“I think the Grammys are better in New York,” Alicia Keys proclaimed before announcing the nominees for Record Of The Year. I’m not so sure about that, partially because in 2018 that meant hearing ad nauseam about how the Grammys had returned to the Big Apple for the first time in 15 years. (We get it, guys: U ❤️ NY.) Mostly I am skeptical of Keys’ assertion because a change of scenery did nothing to alter the typical Grammy-night trajectory from cautious optimism to creeping dread to perturbed resignation. As I do every couple years, perhaps because my job as a pop music columnist means I can’t ignore this historically godawful institution altogether, I told myself that maybe just maybe this would be the year the Grammys got it right. And then…
The year the Grammys supposedly woke up, the Grammys are bout to GRAMMY SO HARD & give 3 of the big 4 awards to Bruno Mars and the other one to Alessia Cara
— chris payne (@cpayneonaplane) January 29, 2018
It all started so promisingly by Grammys standards. Although characteristically clueless in some respects and especially distressing in its underrepresentation of women, the slate of nominees NARAS unveiled in December at least seemed to acknowledge that popular music is undergoing a changing of the guard. The announced list of performers, while still burdened by old-timers long past their creative prime plus presently relevant performers who’ve arguably never had a creative prime, was peppered with more anticipated moments than usual. Even yesterday afternoon, as they began handing out gramophones at the Premiere Ceremony, it was easy to cheer for victories by the likes of LCD Soundsystem, the National, Aimee Mann, the War On Drugs, and especially Kendrick Lamar.
That hopeful vibe only intensified when Kendrick kicked off the ceremony proper with yet another thrilling TV appearance. His show-opening performance wove together DAMN. highlights “XXX.” and “DNA.” (and musical components from “LUST.”) plus Black Panther soundtrack behemoth “King’s Dead” into a performance-art medley that also involved cameos from Bono and the Edge, two interludes by Dave Chappelle, and a fleet of dancing soldiers-turned-ninjas who Kendrick pretended to shoot dead — along with the false identities you want to force on him, see. One of those identities must have been Grammy-winner for Album Of The Year because, despite a continued success streak that saw him step to the podium twice during the broadcast — quoting Mozzy, endorsing presidential adversary Jay-Z for the Oval Office, and admitting Rihanna “gassed me on my own song” — when the time came to hand out the night’s most prestigious trophies, all he had left was to sit down and be humble.
All throughout Grammy season I had been thinking about how Kendrick, as a living legend in his prime who’d been nominated twice before without winning, was overdue to for his Album Of The Year coronation. I had forgotten that by Grammy standards Bruno Mars, a traditionalist hit-maker also on his third LP, was even more overdue. Historically, only extremely rarely do the Grammys turn over their most prized hardware to critically revered, creatively adventurous music, yet as the nominations begin to fall closer in line with the Pazz & Jop poll, idiots like me keep hoping the winners in the major categories will follow suit. Nope!
More objectively, it’s been wearisome to watch statement albums from acclaimed black icons lose Album Of The Year to light-skinned counterparts treading safe sonic territory. Yet this scenario has played out so many years in a row now — Adele over Beyoncé last year, Taylor Swift over Kendrick before that, a sleepwalking Beck over Beyoncé before that, a highly nostalgic Daft Punk over Kendrick before that, fucking Mumford & Sons over Frank Ocean before that — that it was not even surprising when classicist crowd-pleaser Mars claimed Song Of The Year, then Record Of The Year, and then Album Of The Year to close out the evening. I did find it more than a little cruel that they got Kendrick’s hopes up by tapping his friends and collaborators U2 to present Album Of The Year.
Look, I get it. Bruno Mars is a unifying force in fiercely divided times. My 61-year-old mother loves him. My 9-year-old nephew loves him. I myself love him and was blown away by his stage show last year. Dude is a ridiculously talented singer, songwriter, dancer, and all-around entertainer. He may not have any original ideas, but he breathes such abundant life into his retro exercises that I’d argue he’s more creatively vital than most musicians working today. Just not compared to Kendrick Lamar, a skewed virtuoso whose work manages to stir up similar euphoria within me while engaging with weighty ideas and taking music new places. Kendrick Lamar is the sort of artist for whom awards were invented. It’s just that Bruno Mars is the kind of artist for whom Grammys were invented.
The three hours(!) between Kendrick’s triumphant kickoff and Bruno’s big finish comprised the usual Grammy death march, often quite literally. Jon Batiste and Gary Clark Jr. teamed up to honor the late Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. An alignment of modern country talents including Brothers Osborne, Eric Church, and Maren Morris covered Eric Clapton’s “Tears In Heaven” in memory of the mass shooting victims in Las Vegas. Roots-rockers Chris Stapleton and Emmylou Harris duetted on “Wildflowers” in tribute to Tom Petty, which led to the usual In Memoriam montage — including Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington, and, remarkably, Lil Peep — which led into a performance of Logic, Alessia Cara, and Khalid’s tearjerking anti-suicide anthem “1-800-273-8255.” If it’s possible to think a song is mad corny but also beautiful and important, that’s where I stand with the Logic track after last night. That it did not take Song Of The Year can only be explained by the irresistible Grammy magnetism of Bruno Mars. (Ditto the fact that a commercially dominant anthem like “Despacito” missed out on Record Of The Year: The Grammys are simply in Mars’ orbit now.)
Mortality was not the only serious business looming over the ceremony. Many folks wore white roses in support of #TimesUp, the entertainment industry offshoot of the #MeToo movement against sexual assault and harassment. That campaign got its spotlight moment via Kesha’s tremendous Dr. Luke rebuke “Praying,” performed with a small army of women including Cyndi Lauper, Camilla Cabello, Julia Michaels, Andra Day, and Bebe Rexha. The image of the lot of them standing together as a united front was mighty affecting if you gave yourself over to it. In the Grammy grand scheme the gesture rang somewhat hollow considering so few women won awards last night and the only woman up for Album Of The Year was frozen out of the broadcast.
It was titanically odd that the Grammys nominated Melodrama for Album Of The Year while affording Lorde no further nominations, even more so when they decided she wasn’t worthy of performing her own music on the show. The Grammy producers negging New Zealand’s finest went from outrageous to ridiculous when it became clear they were giving Sting time to perform his semi-obscure 31-year-old single “Englishman In New York” as a political statement, followed by a new song from his collaborative album with Shaggy(?) — while also casting Sting and Shaggy in Grammy host James Corden’s ill-fated comedy sketch about trying to translate Carpool Karaoke to the NYC subway. (Because the Grammys were in New York this year, you see?) And surely they could have made room for Lorde by cutting one of the two Broadway numbers shoehorned into the program (because, you see, the location of this year’s Grammys was none other than New York City). The relentless effort to project political meaning on an awards ceremony that routinely rewarded staunchly apolitical music also resulted in abundant screen time for lifelong activists U2, whose pre-taped performance found them on a boat in front of the Statue Of Liberty (because America, but also because New York).
Of all the extraneous bullshit crammed into this broadcast, at least the segment in which musicians auditioned to voice the Fire & Fury audiobook gave us the glory that was Cardi B uttering, upon reading about our president’s proclivity for cheeseburgers in bed, “I can’t believe that he really — this is how he lives his life?!” I’d watch that a second time rather than Lady Gaga still desperately trying to push Joanne on the world, or Sam Smith singing his turgid “Pray” in what looked like a lab coat, or Little Big Town cycling through the more or less unmemorable song Taylor Swift wrote for them. I’d have them run Cardi back before letting NARAS head honcho Neil Portnow give his usual spiel about music education, or letting Pink forgo her usual pageantry in favor of a blasé barebones ballad, or letting genius television auteur Donald Glover continue pretending he’s good at music. Cardi’s bit was certainly funnier than the Best Comedy Album presentation, about which:
i’m sure this has been noted, but Best Comedy Album getting on the telecast instead of Rock Album is wild
— brad shoup (@bshoup) January 29, 2018
Including the comedy award on the primetime Grammy broadcast wouldn’t be so odd if the whole 270-minute ordeal wasn’t limited to just nine awards — this to make room for an endless procession of live music with only tangential connection to our present moment. Which focus group convinced the Grammys that people want to see performance after godawful performance? Can they please just hand out a bunch of trophies next year and break things up by letting the nominees in all the major categories perform? If you’re so convinced these nominees represent the best music of the year, why not build your whole show around them instead of employing John Legend and Tony Bennett to forcibly remind us all that YES, YOU HEARD THAT RIGHT, THE GRAMMYS ARE BACK IN ONE OF NEW YORK CITY’s FIVE HALLOWED BOROUGHS?
Such an agenda still would have given us that titillating run through “Despacito” with all the verging-on-naked twerking serving as a universal translation for the lyrics. We still would have been blessed by Chappelle shouting out the egregiously snubbed A Tribe Called Quest while presenting Best Rap Album and Stapleton letting trad-country superproducer Dave Cobb speak while accepting Best Country Album. We’d have seen Bruno and Cardi doing their In Living Color homage in living color and SZA bringing “Broken Clocks” to life in real time. And if streamlining this slog would mean scrapping DJ Khaled, Rihanna, and Bryson Tiller’s entertaining “Wild Thoughts” or preempting Elton John and Miley Cyrus’ sorta fun “Tiny Dancer” duet… tough shit? Good luck on your three-year farewell tour, Elton? Looking forward to your inevitable stint as Grammys host, Khaled? And as for you, Rihanna and Miley, I’ll probably catch you back here two years from now — perhaps competing against each other for Album Of The Year? I think we all have a pretty good idea how that race might turn out.