It didn’t have to be like this.
Okay, fine, because to watch the Grammys is to be in a perpetual state of disappointment, maybe it did have to be like this, but this year’s death march through Music’s Biggest Night felt more crushing, if only because there was tangible hope that the Grammys had learned this year. Kendrick Lamar walked in with 11 nominations! The Album of the Year category was made of five genuinely good albums! The Big Four categories (Album/Song/Record of the Year+Best New Artist) weren’t overwhelmed with terrible options! The performance roster had sure, some questionable picks, but Gaga doing Bowie! A live Hamilton performance! Adele singing live as a warm up for next year’s domination! Shit, maybe even LL Cool J won’t be entirely awful!
But, as Pitbull and Robin Thicke cavorted under the credits, I just felt relieved to be done with another tedious ceremony whose occasional flashes of greatness couldn’t support a three and a half hour run time for a measly eight telecast trophies and maybe four memorable performances. The night started as a slog, briefly picked up, and then spent its second performative half in fits and starts.
I’ll touch on a few performances and awards in a bit, but first, can we acknowledge that the Grammys’ tribute/in memoriam format is dangerously close to outdated? Last night had five whole performances dedicated to deceased stars. I’m not saying that Maurice White, Glenn Frey, David Bowie, B.B. King, and Lemmy didn’t deserve them (although you have to wonder who Lemmy pissed off to have that Hollywood Vampires bullshit send him up), I’m saying that as we start losing icons from the 60’s and 70’s who are now in their 60s and 70s, the Grammys will either need to A. start getting real choosy about who gets that Gary Clark, Jr. number, and who stays in the slideshow or B. Run a separate in memoriam broadcast just to give everyone their due. This year’s iteration has already drawn ire from Natalie Cole’s estate for leaving her out, and the problem’s only going to get worse from here.
These tributes stick out the next day because while they come from a good place, they’re usually where the telecast slows to crawl. You always get the feeling that the performers are held hostage by these songs, resulting in tributes that are okay at best, but never memorable. Lady Gaga’s David Bowie medley had the potential to be a standout, but for all the technical spectacle she employed and fun she was having, the act felt oddly hollow. Bowie’s always meant a lot to Gaga, and I imagined her doing a thoughtful tribute instead of running through shorthand versions of his hits (and no “Life on Mars”!). Even if she’d just sang “Heroes” at a piano that changed shape or some shit, that would have worked. Joe Perry, Johnny Depp, and Alice Cooper’s Hollywood Vampires act was the other noteworthy tribute, but only for how bad it was; I’ve lamented mainstream rock’s death, but that hack performance made me think mainstream rock kind of has it coming.
But those numbers were still preferable to the show’s first half. I know its old hat to hate on the Grammys for being ~boring~, but dear God did this year start as a drag. Taylor Swift opened with a bloodless rendition of “Out of the Woods”, setting a slow default tempo for the next hour and a half of performances. True, a disparate Lionel Richie number featuring John Legend, Luke Bryan, Demi Lovato, and Meghan Trainor was never going to raise the roof, but even normally game acts like The Weeknd and Ellie Goulding didn’t bring the thunder, let alone duets by Carrie Underwood and Sam Hunt and Tori Kelly with Jason Bay.
Instead, this LA broadcast had to import some energy from New York. I haven’t really made a space to write about it here, but I’ve hopped on the Hamilton bandwagon in the last month or so. And the cast absolutely nailed the opener last night, hitting every point of a fairly intricate number (it might be the dormant theater kid in me, but Lin-Manuel Miranda’s shoot-to-kill delivery on “Alexander Hamilton” was fucking gold). They earned every bit of their Best Musical Theater Album award.
Then, right after Hamilton was Kendrick Lamar’s show-stealing performance. Lamar’s annihilated the Grammys before with sheer technical ability, but he upped his game again last night. It was confrontational, passionate, black as fuck, and alive; both “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright” were reworked just for the live setting, complete with lyrical edits to avoid censorship and still get the message and intensity across. But, the real showstopper came when Lamar debuted a new song/verse that stripped away the bonfires and neon tribal paint, and just saw Lamar rapping his face off about self-doubt, anger, and Trayvon Martin directly into a quickly cutting camera. It was the sort of thrilling, without a net performance that Lamar’s specialized in since at least “Control”; you cannot watch the last minute of this video and tell me this man is giving anything less than his all.
And yet it wasn’t enough for recognition.
Alright, awards time. First, the good: Mark Ronson won Record of the Year for “Uptown Funk!”, a song that still sounds like a million bucks. I was personally betting on D’Angelo’s “Really Love”, but “Uptown Funk!” was just as good a choice for production values. The electronic category was a mess to begin with (so I’ve heard), but the rest of the genres did pretty well: Taylor Swift got Best Pop Album, D’Angelo picked up a few R&B awards, The Weeknd nabbed an armful of trophies, Alabama Shakes dominated in rock and alternative, and Lamar got the rap awards sweep. It was, on balance, pretty good for the pre-cast awards.
Where things got bad in a hurry was with three of the Big Four. Best New Artist went to Meghan Trainor, a performer who is easily pedestrian at best (say what you will about Sam Hunt, at least he’s novel). I was expecting Lamar to lose Song of the Year to “Blank Space”, but instead, he lost to “Thinkin’ Out Loud”, an okay song, but the world’s laziest “Let’s Get It On” rewrite imaginable. Like Trainor for Best New Artist, “Thinkin’ Out Loud” was the category’s cynical choice of bland classicist cheese; at least “See You Again” would technically be a win for a rap song, and “Girl Crush” could earn progressive points if you do enough mental gymnastics about its homoerotic undercurrent.
Then you get Taylor Swift’s victory for Album of the Year. I feel like I’m flogging a dead horse at this point, but I’ve always found 1989 a respectably good but unfulfilling pop album that’s not nearly as slick or as transcendent as it wants to be. It’s smartly written and tastefully made, but ultimately too fussed over, too slight, to be realized. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is similarly concerned with being Smart and Tasteful, but wins on the most basic level of having stronger songs performed by someone at the top of their game. It’s weird to say, but the heady jazz-rap album is more fun to listen to than the synthpop romance one.
Before going into her rightly kickass acceptance speech where she came for whatever’s left of Kanye West’s soul following his most recent display of misogyny, Swift said that she was the first woman to win Album of the Year twice. I get why she said it; it’s a hell of an accomplishment and she’s earned it, but it also read as being more pro-Taylor Swift than pro-woman. It got me thinking that Taylor Swift might be the first woman to with Album of the Year twice, but it’s also been 17 years since a non-white woman won the award, and that both of Swift’s now historic wins have been more recent than the last time anyone who wasn’t white won the award. Kendrick Lamar, Alabama Shakes (led by the black Brittany Howard), and The Weeknd might have cleaned up in their respective genres, but none of them won big awards. It was hard to shake what Lamar rapped while staring into the camera earlier in the same spot: “You never liked us, anyway.”