grammys 2021

The Highs, Lows, and Whoas of the 2021 Grammy Awards

Lil Baby performing “The Bigger Picture.” Photo: CBS

What else were you gonna do with three hours and 45 minutes on a Sunday night? Sleep? On March 14, the Grammys interrupted our 366th night of the pandemic with their 63rd annual music awards. Hosted by The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, the part-socially distanced, part-virtual affair took place from across the country, as well as in a tent just outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Glamorous. Regardless of the pandemic, the lineup was stacked and the guest-list packed. Performers included Harry Styles, Haim, DaBaby, Lil Baby, Dua Lipa, Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, Silk Sonic, and last year’s big winner, Billie Eilish. With no audience, executive producer Ben Winston, the man who unleashed Carpool Karaoke onto the world, got creative with the awards-show format, though it still managed a nearly four-hour run time. Here are the high, lows, and whoas of the 2021 Grammy Awards.

WHOA: Giving Bill Burr the Latin music awards to present in the preshow.
Watching this loud Bostonian man shout his way through these categories was actual comedy.

HIGH: Posthumous wins for John Prine, Toots Hibbert, and Chick Corea.
The past year has been full of devastating losses in the music world, and while we still haven’t gotten to properly mourn in person, the Grammys did posthumously honor some musical icons. John Prine won two awards, Best American Roots Performance and Best American Roots Song for his final song, “I Remember Everything,” while Chick Corea won awards for Best Improvised Jazz Solo and Best Jazz Instrumental Album. Toots Hibbert, meanwhile, won Best Reggae Album with his band the Maytals for Got to Be Tough. “We love and miss you dad,” Jack Prine said as Prine’s family accepted Best American Roots Song.

HIGH: A Grammy for “Rain on Me”!
The Academy made at least one correct decision when they awarded Best Pop Duo/Group Performance to Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande for “Rain on Me,” the pop song that got us through 2020. Gaga watched the awards from Italy, where it was past 10 p.m. when she won, but didn’t accept the award over video. “MOTHER MONSTER WAKE UP @ladygaga !!!!!!!!???” her duet partner Ariana Grande tweeted. Rain this win on us.

LOW: The five-stage performance room.
The performance room looked neat and cozy when Trevor Noah first showed it off, but it got awkward pretty quickly to watch performers … watching other performers. What is the rest of the audience sitting outside for? And while we’re at it: What’s going on with the sound mix in there?

HIGH: Phoebe Bridgers wearing a designer skeleton suit on the red carpet.

HIGH: Harry Styles’s “Watermelon Sugar,” naturally.
When Harry Styles says “Watermelon Sugar,” we say “High!” Styles pinned us down* with his heeled boots and refused to let up while performing his smash hit in a leather suit and a green feather boa. (Did he get that from Doja Cat?) Styles kicked off this year’s round of performances from the slightly-too-intimate concert space, but any awkwardness ricochets right off his bare chest, tattoos functioning as a shirt. Best undressed goes to …

LOW: Trevor Noah’s … jokes?
Trevor Noah kept the show moving with a stream of lighthearted jabs at the artists and the times, but didn’t deliver on the exuberance we’re used to and sometimes pretend to hate. The monologue was primarily an explanation of how this year’s socially distanced awards ceremony is set up, lest you be confused when they cut to what looks like an outdoor wedding. No one’s asking for him to go full James Corden, but this nearly four-hour music video would’ve benefited from more than a few scattered chuckles.

WHOA: DaBaby’s wonderfully over-the-top “Rockstar” performance.
We never thought we needed to see DaBaby conducting a gospel choir — and then we saw DaBaby conducting a gospel choir, on the Grammys stage no less. Awards-show performances can get unnecessarily flashy, but every element of DaBaby’s rendition of “Rockstar” with Roddy Ricch was truly showstopping, from Anthony Hamilton’s vocals to MAPY’s violin, to, yes, the gospel choir dressed as judges. Rock stars, all of them.

WHOA: Silk Sonic seductive’s serenade.
Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars made everyone watching at home feel like the prettiest groupies in the crowd. Their super-duo Silk Sonic transported us to 1960s Motown as they shoo-bopped back and forth to “Leave the Door Open,” their crooning, baby-making debut single. Y’all were worried about the COVID baby boom? The Silk Sonic Boom starts tonight.

HIGH: Taylor Swift’s new songs really do sound great live.
Renaissance faire realness aside, Taylor Swift came to perform. Her Grammys set may have been her best folklore/evermore era performance yet, from the pristine arrangement of “august” to a riveting “willow” performance to close things out. And of course, she did it all flanked by mastermind producers Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff.

LOW: Dua Lipa’s attemps at choreography.
Leave the dancing to all of us in clubs when the pandemic is over!

HIGH: An exciting “In Memoriam” segment??
Awards shows “In Memoriam” segments can be a snooze sometimes. But not tonight! Bruno Mars and the Free Nationals kicked it off honoring Little Richard with an explosive “Good Golly Miss Molly,” with Mars serving his best Little Richard down to the pencil mustache. After Lionel Richie toned things down with Kenny Rogers’s “Lady,” Brandi Carlile made us all tear up with a performance of John Prine’s final, now Grammy-winning song, “I Remember Everything.” And Brittany Howard brought it all home honoring Gerry Marsden with a simply stunning “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

WHOA: Lil Baby’s performance of “The Bigger Picture”
After a James Baldwin quote rings out, Atlanta rap star Lil Baby’s performance kicks off with a graphic skit starring Kendrick Sampson (Insecure), re-creating the too-familiar scene of a Black man being killed by police during a traffic stop. As Lil Baby raps, a protest breaks out right on the steps of the Convention Center. “It’s been a hell of a year,” activist Tamika Mallory says in a powerful interlude. “Hell for over 400 years. My people, it’s time we stand it’s time we demand the freedom that this land promises. President Biden, we demand justice, equity, policy, and everything else that freedom encompasses. And to accomplish this, we don’t need allies, we need accomplices.” The final whoa? Killer Mike rapping a verse from RTJ4’s “Walking in the Snow.”

HIGH: The entire country-women block.
Props to the producer who put the three country performances back-to-back, because they were three of the night’s finest. Mickey Guyton’s heartfelt, powerful “Black Like Me” (which should’ve, but didn’t, win a Grammy tonight), with a beautiful golden dress to top it off, would’ve been more than enough. Then she introduced Miranda Lambert, who performed another perfect rendition of “Bluebird.” By the time Maren Morris closed out the performances with “The Bones,” who cared that she was sharing the stage with John Mayer? The women of country were running the show — as they have been for years.

LOW: The filler Record of the Year documentaries.
The Grammys don’t even have time to present a dozen awards on the telecast — along with the 70-ish awards during the preshow, they gave out Best Melodic Rap Performance and Best Latin Pop/Urban Album during commercials — yet they have time for snoozy mini documentaries on every Record of the Year nominee. Of course they were shamelessly sponsored by Paramount+ on partner network CBS.

HIGH: Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B doing more cardio in minutes than we’ve done all year.
If you were feeling a little mid-show lag, Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B’s back-to-back performances got hearts pumping again. First up, Megan Thee Stallion mesmerized the crowd with a burlesque-inspired performance of “Savage (Remix)” sans Beyoncé. Then, Cardi and a flock of aliens twerked to “Up.” It simply doesn’t matter if you couldn’t understand most of the lyrics to CBS’s censored version of “WAP.” All focus was on Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion as they straddled on a comically massive bed. These ladies brought the choreography, the energy, and the lewks these awards were missing.

HIGH: The number of Grammys Beyoncé now has.
Twenty-eight, that is! Beyoncé became the woman with the most Grammy Awards ever when she accepted the trophy for Best R&B Performance for “Black Parade.” “This is so overwhelming. I’ve been working my whole life, since 9 years old. I can’t believe this happened,” she said in her acceptance speech, getting emotional. Four more Grammys and she becomes the most-awarded artist of all time. Think one of those can finally be an Album of the Year trophy?

WHOA: Taylor Swift becomes the first woman to win Album of the Year three times.
Call it a win for cottagecore. Taylor Swift took home her third Album of the Year trophy for folklore, joining Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, and Paul Simon as the only performers to have won the award three times, and becoming the first woman to do so. She’s officially back in Grammy’s good graces, after her previous two albums, reputation and Lover, left empty-handed. Tune in next year to see if she repeats with evermore.

WHOA: Billie Eilish upsets in Record of the Year
Record of the Year was one of the most stacked categories of the night, with nominations for Dua Lipa, Beyoncé, and Megan Thee Stallion, among others. Somehow, the Academy opted for reigning winner Billie Eilish over all of them, for her When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? follow-up “everything i wanted.” Eilish dedicated her speech to waxing about how fellow nominee Megan Thee Stallion should’ve won for “Savage,” giving flashbacks to Adele talking about how Beyoncé should’ve won Album of the Year for Lemonade and Macklemore apologizing to Kendrick Lamar for winning Best Rap album over good kid, m.A.A.d city. Asking the Academy to do right by these Black artists continues to be too much.

*The post originally had a line about the placement of Styles’ boots that was insensitive in a way we certainly did not intend. It has been changed.

The Highs, Lows, and Whoas of the 2021 Grammys