Sounding Board

It Goes On And On And On: The Grammys Make Fine TV, But Stumble Where It Counts

Chance The Rapper won Best New Artist; the Chainsmokers did not. This happened within the first 15 minutes of last night’s 59th Grammys broadcast, and it portended an improvement from last year’s cavalcade of mediocrity. That’s more or less how it played out, even if the show ultimately couldn’t subvert its own inherent wackness long enough to cancel the Bee Gees tribute starring Demi Lovato.

You may be wondering, on a night when Adele swept the other three major categories — at Beyoncé’s expense, to Adele’s chagrin — how this Grammys could be considered an upgrade. Admittedly, large portions of the show were as old, white, and paralyzingly lame as usual, and therefore any perceived excellence could be mere competence shining in context. It is also possible that I have become so desensitized to Grammy voters rewarding the industry’s most conservative bulwarks that I’m now taking it for granted that they’ll pick the wrong winners and accepting whatever positive stimulation I can get. Nonetheless I was genuinely entertained many times: more times than I can ever remember being entertained during the Grammys, and certainly more times than I expected.

To wit: Was the Lady Gaga/Metallica mashup a trainwreck? Maybe, but it was also lit. Neither artist has sounded so revved-up in years, not even Gaga on the Super Bowl stage last weekend. Let’s not forget that actual trainwrecks are probably a huge adrenaline rush.

There was also Bruno Mars reminding us of his dazzling showmanship (and then returning to remind us that while he’ll never be Prince, he could easily front the best Prince cover band in the world). And CMT Crossroads buddies Maren Morris and Alicia Keys singing the hell out of “Once.” And Adele pausing her George Michael tribute, starting over, and ending up with something truly sublime. Even Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood’s goofy synth-pop duet exuded real charm.

OK, if those were the highest of highlights we could have justifiably turned off our TVs around the time Twenty One Pilots pulled their pants down. The night’s real standouts managed to combine striking stagecraft with hefty cultural weight: Katy Perry tearing down picket fences and fake news via vaporwave and the US Constitution; Beyoncé delivering a visually stunning multimedia treatise on motherhood; Busta Rhymes decrying “President Agent Orange”(!) during A Tribe Called Quest x Anderson .Paak’s triumphantly defiant hit parade — the one with all those immigrants crashing through a makeshift wall.

It was bound to go downhill after the Tribe scenario, but Chance The Rapper came this close to matching his forebears’ fire. At this point his shows are basically church services liable to tear the roof off and ascend to heaven at any moment. He has spent his entire career rehabilitating corny gestures by pumping them with boundless optimism such that coolness is rendered irrelevant. Nothing is cornier than the Grammys, and rather than diminish Chance, his public thirst for a gramophone has ever-so-slightly redeemed this deeply confused and/or corrupt institution.

Even Chance’s passionate admiration can’t change the fact that the Grammys waited until after David Bowie died to bestow him a musical award (the late Thin White Duke won a video award and a lifetime achievement award while he was still with us plus this year’s packaging award before tallying four more trophies for specific musical accomplishments last night). Or that they let the Chainsmokers accept one of those awards on Bowie’s behalf. Or that poor old Leonard Cohen didn’t merit a tribute performance (better luck at the Junos!). Or that they commissioned Pentatonix, whose “Hallelujah” cover might have actually been Cohen’s cause of death, to cover the Jackson 5 for some reason. Or that they awarded Best Rap Song to Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” a song with no rapping. Or that they did Rihanna’s Anti even dirtier than they did Lemonade. Or that they let host James Corden do cloying James Corden things all night long.

Certainly no amount of posi vibes from the dwindling list of relevant willing participants will absolve NARAS for repeatedly failing to honor groundbreaking black pop-art. If it feels like every year some critically acclaimed commercial behemoth from the forefront of black music is eclipsed by white folks playing it safe, well, that’s not just a feeling. This tweet is mighty damning:

Actually, the last time a black artist won Album Of The Year was 2008, when a past-his-prime Herbie Hancock was puzzlingly honored for his collection of Joni Mitchell covers. It’s enough to make Grammy head honcho Neil Portnow’s latest self-righteous spiel about how music brings us together sound not just hollow but actively diabolical, particularly at this tumultuous stage of American history. All things considered, there may be no believable explanation for Chance beating the Chainsmokers besides divine intervention — he did “claim the victory in the name of the Lord,” after all.

Chance also deservedly went home with the awards for Best Rap Album and Best Rap Performance, which should cement his self-made rise to the pinnacle of the music industry. He’s truly a revolutionary figure, not least of all for forging this far into music industry prestige land without a record label. He continues to send ripple effects through the industry, and maybe in time he’ll even help to destroy the patterns that have rendered the Grammys the least credible major awards show in mainstream pop culture. That’s an extremely tall order even for a superlative talent with God on his side. In the meantime, Chance and a handful of peers at least saved Music’s Biggest Night™ from once again becoming music’s biggest nightmare.