What a sad, fraught, fucked-up night of television. The week before this year’s Grammy Awards, the show had already become a vast neon-lit symbol of everything that has always been wrong with the entertainment industry. In the days just before the show, Recording Academy CEO Deborah Dugan was kicked out of office, and she then went public with all sorts of accusations — cronyism, vote-fixing, insider favoritism, sexual harassment, a rape cover-up — that simply served to reaffirm the suspicion that people naturally feel for shows like the Grammys.
And then, hours before the show, Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash. Bryant had basically lived his entire adult life in the Staples Center, the same building where the Grammys were taking place. That meant that, even without all the allegations around the Dugan situation, the whole show would be just as depressing and death-shocked as the one that went down just after Whitney Houston’s death in 2012.
Still, the Grammys are the Grammys, and so a show marked by depression quickly became one marked by numbness. That’s just what this show does: It bombards you with ballad after ballad until your soul exits your body and you just sit on the couch in a vague stupor waiting for something at least amusingly ridiculous to happen. And yet there are all these people working very hard in an attempt to move you. The structure of the show simply makes that almost impossible. When someone does manage to shake off the torpor and deliver something powerful, it almost feels like a miracle.
We here at Stereogum have made an annual tradition of getting granular with this rough, dispiriting show. So let’s look, once again, at all of this year’s performances, from the soul-scouring worst to the wow-something’s-happening-here best.
21. The Ken Ehrlich clusterfuck
Ken Ehrlich has served as producer for every Grammy telecast since 1980. In that position, he has supervised the show as it has become a boring, overstuffed, culturally irrelevant drag. (Maybe it was that before 1980, too, but I wasn’t alive yet, so I wouldn’t know.) This year, the organization behind the Grammys has gone into panicked damage-control mode because of the old-boys’ network mentality that allows for things like one guy producing the fucking show for 40 years in a row. This year’s show is Ken Ehrlich’s final one as producer. Good fucking riddance. As his farewell to himself, Ehrlich booked a whole shitpile of famous people to sing a song from the musical Fame, and he put it on the air at 11:30 at night, just before handing out the two biggest awards of the evening. The audacity is simply stunning. All of the people involved in this thing — Cyndi Lauper, Camila Cabello, Gary Clark Jr., Debbie Allen, Joshua Bell, Common, Misty Copeland, Lang Lang, Ben Platt, the War And Treaty, probably some others that I missed — should be ashamed. I’d say that I hope whoever produces next year will do a better job, but I have seen decades of Grammy telecasts. I know better than to hope.
20. Aerosmith & Run-D.M.C.
The deck was stacked against these two venerated institutions. Nothing they could’ve possibly done would’ve been more compelling than the video of Joey Kramer being turned away from the Aerosmith practice studio. Still, it sort of defeats the purpose of putting legends on your show if those legends sound like butt. This performance sounded almost radically terrible. D.M.C. famously lost his voice decades ago; he has apparently dedicated his life to doing push-ups ever since. I don’t know what everyone else’s excuse is. There’s something positively adorable about Aerosmith running back “Livin’ On The Edge” 27 years later, like they’re making some big statement with it, when that song didn’t even mean anything in 1993. Today, it’s just as spectacularly pointless as the restaging of a music video that’s twice as old as Billie Eilish.
19. Alicia Keys (“Someone You Loved” Parody Bit)
This lady was in a no-win situation! The entire organization behind the Grammys went into nuclear meltdown the week before the show! Then she had to helm the show taking place in the Staples Center on the night after Kobe Bryant died! That fucking sucks! She was always destined to go up onstage and say something about how we were all going to move past negativity, and it was always destined to clang horribly. Maybe she wasn’t destined to sing a parody of “Someone You Loved,” but what was she supposed to do? She had to do something. Maybe it was this. Whoof. (Note: I’m not including the basically-impromptu Boyz II Men duet during the opening as one of the show’s performances, but it was nice.)
18. Camila Cabello
As a dad, I should be the world’s biggest mark for a drippy love song directed at a father. Nope! Not this time! Camila Cabello’s home baby-movies are cute and all, but it takes a deep level of indulgence to believe that the television-viewing public needs to see them. I’m going to need my nakedly manipulative heartstring-yanking spectacles to be maybe just slightly less nakedly manipulative than this teacher’s-pet move.
17. Blake Shelton & Gwen Stefani
After the awkwardly shattered opening of the show, this was a sign that the Grammys would continue as usual: Famous people singing drab ballads while attempting to communicate sincerity. The song is a perfectly professional autopilot love ballad, and it was cute when they held hands and sang to each other, though it would’ve been cuter if they had any musical chemistry whatsoever. Still: I am not remotely invested in the grand romantic saga of Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani. It doesn’t matter. On a night like this, it especially doesn’t matter. It’s mind-boggling how little it matters. This performance really worked as a signal to the audience: Go ahead. Get yourself a snack. See what else is on. We are determined to ensure that nothing exciting happens tonight.
16. Alicia Keys & Brittany Howard
The Grammys did not have room for a Lana Del Rey performance, but they did have room for host Alicia Keys to flog her just-fine new single in what was either her second or her third performance of the night. That’s pretty dumb! Also, Brittany Howard did not actually do anything except sit there for the bit where Keys said that they were “just vibing on this song” like she was not about to follow it up with an extremely staged performance.
15. Gary Clark Jr. & The Roots
In theory, I’m into the idea of Gary Clark Jr. performing his anti-Trump fuck you, I’m as American as anyone shred-rock anthem on a huge stage. In practice, it’s 11:15 at night, everybody else in my house is already asleep, and I just want to see who won the Royal Rumble and go to bed.
14. Trombone Shorty & the Preservation Hall Jazz Band
It’s funny. Cell-phone footage of drunk people dancing in a second-line in honor of 5th Ward Weebie can make me tear up. New Orleans jazz dudes marching across the Grammy stage to do a mock second-line for all the notable people who died in music in the past year — a list that, according to the Grammy producers, does not include 5th Ward Weebie or David Berman or Mark Hollis or Scott Walker or Ranking Roger or Keith Flint or the correct spelling of Ric Ocasek’s name — makes me feel nothing.
13. The Jonas Brothers
Great coordinated black-and-gold outfits. Beautiful coordinated black-and-gold outfits. These goofs debuted what was apparently a new song. They’re going to need some better new songs. The Jonases get some credit for attempting to use a Bo Diddley beat live in TV in 2020, and then they immediately lose all that credit by staging a goofy sub-Broadway dance party to go along with it.
Lizzo understands how the game is played. When you make your VMA debut, you perform in front of a gigantic inflatable ass. When you make your Grammy debut, you bring an orchestra and a ballet troupe. Lizzo’s show-opening spectacle was clearly devised as an imperial-statement moment, a statement of dominance on the night when she was ready to take her place in the pantheon. (It went to Billie Eilish instead.) Lizzo’s performance didn’t quite work out that way. Her two-song medley was shticky, which is fine. She is shticky. It was a true representation of what she does. But it was also muddy and messy. Her voice sounded overmatched, and her piped-in recorded vocals sounded overpowering. The orchestral arrangement of “Truth Hurts” just did not work. There were cool moments, like the flute suddenly flying up to her. Lizzo is certainly a fun performer, and after the year she just had, she deserved a triumphant moment. But the best moment of her performance wasn’t actually a part of her performance. It was her hugging her dancers afterward, celebrating what she’d just done.
— POPTime Play (@poptimeplay) January 27, 2020
This seemed pretty good? I guess? But if you want to yank audiences out of a fugue state after 11 on Grammy night, you’re going to need more than horn-section choreography. At a certain point in the night, you can watch an R&B singer bust out a CC DeVille-ass guitar solo mid-song and still be like: “Huh. I wonder what’s in the fridge.”
10. Usher, Sheila E., & FKA twigs
The big issue with this Prince tribute was pretty fucking obvious: FKA twigs didn’t sing. According to twigs herself, she “wasn’t asked.” According to Sheila E., twigs didn’t want to sing. Either way, the Grammys got one of the most brilliant and dazzling and zeitgeist-strangling stars of the era to pole-dance during a fully needless Prince tribute. Now: twigs is clearly extremely good at pole-dancing, and this was merely her going back to her “girl from the video” roots. But the whole thing is still, frankly, fucking hilarious. It’s like if they’d had Thom Yorke in a go-go cage during a Donna Summer performance in 1998. It’s just gloriously perverse. As for what did happen: The Grammys are always overloaded with tributes to past icons, and this was clearly just cross-promotion for a forthcoming TV special. But if you’re going to pay tribute to someone, it might as well be Prince. Usher is not remotely close to being Prince, but he knows that, and he’s still a fun-to-watch entertainer. I’m never going to complain about watching Usher dance, with or without twigs, even if there is no compelling reason for Usher to be up there dancing.
— BrooklynDad_Defiant! (@mmpadellan) January 27, 2020
9. Ariana Grande
Grande singing “7 rings” was a nice little parting fuck-you to the aforementioned about-to-retire Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich. Famously, Ehrlich wouldn’t let her sing that song on the show last year, when it was the #1 song in the nation. But it’s 2020, and nobody needs to hear “7 rings” anymore. Grande paired it with the obligatory Grammys ball-gown-and-orchestra ballad and a quick couple of second of “thank u, next,” which feels Paleolithic now. She’s good at all of this, but it also seems like this is exactly the performance that she wanted to give last year, with nothing changed or updated. Pop music moves too fast for that!
8. Billie Eilish
In some ways, Billie Eilish’s overblown grand awards-night coronation, where she became only the second person ever to sweep all four major categories in a single year, was the worst thing that could’ve happened to her. You can see it in the performance. There’s this thing that I’m going to call Grammy Ballads Disease: Everybody who performs on this show feels like they need to sing a damn slow song. Billie Eilish is not the first person I’d expect to catch Grammy Ballads Disease, but here we are. Eilish was able to make her Grammy ballad stark and personal and interesting, and I liked that her and her brother had matching outfits. But it was still the kind of deadly stateliness that people do when they’re trying to impress Recording Academy members. Billie Eilish should not cater to these vampires. Nobody should.
— POPTime Play (@poptimeplay) January 27, 2020
7. Tanya Tucker & Brandi Carlile
Brandi Carlile had easily the best moment on last year’s show. This year, she played backup in one of those performance/award-presentation quickies, where they were mostly just there to hand an award to Dave Chappelle, who wasn’t even there. And Carlile still had one of the better moments on the show. Tanya Tucker projects effortless gravity, dresses better than almost anyone else on the show, and looks like she could beat up anyone backstage. Pretty good song, too.
6. Meek Mill, Roddy Ricch, DJ Khaled, John Legend, YG, & Kirk Franklin
Awards-show sentimentality is, by its very nature, cheap. But when the Grammys is happening at the Staples Center, saluting one Los Angeles figurehead on the day that another died, that feels less cheap. The Grammys is always lousy with tributes. This was the rare tribute with some energy and urgency. People need to stop inviting DJ Khaled to do these things, though. I know Khaled knew Nipsey Hussle, and I know he collaborated with the guy. But everything DJ Khaled says feels like self-promotion.
— Bippity Boppity (@Bobby84837810) January 27, 2020
5. Bonnie Raitt
I feel like, as a pop-minded music critic, I’m obligated to complain about the Academy saying hi to John Prine by getting Bonnie Raitt to sing a 46-year-old song after 11 on Grammy night. Nope! It was great! I’d say that the Grammys should just bring back Bonnie Raitt every year, but they’re already doing that. They’re way ahead of me.
Bonnie Raitt sings for John Prine at the Grammys. pic.twitter.com/KPnVsZhE0N
— Tim Shorrock (@TimothyS) January 27, 2020
What a star. It’s a shame that Rosalía’s big-stage Grammy performance didn’t have the same visual verve as her videos. There’s something weirdly pedestrian about a troupe of handsome dancers and some fire. Still, even in the dregs of the show’s endless third hour, Rosalía brought a crushing vocal flutter and a Rihanna-level thousand-yard stare. I’ll take what I can get.
3. Demi Lovato
When the lady who almost just died shows up to sing a heartfelt ballad, it’s not the same as everyone else showing up to sing a heartfelt ballad. You have to have a whole lot of guts to perform on a big show like that, belting hard while bawling your eyes out. The Grammys show always wants us to feel stirred and inspired, and then it offers up piffle that will never do that for anyone, anywhere. With this, the show, however briefly, pulled it off.
2. Lil Nas X, Billy Ray Cyrus, BTS, Mason Ramsey, Diplo, & Nas
This was ridiculous, and I love that. In his five minutes on the big stage, Lil Nas X worked in two costume changes (sparkly pajamas and Morpheus muumuu), a handful of gaudy-ass sets, some decent choreography, and a surprise team-up with Original Flavor Nas. (Big Nas J?) He lip-synced blatantly. He shared the stage with BTS, whose mere presence is enough to prove that we Americans need to step our boy band game up. (Did the Jonas Brothers watch that? Did they feel sucking existential despair leeching all the joy out of their souls while they watched that?) It wasn’t all roses. Nobody should be layering portentous strings over “Old Town Road” unless they’re using it in a movie trailer, and Young Thug’s invitation must’ve gotten lost in the mail. Also, even though I knew Diplo was going to be there — even though I heard Ellen DeGeneres say the word “Diplo” minutes before he showed up — I still wondered what David Spade was doing there for a long second. Still, this was some delightful absurdity, and the Grammys always need more of that.
— POPTime Play (@poptimeplay) January 27, 2020
1. Tyler, The Creator, Boyz II Men, & Charlie Wilson
What a rush! This fucking guy pulled the Eminem army-of-lookalikes awards-show move, introduced lo-fi growl-rap to the Grammy telecast, and opened his performance up with the absurd spectacle of R&B legends harmonizing around a flaming barrel while wearing expensive suits, a beautiful fever-dream vision of doo-wop. He also lit an entire suburban neighborhood on fire and then ended things by falling into an open pit that presumably led straight to hell. Whatever you think of Tyler as an artist, he is certainly someone who understands the power of the big stage — someone willing to push things further than anyone else.
— POPTime Play (@poptimeplay) January 27, 2020