Just when it seemed this year’s Grammys would be defined by scandal, they were defined by death instead.
In the weeks leading up to Sunday night’s ceremony at the Staples Center in LA, a torrent of allegations from ousted CEO Deborah Dugan — all of them denied by the Recording Academy — suggested a staggering rot within the institution, ranging from conflicts of interest within the nominating process to a rape coverup protecting Dugan’s predecessor, Neil Portnow. The controversy seemed destined to cast a shadow over Sunday’s proceedings.
Then tragedy struck, and an even darker shadow loomed. There were already scheduled tributes to the four-years-gone Prince (for some reason), beloved LA son Nipsey Hussle (for obvious reasons), and retiring Grammys executive producer Ken Ehrlich (whom Ariana Grande metaphorically killed last year), but Kobe Bryant’s death hung heaviest over Staples Center, the arena where the NBA superstar built his legend with the Lakers. Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others died in a helicopter crash Sunday just hours before the Grammys got underway in what Alicia Keys dubbed “the house that Kobe Bryant built.” So of course the show began with Lizzo proclaiming, “Tonight is for Kobe.” Of course Keys sang a stirring duet with Bryant’s fellow Philadelphia natives Boyz II Men. And of course Kobe’s likeness and jersey popped up again and again all night — perhaps most poignantly at the finale of the Nipsey tribute.
Bryant faced serious allegations of his own in life, but his stature was such that in death he eclipsed everything else Sunday, including the Grammys and the behind-the-scenes struggles that have dogged it. He meant so much to so many that he became the great unifier throughout this music awards show — never mind that his own music career was only a footnote in a story highlighted by extraordinary athletic achievements. His gravity was such that at first progressing beyond Kobe tributes felt awkward — particularly when that first meant being subjected to real-life lovers Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani’s new romantic duet, a tone-deaf moment in multiple senses.
But the cloud of mourning did dissipate eventually, at which point we were left with a typically dour, excruciatingly long Grammys broadcast that was depressing for more conventional reasons. Even a huge night for the promising teen pop weirdo Billie Eilish came to feel like a bad omen once her monopoly on the major categories reached its absurd extreme. But if anyone was going to be the poster child for this Grammys, it might as well be a goth hypebeast zoomer who medicates her despair with “lol nothing matters” comic relief — one whose blockbuster debut album is haunted by death and whose most recent video finds her driving directly to the bottom of the ocean.
In nearly four hours of television the Academy managed to hand out fewer than 10 awards (about half of them to Eilish) and gloss over the existence of key nominees like Lana Del Rey and Bon Iver. Yet they somehow fit in a demoralizing Aerosmith and Run-DMC performance estranged drummer Joey Kramer was lucky to miss, a schlocky ballad sung by awards non-factor Camila Cabello to her dad, an instantly forgettable new Jonas Brothers song, an apropos-of-nothing Prince tribute in which FKA Twigs danced but did not sing, an in memoriam montage that shamefully left out David Berman and Mark Hollis among other greats, an awful nominee-namecheck parody of Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved” that presumably was going to be Keys’ opening number before a scraped-together Kobe Bryant tribute became necessary, and a painfully elaborate “I Sing The Body Electric” in Ehrlich’s honor at 11. 30. PM. Eastern. Standard. Time. Even by Grammys standards, this was bleak.
The cumulative effect was so unpleasant that it was easy to overlook the redeemable glimmers of an otherwise dark night. It was good to see Rosalía and Ariana Grande in action, even if neither of them fully conveyed the magnetism that courses through their records. Lizzo’s opening medley was a reminder that she was charming and wildly talented long before she started to feel like a cliché. H.E.R. and Gary Clark Jr. (the latter backed by the Roots) made a case for guitar solos to come back in style in the 2020s. Demi Lovato’s tearful return to the stage following a drug overdose was genuinely emotional, as was country legend and first-time winner Tanya Tucker’s victory lap backed by Brandi Carlile. I enjoyed how Lil Nas X brought the madcap maximalism of his ceaseless “Old Town Road” remixes to life, this time punctuated by a surprise cameo from the original Nas. And good lord, did Tyler, The Creator bring it.
There was no good reason for IGOR to be left out of the Album Of The Year race — certainly not with Lil Nas X’s EP in the category — and Tyler was going to make sure we all knew it. First came the night’s greatest performance, a medley that found Boyz II Men and Charlie Wilson harmonizing on the soulful “EARFQUAKE” followed by an army of Tyler clones (will the real IGOR please stand up?) mobbing out to “NEW MAGIC WAND” with all the caustic energy of an early Odd Future gig. Then came Tyler bringing his mother onstage to accept his first career Grammy and delivering a heartfelt shoutout to his hero Pharrell over the playing-you-off music. Still, it was strange that IGOR, which isn’t a rap album, won for Best Rap Album — a subject Tyler expounded on backstage with his usual candor.
“It sucks that whenever we — and I mean guys that look like me — do anything that’s genre-bending or anything, they also put it in a rap or urban category,” Tyler said. “I don’t like that urban word — it’s just a politically correct way to say the N word to me. When I hear that I’m like, ‘Why can’t we just be pop?'” Given recent Grammy history, Tyler is right to sound off. The irony is not just that he only received a rap award once he stopped making rap, but that the Grammys only recognized the chaotic lo-fi hip-hop Tyler helped to introduce when it was repackaged by a white teenage girl competing in the pop categories. This is an old point, one Tyler’s pal Kanye West and others have been making for years, and it continues to be relevant. Does anyone doubt Post Malone’s Hollywood’s Bleeding will prevail over Kendrick Lamar’s forthcoming LP for Album Of The Year next winter?
Despite the context of IGOR’s triumph, I was happy to see one of 2019’s best albums get such a bright spotlight. It would have been nice to see such a courtesy afforded to other exceptional victors from the pre-show Premiere Ceremony, among them Anderson .Paak, Tool, Lady Gaga, Koffee, and my personal faves Vampire Weekend. I would have liked to have seen more trophies handed out on the main show, period — surely I’m not the only one who watches award shows because I like seeing people receive awards? Instead, the Grammys deprived their audience of, uh, Grammys until the very end, then bombarded us with one Billie Eilish win after another, until even Billie Eilish was sick of it. In the moments leading up to her final win of the night — Record Of The Year, following gramophones for Song Of The Year, Album Of The Year, and Best New Artist — she could clearly be seen mouthing, “Please don’t be me.”
“Please don’t be me. Please.”
— Joey Nolfi (@joeynolfi) January 27, 2020
It was her. I figured Eilish would have a big night, but I didn’t realize just how obsessed with her the music industry’s decision-makers had become. The Eilish lovefest extended all the way to her brother and close collaborator Finneas winning Producer Of The Year exclusively for his work on her debut album WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? against a field of more established nominees with multiple titles to their name. But on this Grammys night, there might as well not have been any other LPs. Many listeners, myself included, recognized Eilish’s debut as the sound of the future, an intuitive eureka flowing naturally from a decade of cool-kid trends. To behold her blend of morbid SoundCloud rap, creepy ASMR YouTube channels, and swooning Instagram chic was to find yourself lightbulb-headed and quoting the girl herself: “Duh.”
Turns out the Eilish epiphany was as marketable to Gen X parents as to their Gen Z kids, to say nothing of millennials clinging to youthful relevance (guilty) and boomers who love Carpool Karaoke. Whether she likes it or not, such magnetism has now earned her a place in lineage with Grammy royalty Taylor Swift and Adele. No matter how much respect you have for Eilish, a sweep of the major categories feels like overkill, like a failure to comprehend the scope of the modern mainstream. Despite her forward-thinking aesthetic, it’s also a retrenchment: another young white female pop singer anointed by an institution whose taste for such artists has seemingly become a compulsion. If going all-in on a teenager was supposed to signify resurrection in the Recording Academy, the singleminded focus instead resembled a feeding frenzy by a pack of zombies — a makeshift memorial morphing into The Night Of The Living Dead, like something out of a Billie Eilish song.