Somewhere between the third and fourth tribute performances, a few minutes after Meghan Trainor won Best New Artist, reality set in: These are not the bold new Grammys of our imagination. A promising slate of nominees had our hopes up for a night when deserving winners claimed all the major categories, and maybe the ceremony would even be watchable rather than hate-watchable. But no, we got the same old, lame old Grammys. They always sucker me into forgetting that most of the awards are handed out before the telecast, that most of the musical numbers won’t even feature contemporary hits let alone songs nominated for Grammys, that John Legend will find a way to be on stage again. Even relatively new traditions, like inviting LL Cool J to host and having Taylor Swift open the show and tricking Kendrick Lamar into thinking this would be his night, felt uncomfortably played out.
These were an especially dead Grammys. The energy level flatlined most of the night, yes, but specifically, there seemed to be more memorial medleys than ever. After a benign shitshow in honor of Lionel Richie, alive and well, we got drama club recitals in the name of fallen heroes Maurice White, Glenn Frey, B.B. King, David Bowie, and Lemmy, plus the usual in memoriam montage. Oh, and Miguel was there to tastefully perform a Michael Jackson ballad that afforded him minimal opportunity to kick anyone in the head. A lot of major musicians died this year, and the Grammys are about nothing if not celebrating decades-old musical legacies. And maybe last year, on the heels of the mediocre pop cultural interval that was 2014, this kind of necrophiliac pageantry would have flown. But after a banner year for music, one that produced way more fantastic albums than you can stuff on a year-end list, it was especially galling to see the Grammys ignore so much beauty in the present.
Even the slate of performers from the present mostly ignored the beauty in the present! Worthy nominees like Courtney Barnett, Tame Impala, D’Angelo, Wilco, Leon Bridges, and Florence + The Machine were nowhere to be found on stage, even though any and all of them could easily fit within the Grammys’ pre-existing biases. The endless parade of innocuous industry plants reached some kind of hellish apotheosis when Tori Kelly duetted with James Bay. Skrillex, Diplo, and Justin Bieber opted to turn artisanal electronic banger “Where Are Ü Now” into a low-grade Incubus song — complete with Incubus guitarist Mike Einzinger — ostensibly to pander to all the Real Music fans out there. Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp, and Joe Perry stumbled out of the rock ‘n’ roll retirement home, and it was still somehow easier to stomach than Perry’s other collaborative atrocity with Pitbull, Robin Thicke, and Travis Barker. The once-salacious Abel Tesfaye opted to neuter his lothario shtick and keep it “classy” as if rehearsing for the Oscars later this month. There was also Neil Portnow presiding over a 12-year-old boy playing jazz piano because NARAS delights to see today’s youths indoctrinated in the dying sounds of yesteryear.
Perhaps Adele’s massive success egged them all on. She decimated the record books this fall by echoing back to a time when books were actually necessary to keep track of records. Next year her stalwart conservatism will win her all the trophies — maybe even Best Rap Album, though Macklemore will be back in the hunt by then. This year, despite not releasing any music within the eligible window (Oct. 2014 to Sept. 2015), she got a spotlight performance — the perfect chance to show all these wannabe Adeles how it’s done — and even she seemed to muff her big moment. The torrent of bum notes was almost too perfect a metaphor: Here was today’s ultimate exemplar of traditionalist Grammy values, shoehorned into the broadcast at the expense of actual nominees because she’s an industry cash cow and ratings magnet, and she falls flat.
The piano mics fell on to the piano strings, that's what the guitar sound was. It made it sound out of tune. Shit happens. X
— Adele (@Adele) February 16, 2016
The lightning strike that lit up and threatened to burn down this otherwise damp and drowsy enterprise was hip-hop, the only currently vibrant art form represented on stage this year. (No matter how much soul Brittany Howard or Chris Stapleton brought to the table, they weren’t exactly cutting a fresh path through music history.) The cast of Broadway cause célèbre Hamilton have been blowing audiences away for months, so when given the chance to beam their powerhouse ensemble into America’s living rooms, they were ready. Not only was a new kind of creativity ushered into the frame under the guise of that old mainstay musical theater, they also managed to Trojan horse the guy from avant-rap aggressors clipping. into the Grammys broadcast. Up next was Kendrick Lamar delivering a furious flurry of his most confrontational tracks, including a new one, with a visual component as jarring yet elliptical as To Pimp A Butterfly itself. Then the Hamilton cast was back in time for Lin-Manuel Miranda to unload a rapid-fire rap-verse acceptance speech.
It was nice to see that some entertainers still understood the value of, you know, entertaining. It was even better to see them providing a jolt with some substance behind it, revving up our adrenaline while sending our minds into overdrive. Amidst mountains of milquetoast, these guys gave us thrills upon thrills. They deserve to be recognized for it — and within their requisite genre ghettos, they were. Yet when the time came to hand out the biggest awards of the night, again and again the Grammys proved they’re not nearly as cool and progressive as some of us believed them to be. With all due respect to Bruno Mars (and all glory and praise to “Uptown Funk!”), victories for Ed Sheeran (Song Of The Year), Trainor (Best New Artist), Swift (Album Of The Year), and Mark Ronson (Record Of The Year) might as well have stamped the night with a #GrammysSoWhite hashtag.
As ever, one of pop culture’s preeminent provocateurs was hanging over all this without actually being in the building. Kanye West’s valid complaints tend to get lost in his increasingly prolific stream of nonsense, but one of the most resonant points he ever made was this one from his 2013 New York Times interview: Despite winning an entire trophy case worth of Grammys in less than a decade, he had never sniffed any of the four major categories. Or as Kanye quasi-accurately put it, “I’m assuming I have the most Grammys of anyone my age, but I haven’t won one against a white person.”
I couldn’t help thinking about that as I watched his frenemy Swift take the stage to celebrate being “the first woman to win Album Of The Year twice.” That’s a big deal for women, and Swift is as deserving as any woman in the business. I wish she would have taken down Daft Punk in 2014, to be honest — give me Red over Random Access Memories any day. In a vacuum, a win for Swift is something to celebrate. But it felt wrong to see a low-stakes rom-com like 1989 carry the day over To Pimp A Butterfly, a universally recognized masterpiece that had meaningful things to say about these tumultuous times.
At this point we’re 12 years out from the last rap Album Of The Year (Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below) and eight years from the last black Album Of The Year (Herbie Hancock’s soporific Joni Mitchell covers album). In a pop cultural context ever-more defined by hip-hop and young black sensibilities, that’s a ridiculous gap. But it’s not just a race thing or a rap thing. It’s not even an underground vs. mainstream thing so much as a need to acknowledge how much more expansive and electrifying the mainstream has become, how many mainstreams continue to proliferate outside the narrow and bizarrely gerrymandered borders the Grammys have drawn for themselves.
You’d think an event that ordains itself as Music’s Biggest Night™ would aspire to be more than a cotillion for decaying regimes. But no, the Grammys continually find ways to reward cautious revivalism at the expense of pioneering vision. Even the talented young performers who manage to become Grammy royalty are the ones working in the oldest, most firmly established forms on the market. NARAS maintains a fierce grip on whatever feels traditional even as massively popular innovators expand outward in every direction.
In recent years, as in the case of Arcade Fire and Daft Punk and Beck, that means waiting until yesterday’s forward thinkers settle into a classic retro sound and then bestowing them with statues. This year it took the form of a Record Of The Year and Album Of The Year that both pointedly aspire to the sounds of three decades ago — and of Song Of The Year and Best New Artist picks that reach back even farther and less adventurously into music history. There is so much more out there — not just obscure critical favorites, but festival headliners. I’m not calling for Trainor’s head on a plate so much as Chance The Rapper’s foot in the door, and with a legitimate chance to take home the most prestigious honors. The Grammys keep fooling me into believing they’re headed in that direction, but as this year’s ceremony reminds us, we’re not even close to out of the woods yet.