisting in the face of uncertainty — “I’m caught between your love and a hard place,” H.E.R. sings. “What if nothing ever will change?” On Sunday, she proved just how quickly change can be achieved: Two years ago, she was barely known, but she took home Grammys for Best R&B Performance and Best R&B Album. E.L.
Worst: Neil Portnow Bores Everyone on His Way Out
Neil Portnow’s annual speech has been boring Grammy viewers ever since Norah Jones and John Mayer were competing for the Best New Artist award, but on an evening when the show was so behind schedule that even Drake got cut off mid-speech it seemed especially inessential. The segment began with a tribute video where the likes of Celine Dion, Andra Day, Shirley Caesar, BeBe Winans and Yolanda Adams spoke about all of his supposed great work. He then proceeded to thank “all the artists who performed on the Grammy stage, who … represent a remarkable and diverse group, including some of the most thrilling and legendary female voices of our times.” He put a strong emphasis on the word “female” as if that would make up for his blunder. By the looks on the faces of Lady Gaga and Kacey Musgraves, it did not. A.G.
Best: The Grammys Go to Dollywood
A way-overdue tribute to the country icon, who was crossing over to pop and back again decades before folks like Shania Twain, had its shaky moments. During their duet on “Jolene,” Miley Cyrus oversang and over-gesticulated, seemingly forgetting that Parton was supposed to be the center of attention. But the combo platter of Parton, Katy Perry and Kacey Musgraves on “Here You Come Again” was sweet fun, Parton’s overwhelming ray-of-light vibes conquered all, and another unlikely match was a highlight of the entire night: Parton, Cyrus and Maren Morris taking Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” to church. You almost didn’t mind when they changed “I felt like getting high” to “I felt like I could cry” (as Parton did on an earlier recorded version of the song, with Young’s permission). D.B.
Best: Brandi Carlile Delivers Power-Ballad PerfectionSix-time nominee Brandi Carlile delivered one of the evening’s clear emotional highlights when, nearly three hours into the broadcast, she offered up a note-perfect performance of her 2018 misfit anthem “The Joke.” Performing alongside longtime band members Phil and Tim Hanseroth, Carlile, 2019’s most nominated female artist, belted the high-drama tale of alienation and acceptance, drawing out the climactic note even longer than usual. On a night of filled with ballad drudgery, Carlile’s spellbinding performance offered a welcome dose of both intimacy and classic-rock theatrics. J.B.
Worst: Post Malone’s Mofo Party Plan With the Red Hot Chili Peppers
Post Malone was nominated for four awards after a year in which he broke streaming records and old ones set by Michael Jackson. But for some reason, he needed to spend most of his performance joining Red Hot Chili Peppers for “Dark Necessities,” a song off 2016’s The Getaway. After running through his monster hits “Stay” and “Rockstar” quickly, Post strapped on a Telecaster to join the Chilis for a song that few remember. Anthony Kiedis ripped off his shirt and rap-scatted, Flea pogoed, but it just made you wonder 2018 VMAs Aerosmith collaborator Post, now one of the biggest artists in the world, needs to keep performing with tired veteran rock acts during his award-shot slots. P.D.