The Peaks and Pitfalls of the Grammys Were Politically Connected

Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS

Disappointment is essential to awards shows. It’s simple math: With roughly five nominees per category and only one winner, there’s bound to be plenty of sighing from partisans of the four who lost out. The only way to abolish disappointment from awards shows would be to abolish awards shows altogether, and who would want that? After 89 Oscar nights, 69 Emmy shows, and now 60 Grammy ceremonies, the flaws of the format are well-known. Operated by entertainment functionaries and not the entertainers themselves, the awards system tilts heavily toward industry darlings and the already-established at the expense of newer, more authentically popular creators. Opaque, its franchise limited, the voting process amplifies the social bias in the upper reaches of its respective academies toward the old, rich, male, and white. So even if expectations ran high for last night’s Grammys, so, too, did the anticipation that those expectations would be dashed. Would 2018 be the year when talent took priority above all else? Of course not. But still, last night, it had to be seen to be disbelieved.

Bruno Mars, who hardly lacks for talent, had himself the best night. After taking home both Song and Record of the Year, it seemed impossible for him not to win Album of the Year as well; sure enough, he smoothly completed the trifecta to conclude the night, leaving fans of Lorde, Jay-Z, Childish Gambino, and perhaps especially Kendrick Lamar to simmer in their salt. Lamar had opened the show with an elaborate, supercharged performance that displayed his verbal excellence and gift for large-scale orchestration, but Compton’s finest would fail to win the most prestigious of gramophones despite having been nominated for creating an album whose aesthetic spirit was superior to all competitors. While Mars basked in the golden light of his trophies for 24K Magic, Lamar’s DAMN. would complete a different set of three as it joined Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, and To Pimp a Butterfly in the ranks of his masterpieces unfairly weighed by the Recording Academy.

Lamar wasn’t alone in threefold disappointment: “Despacito,” Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s record-breaking summer hit, failed to win a single Grammy in the trio of categories for which it was nominated. Likewise, Lamar’s fellow Top Dawg Entertainment artist SZA went zero for five; no less incredibly, his fellow rap legend Jay-Z went zero for eight. More “diverse” in nominations than ever before, the 60th Grammy Awards were diverse in terms of letdowns as well. Ironically, Lamar may have had a better chance at winning if Jay-Z had been nominated less and if artists such as Ed Sheeran and Alessia Cara had been present to splinter the more conventional-minded Academy vote with Mars; as it was, conservative voters concentrated their votes around Mars and Mars alone. (In a similar fashion, SZA and Lil Uzi Vert’s dual nomination for Best New Artist looked likely to have hurt the chances of both to the advantage of Cara, who ended up winning.)

The usual sense of disappointment was amplified by a new factor. The 2018 Awards were, far and away, the most nakedly political Grammy ceremony on record: Speeches, sketches, and performances alike were animated by gestures of support for excluded immigrants, denigrated foreigners, and oppressed women. Lamar’s dramatic, army-themed arrangement was just the beginning; his supporting act U2 would go on to perform on a boat near the Statue of Liberty, with Bono delivering a brief sermon on behalf of the parts of the world recently insulted by President Trump. Camila Cabello gave a heartfelt speech on behalf of immigrants, referencing her Mexican and Cuban heritage; she, along with others, would sing alongside Kesha in a shattering rendition of “Praying,” an anthem of rage and self-empowerment generally assumed to be directed at the producer Dr. Luke, who Kesha has accused of drastic sexual violations. Kesha was introduced by a statement from Janelle Monáe, who told the audience that the time for sexual harassment and sexual coercion was over. A sketch in which artists tried to read excerpts of Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s behind-the-scenes drama of the Trump administration, was capped off by none other than Hillary Clinton.

At a time of permanent social and political stress, the choreographers of the show looked anxious to represent a spirit of resistance. But within the larger frame of an industry’s self-celebration, the political posturing often came off as discordant or, worse yet, hypocritical. Lamar’s seamless fusion of black politics and art — and the skill with which he has introduced those politics, undiluted, to a mainstream audience — have gone singularly unrewarded. If the denial of “Despacito” implies that a Spanish-language song, no matter how good or how popular, can never win a Grammy, Lamar being thrice denied Album of the Year suggests that a black rapper, no matter how brilliant, timely, and willing to play ball with the system, will never be recognized by the industry as the supreme artist. Kesha’s performance was heartbreaking, and all the more so because Dr. Luke continues to have a career in the music industry; in fact, thanks to standard industry contracts, the Swedish producer literally profits from a song and album excoriating him — a song and album which, incidentally, though nominated for Best Pop Solo Performance and Best Pop Vocal Album, lost out among Academy voters to Ed Sheeran. And the showrunners’ sought association with the Clintons — Hillary’s performance; Bill being mentioned approvingly as a past recipient of an honorary Grammy — underscored the cosmetic nature of the Grammys’ political turn. Though she has frequently been unfairly discounted, scorned, and insulted, it’s no slander to say that Hillary Clinton responded to the multiple allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault directed at her husband by denying their validity. (Apparently her record with sexual harassers under her power isn’t all that stellar either.) Advocating for the downtrodden while remaining invested in maintaining power exactly as it is; gaining credit for encouraging speech from abused voices, while refusing to take serious action to reform a system that facilitates abuse — what is this, if not liberal (self-)deception of the highest order?

It’s not an easy time for the music industry, nor the awards show that reflects its values. Things as they are have failed irremediably, and any serious change would risk abolishing one’s own power and position. You could say that the Grammys are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. If only some genius could make an album tracing the complexities and channeling the tensions of such a dilemma. An album like that — let’s call it Damnation, for argument’s sake — would certainly be the album of whatever year it was made in. But it would, just as certainly, never win the Grammy for Album of the Year.

The Scrambled Message of the 2018 Grammys