Time is a flat circle, and so is pop music. It’s now been a year since Kanye West infamously protested Beyoncé’s loss and Beck’s win in the Album of the Year category at the 2015 Grammys, and last night, onstage to accept that very same award, Taylor Swift took the opportunity to diss Kanye West. “I wanna say to all the young women out there,” Swift intoned, with last-20-minutes-of–The Revenant–like intensity, “There are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success, take credit for your accomplishments or your fame, but if you just focus on the work and you don’t let those people sidetrack you, someday, when you get where you’re going, you’ll look around and you will know that it was you and the people who loveyou who put you there.” For a couple of reasons, the most important word in that speech is fame. It makes it clear that this was a direct response to West’s new song “Famous,” in which he raps the ill-considered and admittedly nonsensical line, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous.” Taylor got to throw her shade and hide under it, too, because there were plenty of people watching at home who wouldn’t have picked up on that reference, and who would have read the speech as a simple, nope-not-at-all-self-serving message of all-inclusive female empowerment. But for viewers who’ve been following along with the pageantry of pop celebrity — an activity that’s felt particularly fatiguing in the past few weeks — it was something a little more complicated.
Sometimes, at a show as stodgy as the Grammys, a loss can, in the long run, be more of a win than a win. (And I’m not just talking about the previous winners of the supposedly cursed Best New Artist award, but know that last night Men at Work, Paula Cole, and Hootie & the Blowfish added Meghan Trainor to their illustrious club.) I’m talking about something not unrelated to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, and a cultural moment in which we’re really starting to ask some larger, systemic questions about who wins these awards and why. And I guess I’m also talking about, for better or worse, what we choose to focus on. Yesterday afternoon, a couple different people asked me to refresh their memories of who won 2015’s Album of the Year again, but of course they remembered the controversy about how Beyoncé should have won (whether or not they agreed). Similarly, when Kendrick Lamar lost the Best Rap Album award to Macklemore in 2013, the injustice of this loss only turned him into more of a hip-hop folk hero than he already was — and started a years-long conversation about white privilege in hip-hop that Macklemore is still, years later, having with himself. But justice was (sort of) served last night when Lamar won all the major rap awards for his Black Lives Matter anthem “Alright” and his sprawling opus To Pimp a Butterfly, even though he lost Album, Song, and Record of the Year. And yet, by the time any of those awards were handed out, I was beyond caring about their outcomes, because with his arresting, virtuosic, you’ll-remember-ten-years-from-now-where-you-were performance, Kendrick Lamar had already won the night.
With all eyes on him, Kendrick didn’t dilute his message to make it more palatable for the Grammy public — he poured gasoline all over it and fearlessly lit a match. The more conservative choices from other performers (not to mention the truly inexplicable choice to follow his performance with … a word from Seth MacFarlane?!) only put the vividness of Kendrick’s vision into harsher relief. Bad-boy crooner the Weeknd went the tried-and-true Grammy route of throwing on a tux and performing a deadly serious piano arrangement of one of his most upbeat songs (“In the Night”) in order to make his talents legible to Grammy voters. He couldn’t quite carry the performance, although the fact that his surprise duet partner Lauryn Hill canceled her appearance at the last minute probably didn’t help his nerves. Justin Bieber’s performance with Skrillex and Diplo left me similarly cold. Rather than take the opportunity to show Grammy viewers what this whole electronic-music thing is all about, the trio did a tepid rearrangement of “Where Are Ü Now” with old-fashioned guitars instead of, you know, digitally manipulated dolphin sounds. The song and the spirit of the performance suffered for it. The people I was watching with were playing a special Grammys drinking game where they’d drink any time “real music” was referenced as an alternative to all those newfangled bleep bleep bleep bloops. During the Bieber performance, I made them waterfall.
But before yet another Grammy night is lost to antiquity, let us pause to reflect on the blessings. Lady Gaga, as expected, delivered with her meticulously choreographed David Bowie tribute — more theatrical than Lazarus was. In revisiting Bowie’s music in the weeks since his death, what’s struck me most about it is how difficult it was to stay sad while listening to Bowie; even “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide” ends up in heaven. So what I liked best about Gaga’s performance is that she honored the joy, humor, and celebration in Bowie’s music, rather than going for the low-hanging pathos of your garden-variety In Memoriam tribute. Gaga’s on a prestige tear right now, but last night proved that if she ever makes good on her Golden Globes speech and decides to become an actress full-time, Demi Lovato can take over for her on the show-stopping-tribute-performance front. With her rendition of “Hello,” she so effortlessly rose above the rest of that Lionel Richie tribute that even Lionel himself couldn’t seem to understand why she had to cede top billing to … Tyrese? Anyway. I’ll just repeat something I said after her amazing performance of “Stone Cold” on SNL earlier this year: Do not sleep on Demi Lovato.
Speaking of “Hello”s, and of losses as wins, the 2016 Grammys were also the night that we learned Adele actually is a muggle. Although her performance of the vocally acrobatic ballad “All I Ask” was marred by some of the most egregious sound issues in Grammy history (a piano mic fell on the strings, apparently), her showing last night was more endearing (and, in its own down-to-earth way, on-brand) than it would have been if she’d killed it. Because we’ve all seen Adele kill it, so much so that it’s become predictable, but we’ve never seen her handle a live-TV situation as disastrous as this, and she managed the whole thing with admirable grace. She was visibly shaken at the end, and looking kind of disappointed with herself, but before they cut to commercial, she still managed to step outside of her own self and say, jubilantly, “Kendrick, I love you, you’re amazing.”
Because I sometimes confuse internet think pieces with real life, I was nervous that Taylor Swift was going to say something similar as she accepted her Album of the Year award. Would she use this moment to do damage control about her whole Nicki Minaj VMA controversy, which exposed her racial blind spot? Would she quote bell hooks, who I hope is a forthcoming selection in Emma Watson’s feminist book club? Would she, God help us, drop a “Black Lives Matter”? Well, of course she didn’t do any of these things. She made it all about herself, gripping her Grammy like a dog with the last bone on Earth, because that sort of tenacious, gritted-teeth navel-gazing is exactly what got her there. But I couldn’t help flashing forward to Adele’s totally inevitable acceptance speech of that same award next year, same time, same place. She’s proof positive to Swift’s “young girls” that fame doesn’t have to be the most important word in that speech, especially when it’s not just a code word in the endless soap opera of celebrity. Adele’s Kendrick shout-out, in its own quiet way, was a more powerful moment than Swift’s speech. No message, no agenda — just game recognizing game.