Grammys 2023: The Best, Worst, and Most WTF Moments
Remember when the Grammys were boring? These days, we hardly can. The show has been a lot more watchable since a new creative team led by producer Ben Winston took over in 2021, and this year’s telecast was almost shockingly well-done — a tribute to the best of music right now that doubled as a righteous slap in the face of every right-wing culture warrior who had a full-on meltdown the first time they heard “Unholy.” Of course, it wouldn’t be a Grammys show without a few tone-deaf, snoozy, or just plain puzzling choices. But there were a lot fewer of those, and thank the Grammy gods for that. Here are the best, worst, and most WTF moments of the 65th Annual Grammy Awards.
Best: Trevor Noah Brings His A-Game
In the barrage of clever jokes that opened the first Grammys back in the Crypto.com Arena in three years, Trevor Noah credited Beyonce’s “Break My Soul” with inspiring his exit from The Daily Show in December. Maybe that move gave him time to perfect his best awards-show opening monologue yet. He toasted Lizzo as “The most famous flute player since…” before a cheeky “…I’m sure there are others.” In a bit that felt ever-so-slightly indebted to Rolling Stone, he praised Harry Styles: “World’s Sexiest Man. Are you kidding? No competition! Sex symbol of the globe — especially now that they killed off the green M&M.” He told Taylor Swift he loved her song “Anti-Hero,” which of course is about his favorite auntie, Beatrice. And he surprised Adele with a surprise cameo from her hero, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Trevor was on 10, setting the night off to a great start.
Best: Bad Bunny Brings Puerto Rico to the Grammys
The superstar captured the energy of Puerto Rico’s traditional processionals and festivals as he began his opening performance by marching through the audience, trailed by a parade of plena dancers and musicians. He launched into the first few lines of “El Apagón,” his anthemic tribute to Puerto Ricans, before pulling out all stops for the merengue/mambo hit “Después De La Playa.” The stage filled up with dozes of merengue dancers and Dominican instrumentalists from the Dahian El Apechao band, all while cabezudos — or figures with giant heads common in Puerto Rican celebrations — mingled with the crowd, representing icons like Tego Calderón and Ismael Rivera. The performance was one of the liveliest and most energetic of the entire night — and it showcased the kind of Puerto Rican pride and cultural specificity that has defined Bad Bunny‘s record-breaking career.
Best: Kim Petras Makes History
When Sam Smith and Kim Petras took the stage to accept their Best Pop Duo/Group Performance award for “Unholy,” the four-time winner stood several feet behind the mic, giving space for the first-time winner to give a history-making speech. “Sam graciously wanted me to accept this award because I’m the first transgender woman to win this award,” Petras said, her face covered in a Madonna-esque veil. In her uplifting remarks, she went on to thank Madonna among the trailblazers who cleared the path to this moment. “I just want to thank all the incredible transgender legends before me who kicked these doors open for me so I could be here tonight,” she said. “And Sophie especially, my friend who passed away two years ago. Who told me this would happen and always believed in me. My mother. I grew up next to a highway in Germany. And my mother believed me, that I was a girl, and I wouldn’t be here without her and her support and everyone who believed in me to this point.” It was earnest, gracious, and necessary.
Worst: Beyoncé and Bad Bunny Just Can’t Seem to Break the Album of the Year Barrier
2023 was supposed to be the year that Beyoncé finally got her dues and snatched up Album of the Year, especially after she broke the record for the most Grammy wins in the show’s history. Queen Bey has, somehow, never been given that high accolade despite a decorated career spanning more than 25 years of huge hits and culture-shaping music. Renaissance, her expertly curated tribute to the history of dance music, could have been the one to do it. But it was limited to wins in the Best Dance/Electronic categories.
Another top contender for this year’s AOTY was Bad Bunny, who has been breaking streaming records for years, and who hit a new level of worldwide superstardom with last year’s Un Verano Sin Ti. It made history as the first non-English language album to ever be nominated for Album of the Year, and winning would have been bound to break down barriers for Latinos and other non-English speaking artists. But he couldn’t make it further than Best Música Urbana Album, either.
The Grammys had two shots to make history in Album of the Year, and instead they chose to keep two generationally-important artists in the genre categories. It was a disappointing moment that ended an otherwise spectacular night on a sour note.
WTF: Whatever Those Fan Roundtable Skits Were
The people were endearing enough. A septuagenarian grandmother who crisscrosses the country as Harry Styles’ self-proclaimed biggest fan. A queer-identifying Latina woman for whom Bad Bunny’s megastardom signifies her own acceptance. But on the night when music’s biggest stars gather in the same room, Grammy producers thought we’d prefer to spend some time with a group of superfans offering their lukewarm thoughts on Album of the Year. The premise was weak, the format, worse — a group staged around a roundtable like political pundits offering reheated takes on Election Night. To think of how many shots of Dwayne Johnson doing… literally anything in the audience… we could have seen in that time!
Best: Half a Century of Hip-Hop Hits Get a Well-Deserved Spotlight
How far you goin’ back? Way back! The Grammys finally gave hip-hop its full due with a medley of performances by more than two dozen genre-defining rappers who’ve made hits going back to the dawn of hip-hop 50 years ago. Beginning with Grandmaster Flash’s “Flash to the Beat” and “The Message,” legend after legend performed some of their biggest hits: Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Salt-N-Pepa, Rakim (with a stunning “Eric B for President”), Public Enemy, Scarface, Ice-T, Queen Latifah, Missy Elliott, Too Short, and on and on up, through Lil Baby and Glorilla’s more recent hits. Nearly every performance was a highlight, but Busta Rhymes’ speed-limit-breaking motormouth was literally jaw-dropping. Want proof? Just check out Jay-Z’s reaction shots. (Our only quibble: Where were the hits from the years 2002-2020 or so?)
Best: Brandi Carlile Rocks Out
Brandi Carlile is a darling of Americana and country music, but we should consider adding rock & roll to that list as well. Carlile got the Grammys cranked up with her blistering performance of “Broken Horses,” which collected a couple of Grammys in the rock categories earlier in the night, backed by a band that included Shooter Jennings on piano and the duo Lucius singing backup. “Broken Horses” packed volume and guitar riffs galore, but the star of the show was undoubtedly Carlile’s gale-force voice — soulful, impassioned, and intense in a way that sliced right through the maelstrom. It was an exciting change of pace for the singer-songwriter, enough to make us hope she’ll go all in and just do a full rock album.
WTF: Bonnie Raitt Wins Song of the Year
To be very clear, Bonnie Raitt is an absolute legend. “Just Like That” is a stellar song, and it’s amazing that she became the first woman over 50 to win Song of the Year in Grammy history. That said, giving her the award over wildly popular future classics by Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, and the other nominees was a typical Grammy blunder, and one most likely fueled by name recognition for older Grammy voters. You could tell by the stunned look on Bonnie Raitt’s face that even she was dumbfounded by the victory. It was a flashback to the 2008 Grammys, when Herbie Hancock won Album of the Year for River: The Joni Letters over Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. We thought the Grammys had moved beyond such bizarrely out-of-touch choices, but apparently not.
Best: A Truly Moving ‘In Memoriam’ Segment
The Grammy Awards’ In Memoriam segment can be a toss-up, but they somehow got it very right with the performances this year. First, Kacey Musgraves covered Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (in its entirety!). Next, Quavo brought a tear to many eyes with a truly beautiful tribute to his Migos bandmate Takeoff — a reminder of one of last year’s cruellest losses. The feelings kept flowing as audio of Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s “Guinnevere” played in honor of David Crosby, who died just last month at 81. The segment culminated with Mick Fleetwood performing “Songbird” for his bandmate Christine McVie, who died in November at the age of 79. For the Rumours classic — an album that turned 46 this week — he enlisted Bonnie Raitt and Sheryl Crow on vocals. In a segment that’s often a haphazard presentation of names flashing across the screen, this one felt intentional.
Worst: Gangsta Boo and Mimi Parker Get Forgotten
That said, there were some notable omissions. Cramming every artist who died over the past year into a 10-minute In Memoriam segment is not an easy task, and the Grammys forget key people most every year. But it felt particularly egregious to overlook Three 6 Mafia’s Gangsta Boo and Low singer/drummer Mimi Parker — two hugely important, dearly beloved artists who apparently didn’t merit a mention. If that wasn’t bad enough, they also left out Aaron Carter, Procul Harum’s Gary Brooker, Sixties folk singer/songwriter Bobby Neuwirth, singer Lucy Simon, Nazareth frontman Dan McCafferty, and drummer Alan White, who played in both Yes and John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. The guy played on friggin’ “Imagine.” Like everyone else listed here, he deserved a special Grammy moment.
Best: Stevie and Smokey’s Motown Power
Taylor Swift swayed to “The Way You Do the Things You Do”; Brandi Carlile bobbed along to “Tears of a Clown”; Flavor Flav completely lost his shit during “Higher Ground.” Over seven-and-a-half minutes, Stevie Wonder led an all-star tribute to Motown Records founder Berry Gordy and the one and only Smokey Robinson — both Persons of the Year recipients for the Grammys’ MusiCares nonprofit — that felt like an old-school Motown revue. The boy band WanMor donned tuxes and shimmied and shooped alongside Wonder to “The Way You Do The Things You Do”; Robinson, wearing a Tiffany-blue tux, traded verses with Wonder on “Tears”; and country artist Chris Stapleton sang and played a stinging guitar solo during “Higher Ground” while Wonder played some sort of boxy clavinet thing and the backup singers snapped over their heads and spun. Gordy was smiling like he had the time of his life, probably because his life led up to this moment.
Worst: Harry Styles Is Human After All
Even the most dedicated OG Harry stan can admit that our guy seemed a little low-energy at the Grammys. Early in the show, he accepted the award for Best Pop Vocal Album; while his outfit sparkled, the shining pop star seemed drained, thanking the Recording Academy for his award in a quiet, raspy voice. Later on, his performance of “As It Was” wasn’t much perkier. As a performer, Styles has always been known for the kind of energy that overcomes even the weakest of songs — and makes the strongest of albums thrive. But on Sunday, Styles was missing the star power he usually has. Look, there’s no way that touring as long as Styles has lately can be easy. The singer recently completed 15 sold-out shows at Los Angles’ iconic Kia Forum. But on a night when he collected the coveted Album of the Year award, Harry Styles showed he’s only human.
Worst: Welcome Back to Music’s Longest Night™
Look, this was a great show for the most part. Powerful performances, meaningful speeches, really good outfits… We don’t have a lot to criticize. Nice job, Recording Academy! But as the clock ticked toward, and then past, 11:30 p.m. Eastern, we had to ask: Did you have to give us so much awards show? Maybe, in the interests of a timely telecast, you could have lost that longform walk through Billy Crystal’s memories of the jazz age? (Sorry Billy.) Just a thought.
Contributors: Mankaprr Conteh, Jon Freeman, Maya Georgi, Andy Greene, Kory Grow, CT Jones, Julyssa Lopez, Angie Martoccio, Kara Voght, Simon Vozick-Levinson