It could be an entertaining spectacle, if you ignored the crumbling institutions it was built upon and the creeping fear in the air — but enough about life in 21st century America. The Grammys have their own problems, with the show going on in the face of a roiling crisis at its governing body, the Recording Academy, after recently dismissed CEO Deborah Dugan dropped a long list of grave allegations against it, including rampant gender bias and corruption around the awards process. (The Academy denies it all.)
For all of its flaws, the televised show itself, under departing producer Ken Ehrlich, has for years at least been a lot better and more representative of current music than the frequently deranged choices for the actual awards (even taking into account egregious mistakes like denying Lorde a performance slot in 2018). This year, though, was often just weird, with an unnerving tension humming beneath every moment.
Under the circumstances, Alicia Keys’ uncanny placidity probably deserves a special Grammy of its own. Still, the moment when she declared “I’m proud to be standing here” while she was clearly sitting at a piano felt emblematic of a just-kinda-off evening, in which at least one superstar appeared to be preserving her energy for a more important performance than the Grammys. A few passing thoughts on it all:
Country music turns out to be one culture that Gwen Stefani is not able to fruitfully appropriate. Stefani’s magpie touch has rarely failed her; she’s moved between genres as smoothly as she did between her band and solo hits. But she seemed deeply out of place alongside her boyfriend, Blake Shelton — though to be fair, that greasy ballad he was singing sounded more like Nickelback in a cowboy hat.
The Jonas Brothers’ faith that a mass audience would understand they were referencing their new video that in turn references Grease was touching. Also, the almost-Bo-Diddley beat of “What a Man Gotta Do” is fun, but they really should’ve played “Sucker.” And they probably wouldn’t have done a hand-clappy, clave-beat-derived song if they knew what Rosalía was about to do with a far more sophisticated derivation of the rhythm.
Tyler, the Creator’s brilliant performance seemed to emerge from a sealed chamber in the deepest corner of Willy Wonka’s factory (Tim Burton edition). In addition to its obvious visual nod to Eminem’s “Real Slim Shady” performance at the 2000 VMAs (Tyler was once a vocal Eminem fan, but things went sour), the vibe also owed equal debts to Death Grips, Marilyn Manson, and Yeezus-era Kanye West. 2020 Lifetime Achievement winner Iggy Pop no doubt appreciated its intensity. (Also, Boyz II Men rule.)
The evening’s real tribute to Prince came via performances by Lizzo and H.E.R. Usher sounded great on Prince’s classics, and it definitely made more sense than, say, Jennifer Lopez wading through the entire Motown catalog last year. But it was, at best, perverse — and not in a cool Dirty Mind way — to have a singer as gifted as FKA Twigs present only as a silent dancer. (Only Brittany Howard was as underused last night.) Prince, who told me in 2014 that it was time to embrace the “feminine energy” in music and society, would have likely been more impressed by the musicality and fearlessness of his one-time protégée Lizzo’s show opener, and the casual multi-instrumental mastery displayed by H.E.R., whom he would have no doubt loved if he had lived to see her debut.
Spelling Ric Ocasek’s name wrong in the In Memoriam section was insulting, as were the omissions of David Berman, Bushwick Bill, Scott Walker, and others. And while Trombone Shorty and the Preservation Hall Band was a lovely touch, it only underscored the fact that the random, corporately driven “moments” could have been replaced by honoring some of the musicians who actually died in the past year, beyond the welcome Nipsey Hussle salute.
Clearly, Joey Kramer could not live up to the impeccable performance standards of 2020 Aerosmith. With every beat in place, and Steven Tyler’s voice untouched by time, and Joe Perry definitely, absolutely playing a guitar solo that was on point, in the right key, and by no means just a flailing assemblage of random notes, it makes total sense that the band would need to abandon a founding member. Also, it is absolutely valid that the only important moment in the history of both rock and rap worth commemorating is the Run-DMC/Aerosmith collabo from 34 years ago. They should continue recreating it again and again at every possible awards show until the end of the time.
Ballads, ballads, ballads. There seems to be a longstanding, if unspoken, view that the primary purpose of the Grammys is to reassure older viewers by sending a “wow, that young performer can really sing” message ad infinitum. That leads to the likes of Billie Eilish performing only her most sedate and traditional song, which only conveyed a small portion of her talents — and overall, just way, way too many soporific ballads, in a numbing exercise in anti-pacing.
Bonnie Raitt, run us over with a truck. Tanya Tucker, please take the wheel, back it up and crush us to pieces.
The bait-and-switch of hinting that Camila Cabello was about to sing a song about Shawn Mendes — as if that was a fantastically enticing prospect — only to make it a (touching) song about her dad? Weird.
The sight of Billie Eilish actively wondering what she did wrong that Grammy voters like her that much? Both amusing and ever-so-slightly sad.
Are they going to change the actual Grammy statue to a little, tiny Gary Clark Jr.? Clark is a searingly talented guitarist who has often struggled to make albums that properly showcase his talents — last February’s This Land, with the powerful anti-racism statement of its title track, is the closest he’s come. His performance with the Roots was excellent. But there’s something a little jarring about the Grammys’ relentless over-focus on Clark over the past few years, which may do his career more harm than good.
Lil Nas X’s performance was a genuinely beautiful moment of utopian unity. A song made by an unknown, unsigned kid bringing together South Korean pop superstars, the auteur of “Achy Breaky Heart,” and whatever you’d call Diplo? That’s what pop is supposed to be able to do. And bringing in the original Nas, or “Actual Nas,” as Twitter has dubbed him, was a classy capper.
“I Sing the Body Electric.” A classic collection of Ray Bradbury short stories, highly recommended.