switched on pop

The Most Striking 2021 Grammy Performances Were Bigger Than the Music

Even DaBaby’s was “as much a song about claiming his place as a rock star as it is constantly being persecuted.” Illustration: Iris Gottlieb

In her acceptance speech for her historic win at the 63rd Grammy Awards, Beyoncé noted that “as an artist, I believe it’s my job to reflect the times,” a message reverberated throughout Sunday evening amongst her fellow nominees even before her surprise entrance. Many of the live performances, which dominated the show’s nearly four-hour run time, had something to add to the major stories of the last year: pandemic escapism and racial injustice. Taylor Swift transported audiences into a Middle-earthian moss-covered cabin set against a green-screen forest; Doja Cat’s reimagining of “Say So” looked like something out of The Matrix; and off-site performances at famous music venues brought audiences inside the live spaces they’ve missed. In contrast to these fantasies, Mickey Guyton, Lil Baby, and DaBaby used the Grammy stage to confront racism in the industry and throughout the nation.

Best New Artist winner Megan Thee Stallion bridged these two themes by placing her of-the-moment sound into a larger musical history — amidst the modern choreography to her hits “Body” and “Savage” was a curious throwback: a tap-dance routine by two skilled dancers. Suddenly, the performance transported its audience to 1943, reaching back almost 80 years to one of the greatest filmed dance sequences in cinema history from Stormy Weather. The Hollywood landmark, one of the rare movies from the era to feature an all-Black cast, had legendary performers at the top of their game like Lena Horne and Fats Waller; its high point is a lavish setpiece featuring a song from Cab Calloway and an acrobatic dance sequence by the Nicholas Brothers. With the reference, Megan earned her recognition that night as a star of rap’s next generation while also situating herself within a deeper musical lineage.

In this week’s episode of Switched on Pop, hosts Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding break down what the Big Four category winners say about the state of pop music and discuss the most striking performances of the ceremony.

Charlie: I’m curious, from your perspective, were there any standout performances?

Nate: One was actually by an act that was not nominated at this year’s Grammys: Silk Sonic, the new project from Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak. They tore it up in these matching ’70s suits with the big lapels. With these perfectly choreographed [moves], it was like a real throwback treat.

Charlie: The Recording Academy loves Bruno Mars. Our friend, the producer Danny Ross, said to me, “Is there a decade that Bruno Mars hasn’t borrowed from since [WWII]?” Because, here, not only do we get the ’70s, but they also did that incredible performance honoring Little Richard, going back to the ’50s.

Nate: Oh, man, I can’t wait for flapper-era Bruno Mars. You know we’re going to get that pretty soon.

A lot of other performances didn’t try to escape from the reality of what’s happening outside this Grammys ceremony; they looked at it head-on. One of the performances that did that most strikingly was Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture”; I would say it was a highlight of the entire [night].

This was not on a stage or a soundstage. This was actually filmed on the streets of L.A. [outside the Convention Center]; it was almost a short movie that incorporated themes of police brutality and protest. And it features some brilliant cameos from activists Tamika Mallory and [Run the Jewels] rapper Killer Mike.

Charlie: I was moved by Tamika Mallory’s plea: “President Biden, demand justice, equity, policy, and everything else that freedom encompasses. We don’t need allies. We need accomplices.”

Nate: That was a heart-stopping moment.

Charlie: These themes of combating racial injustice were throughout the show.

The performance of “Black Like Me” by Mickey Guyton, whom Switched on Pop spoke with [in September], was powerful. It starts off really mellow and personal. And then she’s joined by this stunning choir as she sings the song’s punch line. That swell of emotion really matched in the performance and the message.

Nate: Another performance that picked up on these themes very memorably was DaBaby’s performance of “Rockstar,” which started out with a really striking image of him head-to-toe in white Gucci, conducting a choir and a violinist [MAPY] and tenor singer Anthony Hamilton.

Charlie: It’s a song that’s just so full of these contrasts built around a beautiful classical guitar line, paired with this heavy trap beat. It is as much a song about claiming his place as a rock star as it is constantly being persecuted. He even alters a line in the performance where he says, “At the Grammys, probably get profiled before leaving.”

Nate: The performance was just so sharp. And, you know, I think we’re making it sound like kind of a serious song and a serious performance, but there’s also a lot of levity significantly provided by this chorus of older choir singers who were dressed kind of like Supreme Court justices. And one of them, I know, is destined to become a meme; it’s the singer directly behind DaBaby’s right shoulder. I guarantee there’s going to be a million memes about her.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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