Ranking The Performances At The 2021 Grammys
It would be a vast, wild overstatement to call last night’s Grammys telecast good. This was, after all, a Grammys telecast, full of rabbit-brained awards decisions and sleepy ballads and a soul-choking sense of self-seriousness. These things simply will not change; they are baked into the whole Grammys experience. But it would not be a vast, wild overstatement to say that this year’s Grammys were a whole lot better than they usually are. Grammy voters are still making utterly baffling and infuriating decisions about which music deserves hardware, but the people in charge of putting the show together seemed to have some idea what they were doing. This is progress! Or something!
Last night’s telecast was the first since 1979 that longtime dead-weight imposer and Ariana Grande adversary Ken Ehrlich did not produce. You could tell! Many of the things that have dragged down Grammy broadcasts in the past — the endless salutes to aging musical icons, the random combinations of B-list musicians, the neverending parades of weepy ballads — were mostly absent. There was nothing terrible on last night’s show. Last year, for his final broadcast, Ken Ehrlich got a bunch of people to perform a song from Fame in tribute to himself, which made me want to crawl under my couch and die. Nothing on last night’s show made me want to crawl under my couch and die. The worst performances of the evening were merely pretty boring.
Ehrlich’s replacement, 39-year-old James Corden associate Ben Winston, had to figure out how to put together a smooth show in the pandemic era, which wasn’t easy. Rather than the Zoom clusterfuck that we’ve seen on other big awards shows, Winston used chaotic circumstances to add new life to the format, getting the big-name musicians to do (mostly) small-scale performances for each other while still keeping the necessary sense of glitz. The show still dragged in parts, and it’s probably not a coincidence that Winston/Corden associate Harry Styles got to open the show, but the changes were all good ones.
Many of the musicians on the show were actually relevant to this moment’s musical climate. Other than the in-memoriam segments, the people on the show were singing their own songs, and they all came out within the last couple of years. Also, host Trevor Noah never actually said or did anything funny, but he kept things moving, avoided indulgent starfucker skits, and never said the word “hashtag” once. These are positive adjustments! They should be applauded! Last night’s show had to be the most purely entertaining Grammys since, what, 1998?
But of course, not all of last night’s performances were created equal. So in keeping with a glorious and longstanding Stereogum tradition, here’s our ranking of last night’s performances. We’re going from worst-to-best after a a quick pitstop in the land of befuddlement.
Not in contention: Lil Baby with Tamika Mallory and Killer Mike
I’m keeping this one outside the realm of competition, since it was less a musical performance and more a statement of positioning and since I don’t really know what the fuck to do with it. It’s great to see Lil Baby, one of the most popular artists in the world right now, get some institutional recognition for the great protest song he released last year. It’s cool to get this sentiment on TV. It’s cool that Tamika Mallory and Killer Mike were part of it. But what was this?
You ever go to a protest and someone seems to be performing the act of protesting? And then you start to worry that you’re performing the act of protesting? Well, this was people literally performing the act of protesting. Like, a dancer chucks a molotov cocktail at a fake store front, setting off a fake fire, and then throws a flipping flying kick at nothing. But what are we doing here? Is it OK for the Grammys to present itself as part of some insurgent movement? And is it even my place to talk about it? I don’t know. This was weird.
21. Billie Eilish
If Eilish is now going to be our great Grammy conqueror for the forseeable future — and the Grammys have evidently decreed that she is — then she should be able to come up with something a little more exciting than this. People have been singing on the roofs of cars since cars were invented, so I know Eilish wasn’t biting Olivia Rodrigo with this performance, but it still came off a bit like she was biting Olivia Rodrigo. Or maybe Eilish’s small, whispery take on “Everything I Wanted” just wasn’t distracting enough to keep me from thinking about “Drivers License.” Eilish just didn’t commit. Of course, given that “Everything I Wanted” is a please-stop-paying-so-much-attention-to-me song, maybe the Grammys should abide by her wishes and stop throwing her into so many high-profile situations.
20. Roddy Ricch
Roddy Ricch started off his performance seated at a piano, performing a new song called “Heartless.” I don’t know if Roddy Ricch was actually playing piano or not. My thinking is: Probably not. They would’ve showed his fingers if he was. But who needs to see Roddy Ricch playing piano, anyway? Since when is playing piano part of the Roddy Ricch experience? This performance improved dramatically when Roddy jumped up from the piano and did “The Box,” but even then, it was a weirdly cluttered full-band arrangement that did nothing for the song — a classic example of a rapper mangling his own smash for the Grammys.
19. Miranda Lambert
Someone needs to get fired for allowing Miranda Lambert to be boring. Miranda Lambert isn’t boring! You can’t fool us!
18. Black Pumas
I am not remotely into Black Pumas’ extremely AppleTV+ Original Series vibe, but if you can execute a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins yelp and then dive to the ground and come back up with a spin move, you are not going to be at the bottom of this list.
17. Mickie Guyton
“Black Like Me” is a poignant song and a welcome country-radio corrective, but booking Guyton to sing the song on the Grammys with a gospel choir is one of those hacky shots at relevance from an institution that can’t exactly wish away its own history. This performance nodded towards a current cultural conversation, but it felt like a relic from a more boring Grammys broadcast. She really sang it, though.
16. Taylor Swift with Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff
One of the cool things about Taylor Swift’s pair of fake-indie quarantine albums is that the songs are so small and delicate that Swift will never have to turn them into stadium spectacle. Or so we thought! On this show, Swift sang in a fake forest and a fake cabin, with fake magic fireflies everywhere, and the whole thing looked like a rejected Avatar-themed stage play at Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. These songs looked and sounded so much better when Swift was playing them in an actual cabin in the Long Pond Studio Sessions movie. You can’t go back to cheesed-out showmanship after that — or, anyway, you shouldn’t. Good songs, though.
15. Brittany Howard with Chris Martin
This year’s in-memoriam segment was full of the usual Grammys travesties, like omitting Power Trip’s Riley Gale in the same year that his band finally got nominated. But the performances themselves were mostly beautiful and well-staged. We’ll get to the other ones below, but this one was my least favorite. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is a great song, and Brittany Howard is a truly impressive singer and presence. But what’s the message here? I know the song choice is a tribute to Gerry And The Pacemakers’ Gerry Marsden, but someone clearly thought they were making a broader statement by putting this last. So: The people who died this year will never walk alone? We will never walk alone? I don’t know. This didn’t really work for me. You can’t just broadly gesture at the idea of emotion. You need to figure out why you’re doing what you’re doing before you do it.
14. Maren Morris with John Mayer
This ranking is not intended as a slight to Maren Morris or “The Bones,” both of which rule. But someone needs to tell the Grammy producers that they don’t need to bring in John Mayer to knock out a solo over something every year. It is no longer 2001, and a John Mayer guitar solo does not count as an event.
13. Doja Cat
This came at the end of the the night, and I was pretty tired, so I appreciate someone throwing lots of laser lights and vinyl catsuits at me. It helped. I don’t remember anything about it, but it helped. It’s entirely possible that the producers just scheduled this one last because they were trying to keep people from noticing that Dr. Luke had just been nominated for a bunch of Grammys, but it would be nice if they always saved up bursts of weird energy for that final half-hour death-march.
12. Post Malone
I’m old enough to remember the 2019 Grammys, when Post Malone performed with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and it was quite possibly the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life. So when Post Malone goes arena emo-trap while surrounded by the Undertaker’s druids, I think we should all recognize it as a major level-up. Austin Post wins this year’s Most Improved Player trophy.
11. DaBaby with Roddy Ricch and Anthony Hamilton
This was silly. Dancers in judges’ robes pretended to sing choral backing vocals. Anthony Hamilton, a legit R&B great, wore a zoot suit and sang operatically. DaBaby looked very sparkly. The Grammys could always use a shot of glitzy, incoherent bullshit like this. It keeps things light.
10. Bad Bunny with Jhay Cortez
Of all the night’s performances, this was the one that most reminded me of Daft Punk’s 2007 Alive tour. The whole thing looked like it was happening inside one of the robot helmets. The lighting was impeccable. The world should look more like this.
9. Bruno Mars & Anderson .Paak (Silk Sonic debut performance)
Anderson .Paak is an extremely talented performer. If you see him live, he’s a total force. But if you put him onstage with Bruno Mars, he comes off looking like a backup singer. It’s not his fault! Could happen to anyone! Theoretically, the idea of .Paak and Mars getting equal billing is extremely cool. In practice, at least in this performance, one of them comes out looking like Gladys Knight, and one of them comes out looking like a Pip. I’m not mad. I wish there was more note-perfect Philly-soul showmanship happening on awards-show broadcasts. I wish I could come off looking like a Pip. But if you’re onstage with Bruno Mars, and you’re singing, and I’m thinking, “Damn, I wish Bruno Mars was singing right now,” you might have a problem.
8. Bruno Mars & Anderson .Paak (Little Richard tribute)
Bruno Mars was an Elvis impersonator in Hawaii as a child, and he already had the mustache, so of course he did a great job singing Little Richard for the in-memoriam segment. He sounded more urgent belting out “Good Golly Miss Molly,” a song that is 65 years old, than he did singing his own song.
7. Brandi Carlile
John Prine was in the audience at last year’s Grammys, and Bonnie Raitt sang his “Angel From Montgomery.” It was great. At this year’s show, Prine was in the in-memoriam segment, and Brandi Carlile sang his “I Remember Everything.” That was pretty good, too. Brandi Carlile is probably going to appear at every Grammys for the next decade, and she will absolutely crush whatever they give her to do. I feel good about that.
6. Lionel Richie
A Lionel Richie appearance at the Grammys should never be a surprise, and yet I think I let out an audible “ahh” when Kenny Rogers’ “Lady” hit and Richie was standing there in his Morpheus-looking trench coat. “Lady” always had a strange intensity to it, and Richie brought that intensity, singing the song he wrote and produced for Rogers. It wasn’t a tear-jerk moment, but I was quietly moved, and if you’re putting together a Grammys in-memoriam segment, then “quietly moved” is the bar you’re aiming for.
5. Harry Styles
As the opening act of the show, Harry Styles was given the unenviable task of making a wedding-singer setup look like an an actual big show-business deal. That can’t be easy! It probably helps if you can convincingly portray the human personification of sex! “Watermelon Sugar,” it turns out, works pretty nicely as slinky jazz-funk, especially when you can get Dev Hynes to just show up and play a bass solo. Also, this man wore leather suit like this was Eddie Murphy Raw, and his feather boa was made out of Muppet fur. I respect it.
There was precious little noise-punk representation at this year’s Grammys, but Haim kept it real by playing on the floor like Lightning Bolt. The ability to switch off instruments mid-song feels like a beautiful little magic trick. So does the ability to look like you’re enjoying playing music with your sisters.
When I’m watching a show like this, I want to see some showmanship, some panache, some razzle dazzle. So if the world’s biggest boy band is doing a choreographed routine on the beautifully lit roof of a Seoul skyscraper? And we see a drone shot of them from way overhead? I’m happy.
2. Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B
I don’t know why “Savage” had to be a Broadway burlesque musical. I don’t know why Cardi was dressed up like the robot lady from Metropolis. I don’t know why the LED-screen programmer was trying to break my brain. I don’t know whose idea it was to pump Beyoncé’s “Savage” verse over the loudspeakers when we’d just seen, very clearly, that Beyoncé herself was in the building. Honestly, “Savage” and “WAP” were delightful pop moments, and they weren’t the types of delightful pop moments that demand Grammy recognition at all. Maybe the Grammys should’ve just left those songs alone. After all, you can’t do “WAP” on TV without bleeping it into nothingness. But even the clean version of “WAP” was probably the single dirtiest Grammy moment in history, and that is worth something. Cardi using the heel of a giant stiletto as a stripper pole is worth something, too. Megan doing synchronized floor-humping on the Grammys stage is worth something. Cardi putting Megan in a figure four butt-lock is worth something. This probably didn’t need to happen, but on the other hand, it absolutely needed to happen.
1. Dua Lipa with DaBaby
Too many pop stars water themselves down at the Grammys, aiming for string-heavy ballad-wailer respectability. That’s not Dua Lipa. Dua Lipa went for full-on absurdist pop flash, and she deserves absolute respect for doing the shit that she does. Even the lip-syncing! The lip-syncing ruled! Everything about this performance was perfectly calculated: the lighting, the sudden guest appearance from the guy who just performed, the eye-contact with the camera, the mid-song dress-drop. This was legendary-entertainer shit.