The Grammys Did Not Slap
“Listen,” Doja Cat announced while catching her breath. “I have never taken such a fast piss in my whole life.” This was just after SZA arrived on stage on crutches — with Good Samaritan Lady Gaga carrying the train of her dress — but before Doja’s stoic expression gave way to a teary admission that “this is a big deal.” Doja and SZA had just won the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance statuette for their hit duet “Kiss Me More.” A week after posting a distressed Twitter thread in which she announced that she was quitting music, Doja sprinted from the bathroom to accept her first Grammy. It was startling in a good way — a jolt of genuine, unbound emotion on a night that so often felt so dull.
Spontaneity is the whole point of live television and of live events in general. Sporting events have kept cable companies in business well into the streaming era in part because you’re seeing drama play out in real time; you really, truly don’t know what will happen until you watch. Just ask anyone who caught Saturday night’s Final Four showdown between Duke and North Carolina’s men’s basketball teams what a rush it was. I’m sure country superstar Eric Church would be happy to explain, although he was there in person, which I’m sure was even better.
Awards shows theoretically offer the same premise, yet to their great detriment, they are stodgy and excessively stage-managed as a rule. At the Grammys, live performances, which have so much potential to electrify, are mostly confined to lifeless playacting or inane pablum — and over the years, as more and more awards have been funneled into the afternoon Premiere Ceremony, this kind of skillful mediocrity has come to saturate the Grammys to bleak new extremes. There is a stale familiarity to the way live music plays out on these shows. The bad songs are painful to behold. The good ones mainly induce numbness, defanged and reduced to obligatory rituals. No matter how talented you are and how much money the Recording Academy spent on your set, the notions of prestige embedded in the Grammys run directly counter to entertainment value. The show takes itself so seriously, and is so dead set against rocking the boat, that its attempts at both fun and gravitas usually end up in scarequotes.
It seemed like the Grammys were on a path away from terminal boredom last year. Forced by the pandemic to abandon the old, tired format that former producer Ken Ehrlich wore down to a nub over the course of four decades, his replacement Ben Winston came up with an unorthodox presentation that shook up the established formulas. The ceremony mostly took place outside with the audience gathered at tables rather than in rows of chairs. The performances mostly took place on a set of five stages in the same large room, with the camera gliding from artist to artist, medley-style. Those Grammys didn’t look or feel like your average awards show. They were better. So with COVID restrictions scaled back significantly and the Grammys relocated to Las Vegas for the first time, I was curious about what kind of show Winston might roll out, given the relatively clean slate he was working with. Apparently he took our cultural fixation on getting “back to normal” extremely literally. Last night’s show was virtually indistinguishable from a Ken Ehrlich joint, and it grew more dour by the hour.
That sense of fatigue is partially a function of the music the Grammys choose to spotlight. It tends to be middlebrow fare that feels more like a performance of human feeling than an expression of it, executed by artists who’ve entrenched themselves within the industry establishment and are more than willing to play the game. Music that wins Grammys is often likable but lukewarm, dependable but uninspired. This is an institution that rarely misses a chance to reward tasteful traditionalists like Silk Sonic and Chris Stapleton or past-their-prime brand names like Kanye West, St. Vincent, and Foo Fighters (no disrespect to the late, great Taylor Hawkins). The same inertia that came across in their awards picks was manifested on the broadcast again and again, including in host Trevor Noah’s bargain-basement punchlines.
A lot of the biggest names in music didn’t bother to show up, from the obvious (Grammy nemesis the Weeknd) to the surprising (Grammy staple Taylor Swift) to the bulk of the world’s most popular rappers — perhaps they had Nas out there on a nostalgia tour because the likes of Drake, Cardi B, Gunna, Kendrick Lamar, Young Thug, Lil Durk, and Lil Baby opted not to come. Notably, many of the day’s most magnetic and culture-shaping Black winners did not perform, including the aforementioned Doja Cat, Jazmine Sullivan, and Tyler, The Creator (who also didn’t show up). One of the glaring omissions from the in memoriam segment was the influential LA rapper Drakeo The Ruler. The Grammys’ seeming indifference toward the leading lights of hip-hop, and toward Black superstars in general, has contributed to this phenomenon wherein a decent chunk of the people at the center of the musical universe have decided not to bother with the Grammys anymore. That, in turn, has apparently further entrenched the show’s weird old alternate-universe vibes, which may be how we ended up with a closing performance from (check notes) Brothers Osborne?
It’s not like there were many outright stinkers among the performances. The bulk of them were just so safe, as exemplified by the opening trio. Silk Sonic opened the show with a caricature of retro funk-rock, brimming with chops and swagger and not a single iota of risk. Reigning teen-pop queen Olivia Rodrigo sang her power ballad “Drivers License” rather than one of the fiery rock songs that made her debut album Sour so vital. Reggaeton star J Balvin treaded water with Maria Becerra before ceding the spotlight to Skrillex’s production on the frenetic “In Da Getto.” There was pageantry and skill involved in all three displays. Yet these might as well have been pre-recorded and shown on the video screens at MGM Grand Garden Arena. It was all professionalism, no immediacy.
Not that one messy part was all that stirring either. After an eyeroll-inducing slow piano intro, Justin Bieber, Daniel Caesar, and the magnificent baritone Giveon all looked confused while feeling their way through “Peaches,” though maybe not as confused as the person tasked with bleeping out the song’s various cuss words and drug references. There were flashes of real energy from Billie Eilish (in rock mode) and Lady Gaga (in jazz mode) and, yes, Jon Batiste. His Album Of The Year win for We Are is indicative of the kind of respectable eclecticism the Grammys crave, but credit the man for crashing into the audience so vigorously that it seemed like he might keep going all the way through the screen. Mostly, though, the performers offered hollow pomp or extreme solemnity. Almost every performance was so unmemorable as to be forgotten within 30 seconds. By the time they shoehorned in a message from besieged Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, followed by a multi-disciplinary melodrama in which Grammys mascot John Legend was flanked by various Ukrainian performers, any prior momentum had dissipated entirely — and there were still 90 minutes to go. No wonder Doja Cat excused herself.
I sometimes get the sense that the only way to snap these fancy parties out of their funk is for things to go wrong, as they have several times at the Academy Awards in recent years. Last week’s surprise Oscars moment, in which Will Smith walked on stage and angrily smacked Chris Rock across the face, has been debated to death. It necessitates no further analysis. But regardless of how you felt about that incident, it stood out as an instance of human authenticity barging into the polite facade. The Slap was a truly stunning turn of events — exactly the kind of pulse-quickening chaos these glad-handing parties attempt to manufacture by, say, throwing H.E.R. on stage with Lenny Kravitz and Travis Barker. (“Are You Gonna Go My Way” is cool, but… why?) The Recording Academy definitely should not be attempting to instigate a violent outburst. But if they aren’t going to take advantage of live television’s potential for thrilling spectacle, there’s at least one obvious way they could ratchet up the drama and encourage more memorable off-the-cuff behavior onstage: Hand out more awards during the main ceremony.
On Grammy night, the awards provide the only semblance of uncertainty, volatility, and stakes. First you’re holding your breath waiting to find out who won, then you’re holding your breath wondering what they’re going to say with a microphone in their face on short notice. The scenario lends itself to moments like the one Doja Cat gave us last night. The podium also gave us an overwhelmed Olivia Rodrigo, a beaming Jazmine Sullivan, and a swaggering Anderson .Paak announcing that Silk Sonic were having trouble keeping their pride in check after all these wins. The acceptance speeches were consistently more affecting and memorable than the performances. It’s something you only get from awards shows, whereas people perform music on TV every night of the year. Yet only nine awards were included in the telecast, compared to dozens given out at the Premiere Ceremony.
It’s a major missed opportunity for the Recording Academy. The thing they’re trying (and failing) to achieve by booking so many performers — namely, appealing to a diverse cross-section of listeners while alienating as few people as possible — could just as easily be accomplished by adding more genre awards to the show. Why not hand out Best Rap Album and Best Dance/Electronic Album and Best Alternative Music Album and Best Música Urbana Album on the telecast? Why not serve up actual suspense instead of cramming in the debut of a new Carrie Underwood song, in 2022, at 11:15PM ET? Why not let your awards show be about, you know, the awards?