Sunday was Music’s Biggest Night™, the occasion where we gather to watch the Grammys and find out how much the Recording Academy has or hasn’t adjusted to meet the times. In a good year, expecting the show to make great plays is a game of acceptable losses where, inevitably, people go home upset and fans flood the internet with outrage. But 2020 was a maze of horrors from start to finish; it was during last year’s Grammy red carpet that news broke that Kobe Bryant passed away. Over the ensuing year, a global pandemic put concerts on hold, pushed beloved nightlife venues to the brink of extinction, pinched earnings in every corner of the industry, and claimed the lives of beloved artists from folk lifer John Prine to power-pop veteran Adam Schlesinger to country-music trailblazer Charley Pride. What kind of night is appropriate in the shadow of that? How do you summarize what we lost and what we won in spite of it? This year, the Grammys worked harder to deliver a better show than in several years past, to the benefit of the viewers and the nominated artists, but fell back on a few of the classic Grammy inconsistencies.
The aim appeared to be to prove that the Recording Academy has really changed after recent tumult. In 2018, when asked to comment on that year’s overwhelmingly male cast of winners in general categories, longtime Academy president Neil Portnow said that women needed to “step up” in order to be recognized, sparking backlash that ironically concluded with Portnow announcing he would be stepping down in 2019. Deborah Dugan, Portnow’s replacement and the Academy’s first woman president, was nudged out days before the 2020 ceremony, we were told, due to complaints of bullying from an assistant. (On the way out, Dugan claimed to have witnessed widespread ethical and financial mismanagement during her months as president, raising questions that haven’t all been answered.) This year’s show was producer, songwriter, and Grammy Foundation exec Harvey Mason Jr.’s chance to shine as interim Academy president, but controversy struck again when nominees were announced in November, and the Weeknd responded to being snubbed by vowing to boycott the show. Justin Bieber complained that Changes was nominated in the wrong categories. Nicki Minaj and Zayn Malik voiced long-standing displeasure with the show and the Academy. The objective of the 2021 Grammys was not just to “get it right,” to navigate the tricky business of the pandemic awards show with grace, or to reflect movingly on a rough year. It also had to justify its own enduring prestige and prove that it is aware of and committed to righting its own criticisms. Sunday’s show approached the task by getting out of its own way and having talent do most of the talking.
It was a no-brainer letting easygoing performances from gifted artists eat up most of the event’s nearly four-hour run time, but the round-robin staging, which many Twitter observers noted to be reminiscent of the BBC’s Later … with Jools Holland, gave off a glimmer of the loose sense of togetherness you’d glean from watching artists vibe to each other’s music when the cameras cut to the crowd. (To that end, host Trevor Noah was less of a comedic voice there to supply lacerating wit and more of a bro checking in on various scenes of chill. Anytime he tried to do much more than that, it kinda fell flat.) Seeing Bad Bunny mouthing words to Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” and Harry Styles stanning Haim and Black Pumas was tonally much more inviting than the Zoom-meeting energy of last month’s Golden Globes, the seemingly digitized viewers at last summer’s MTV Video Music Awards, and the nostalgic Total Request Live mood the same season’s BET Awards offered. Rotating nominees into the stage where awards were handed out led to delightful interactions like Megan Thee Stallion and Lizzo having a laugh together at the top of the night and Taylor Swift excitedly cheering everyone (but also cringe like Billie Eilish exclaiming through her disbelief at winning Record of the Year twice in a row that she felt Megan deserved it more, again inviting complaints about stuff that wasn’t really her fault, but now drawing comparisons to the good-intentioned but performative wokeness of Macklemore’s text apology to Kendrick Lamar for sweeping the rap categories in 2014). The sound was mostly great during the performances, and overwrought, nonsensical artist pairings were out, presumably due to the difficulties of the COVID protocols — but this didn’t necessarily keep anything low-key, as the elderly women dancing in judges’ gowns in DaBaby’s performance (???) and the unexpectedly green dancers in Cardi B and Megan’s racy prime-time debut of “WAP” proved.
Performances were otherwise a blast, and quality music won awards. The late, great Chick Corea, Toots Hibbert, and John Prine won five awards between them. Honors went to Nas and Ledisi, both seasoned performers who’d been snubbed at least a dozen times apiece. The Strokes won Best Rock Album after two decades of being overlooked in the Grammy nominations. Beyoncé made history twice as wins for Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” remix and Black Is King’s “Black Parade” tied her with bluegrass legend Alison Krauss’s 27 career wins and later pushed her to 28, the most Grammy wins for any singer of any gender. Kaytranada was (somehow) the first Black artist to win Best Dance/Electronic Album in 16 years. Bad Bunny accepted the Best Latin Pop Album award in broadcast (though the moment originally happened during a commercial break). Taylor Swift became the first woman to win Album of the Year three times, as folklore (deservedly) snagged top honors, and Swift joined Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, and Paul Simon on the short list of singers with three AOTY wins. (Kanye West winning for Best Christian Contemporary Music Album after tweeting a video of himself pissing on a Grammy last fall, a potential career-ender for your average CCM performer, was certainly … a choice.) As much as it’s possible to read intent into the actions of the Grammy voting pool — and honestly, who ever knows — Sunday’s ceremony felt like a sharp turn in the right direction. But those come with turbulence.
The Grammys played catch-up at the cost of major upsets. Strong competition in the pop categories set fandom against fandom as BTS and Doja Cat left empty-handed. Fiona Apple broke a long dry streak; Tame Impala, Big Thief, and Phoebe Bridgers were shut out. (Rock categories badly need restructuring. “Alternative,” such that it is a real genre, is a catchall term that’s as puzzling recognizing Fiona and Beck as sharing a genre this year as it was in 1991, situating The Replacements, Sinéad O’Connor, and Laurie Anderson in the same scene. It is absurd to break R&B into three strains but keep zero punk categories.) Nas won over the (much better) Freddie Gibbs and Alchemist album. Giving Ice-T his first Grammy in 30 years, for Body Count’s latest, meant no posthumous honors for Power Trip’s Riley Gale. Sturgill Simpson and the Irish post-punk quartet Fontaines D.C. were just as deserving as The Strokes. Thundercat won, but Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington, and Chloe x Halle didn’t. It remains fishy how often Beyoncé gets overlooked in the general categories. Fetch the Bolt Cutters deserved a crack at AOTY. A few preshow performers and acceptance speeches, like Burna Boy’s, could have fit in the main show if it cut a few lengthy pop-artist promos. For smaller artists, being siloed in genre categories is marginalizing on several fronts: They lose out on face time, they’re often left out of general categories, and they’re pitted against better-known artists in their own genres for accolades that could open doors and raise rates. Nominations start to feel like name-checking cool bands for the cred, a method of gesturing at open-mindedness and earning goodwill without acting on it, a suggestion of daring change that dangles enticingly out of reach. One hopes that these are just the growing pains of a stiff music-industry institution getting loose under new management and that the plan is to keep pushing. This was the most fun and the least baffling Grammy ceremony in many years.