Could it have been any more obvious that the Grammys were desperately trying to do some serious image rehab this year? You don’t drag out Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Jennifer Lopez, and Michelle motherfucking Obama in the first five minutes of your telecast unless you’re hoping to do some course-correction when it comes to how your industry treats and recognizes anyone who isn’t a man.
“They said that I was weird — that my look, my choices, my sound wouldn’t work,” Gaga — who’s garnered nominations almost every year since 2009, and has won nine times including the three trophies she picked up tonight — professed during a series of testimonials. “But music told me not to listen to them.” You don’t need to question the sincerity of her words to acknowledge the vague generality of that last sentence.
There’s no better ideological catch-all to employ on Music’s Biggest Night™ than “music”—a vagary of a concept that reflected the apolitical balance-beam this year’s Grammys constantly, barely-competently walked. To say that the aftermath of last year’s ceremony represented a low note would be an understatement; Album Of The Year nominee Lorde was the only woman honored in the category and the only nominee who was not asked to perform her own music. She opted not to take the stage and attached a reprinting of Jenny Holzer’s “Untitled (Rejoice!)” to the back of her dress in protest. Only a single televised award that year went to a woman, and after all was said and done Recording Academy president Neil Portnow told Variety that women in the music industry needed to “step up,” which led multiple music executives to call for his resignation.
“Keep it coming,” Keys said during the telecast’s first half while praising the greater strides towards diversity the industry’s ostensibly made over the last 12 months; the camera promptly cut to Portnow (who will be stepping down when his contract ends this July) clapping and looking barely engaged. When Dua Lipa accepted the award for Best New Artist she pointedly said: “I guess this year we really stepped up.” Right after she left the stage, the Academy honored Portnow with a tribute video and he gave a farewell speech, offering up some heart-and-soul clichés about “opening [our] eyes” as the camera cut to an unamused-looking H.E.R., who won Best R&B Album and Best R&B Performance.
The telecast opened with a medley of Camila Cabello’s “Havana” and J Balvin’s “Mi Gente,” featuring Young Thug and Arturo Sandoval, and during the performance, Balvin held a newspaper emblazoned with the slogan “Build Bridges Not Walls.” But other than that, this year’s Grammys were a strangely apolitical affair considering the combined factors of last year’s Trump-bashing ceremony and the fact that one of the scheduled-to-perform artists is currently in jail thanks to ICE. Inexplicably, 21 Savage’s current plight wasn’t invoked until near the end of the ceremony, during Ludwig Goransson’s acceptance speech for Childish Gambino’s Record Of The Year win for “This Is America.” Even Post Malone, whose 21 Savage collab “Rockstar” earned the genre-blending lout two of his four total nominations, remained silent on the subject amidst his fog-filled, Incubus-esque performance.
21 wasn’t the only star who, either by necessity or choice, didn’t attend the Grammys. After an astoundingly public spat with longtime Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich, previously scheduled performer Ariana Grande — undoubtedly the most of-the-moment North American pop artist whose name doesn’t rhyme with “rake” — appeared only during a goddamn Apple commercial. Earlier this week, a New York Times report revealed that high-profile nominees Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and Childish Gambino all declined performance slots. When the latter’s “This Is America” won Song Of The Year — the first rap song ever to do so — the golden gramophone was accepted in absentia by a guy who once used the N-word and claimed to possess “a David Duke cock.”
Despite deciding not to perform, Drake showed up anyway to collect Best Rap Song for “God’s Plan.” While delivering a speech that landed somewhere in between Fiona Apple’s 1997 cathartic “this world is bullshit” VMAs speech and Ashton Kutcher’s fake-deep Teen Choice Awards self-benediction from 2013, he gestured towards his trophy and assured “all the kids that are watching this, aspiring to do music” that “you don’t need this right here” before the show cut to commercial and allegedly cut the megastar’s mic off in the Staples Center. Cardi B avoided the same fate while delivering her acceptance speech for Best Rap Album. She is the first solo female rapper to win the honor and gave a brief but endearing acceptance speech embodying the reliability that’s launched her to stardom, marked by the all-too-relatable admission, “Ooh, the nerves are so bad — maybe I need to start smoking weed.”
Ironically, this year’s Grammys sometimes felt as if they were too loose, a possibly unintentional rebuke to the stiff industry formality of years past. (Is there a single human being on the East Coast who wanted to watch the Grammys until nearly midnight?) Unfortunately, we weren’t treated to the sight of Alicia Keys covering XXXTentacion — but in the midst of a musical medley that spanned eras and her own catalog, she did cover Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams,” which is basically the same thing. A game and giving-in-her-own-ways host, Keys rambled about the 15 Grammys she’s won and forced the audience to watch a video of Stevie Wonder giving the 2004 Song Of The Year Grammy to John Mayer. She also pronounced “mogul” as “mongul.” Other than that, Keys struck a good-enough midpoint between the conviviality of lip-licking emcee vet LL Cool J and the intolerable people-pleasing attempt that was last year’s James Corden stint.
For the first time in a while, the performance aspect of the ceremony felt vital and — God forbid — legitimately entertaining. Sure, there were a few low points: Shawn Mendes’ [Dr. Evil voice] liquid magma-filled piano was the most warm-blooded element of his and Miley Cyrus’ duet on the former’s “In My Blood,” Cardi B’s “Money” rendition felt surprisingly bloodless, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Post Malone’s incomprehensible appearance seemed an apt replacement for the fact that the award for Best Comedy Album wasn’t presented during the telecast. (For the record: Posty’s performance was actually pretty good otherwise.)
At the beginning of a star-studded tribute to Dolly Parton, triumphant Album Of The Year winner Kacey Musgraves duetted with a woefully out-of-her-league Katy Perry on the country legend’s “Here You Come Again” — a pairing so mismatched that it made the latter’s attempt at low-register complexity come across with all the uncomfortableness of the Maharelle Sisters. Otherwise, the Parton tribute — which featured Cyrus emerging for a second time to deliver her forceful take on “Jolene” — was uncommonly strong and crowd-pleasing, a sensation that rippled through the firmament of this year’s ceremony.
Even through a relatively weak vocal performance, Janelle Monae’s melding of Dirty Computer tracks “Make Me Feel” and “Pynk” were loaded with pleasing, choreographed visuals. Musgraves’ rendition of Golden Hour closer “Rainbow” felt as heartfelt and sincere as the person who was singing it. Gaga slayed “Shallow” for what feels like the thousandth time and Diana Ross tricked the world into thinking it was her birthday. R&B singer/songwriter H.E.R. turned out a virtuosic performance of “Hard Place” that seemed designed to do what the Grammys ostensibly attempt to achieve: introduce an artist with reasonable buzz to a greater audience.
Musgraves’ Album Of The Year win for the mass-consensus favorite Golden Hour was as neatly-tied of a bow as you could affix to this year’s surprisingly non-infuriating Grammys. There were pockets of progress (engineer Emily Lazar won the Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical award for her work on Beck’s Colours, the first time in Grammy history a woman engineer has done so) amidst the typical stretches of stasis (we get it Chick Corea, you’re gonna miss Neil Portnow). Squint just hard enough during any 10-minute stretch of the ceremony, and it was almost as if the Grammys were, God forbid, pretty good. Ostensibly, this year’s ceremony would’ve reached sensational heights if the old-fashioned telecast made even more space for new-blood superstars represented by artists like Cardi, Kacey, and Dua Lipa … and you know that, Ken.