Ranking The Performances At The 2023 Grammys
The Grammys fucked everything up. Again. In a possible troll move, the Grammy voters self-consciously avoided the most obvious thing that they could’ve done to shore up any kind of goodwill. Beyoncé took home a pile of statues, just as she does every year. But she lost out on Album Of The Year, just as she does whenever she releases an album. Instead, the Grammy voters decided to bestow that honor upon Harry Styles. They didn’t even do the funny thing and give the award to ABBA. I don’t know why I ever got my hopes up.
For Song Of The Year, the voters did do the funny thing, which was giving the award to Bonnie Raitt. At this point, they must be doing a bit, right? Intentionally fucking with everyone? Those of us who are dumb enough to get caught up in narratives about the relevance of the Grammys always overestimate how much those voters care about relevance.
The people who put together the Grammys telecast, on the other hand, care very much about relevance — or at least the appearance of relevance — which is presumably why they went all-in on giving vast swaths of screen time over to stans who seemed genuinely deranged. It was rough. The producers of the Grammys are like cavern explorers, forever mapping new areas of our collective cringe response. When they hit upon the whole stan-roundtable idea, it must’ve been like finding a new underwater lake.
Presumably as a result of these shenanigans, last night’s Grammys telecast had fewer performances than usual. The show still ended at close to midnight East Coast time, but we spent more of that time watching the kooky grandma who loves Harry Styles and less watching people sing songs. So it’s easy to miss a crucial factor in last night’s show: All the performances were pretty good!
Last night only had one truly great performance. It’s not a spoiler to point out that the all-star hip-hop tribute was everything that the show should’ve been. It was a wild and euphoric spectacle that at least attempted to make good on decades of Grammy neglect, and it improved the show immeasurably. But even the most eye-rolling Grammy moments — the forced collaborations, the swollen-with-importance ballads, the legends running through old songs — were more lively and locked-in than they’ve been in recent years.
For the most part, the big names didn’t perform. Bad Bunny and Harry Styles and Lizzo all got up onstage, and Jay-Z sat down at the banquet table outside the the arena. But the Grammys are really just lucky that Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift and Adele bothered to show up. Among the artists who did perform, we got a general baseline of competence. There were few moments of genuine inspiration, but nobody truly embarrassed themselves — in this department, anyway. The worst performance of the night was still perfectly watchable, and the best was genuinely great television. Let’s break them all down, the way we do every year.
14. Luke Combs
This was fine! I like a barrel-chested country power-ballad, and Combs, looking more presentable than usual, delivered his with passion and gravitas. It’s not Combs’ fault that his performance happened late in the night, right after the giddy excitement of the hip-hop tribute. It’s not his fault that his song had no chance of coming off as anything other than an extended bathroom break segment. Every year, when I write this article, the first half of it is me savagely dunking on the performances that I didn’t like, but I honestly liked all of them this year, at least to some extent. Good job, Luke Combs.
Lizzo’s best performance last night was her acceptance of the Record Of The Year trophy. She was excited and emotional, and she still kept her composure. Lizzo basically apologized for beating Beyoncé, which is what everyone now does when they beat Beyoncé at the Grammys, but she at least seemed to mean it. I liked Lizzo’s speech better than her actual performance. The irony of a Lizzo song called “Special” is that the song itself is not even remotely special. It’s a boilerplate empowerment anthem that’s at least partly about people getting mad at you online. Lizzo is a talented, engaging performer, and her choreography and stage design were cool, but the song itself is just whatever. You can only go so far with a song that’s just whatever.
12. Harry Styles
“As It Was” is a classic example of the just-whatever song. Harry Styles’ whole team put serious effort into the presentation here. It’s cool to dress up like a swamp creature made of tinsel, and it’s cool to put all your dancers on a giant turntable and stage your own little “Virtual Insanity” video. (I wonder how many of those dancers barfed right after the performance was done.) But “As It Was” remains a dreadfully boring song, and Harry sang it with a very serious case of NyQuil voice. The dancing at the end was cute, but it also showed the world why One Direction were the one boy band in history who never even attempted any kind of choreography. Ultimately, this performance will be held up as a shining example of why Harry Styles should not beat Beyoncé for major awards, which is not what you want if you’re Harry Styles.
11. Stevie Wonder with Smokey Robinson & Chris Stapleton
Last year, the whole story was that the Grammys were doing away with these nostalgia-heavy showcases for aging legends. Apparently not! “The Way They Do The Things You Do” is a 59-year-old song. In 1964, when that song was new, the Grammys probably weren’t making a big deal about the hits from 1905. Still, it’s amazing that Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson are still with us, that they’re still spry enough to put on a rousing performance for TV cameras. You won’t hear me complaining about getting to hear these songs in any form. Chris Stapleton was the odd man out here, and his inclusion wasn’t quite random enough to be fun, but he sank his teeth into his vocals and his guitar solo. These guys all came to work.
10. Bad Bunny
Bad Bunny is a bona fide cultural phenomenon, one of the most exciting pop stars to come along in a long time, but the big takeaway from the performance that kicked off the show was still “LOL, Taylor Swift’s dancing.” That’s so unfortunate! I wish I could get on board with Grammy performances dedicated to the idea that all these people are having a great time, but I’ve watched too many Grammy broadcasts to truly buy into that. Bad Bunny was pretty good, but I would rather watch him perform literally anywhere else.
9. Steve Lacy with Thundercat
It’s a good idea to perform a non-ballad late in the evening at the Grammys, when all the famous people in the crowd are a little loopy and drunk. It’s a better idea to put on a leather suit to perform on the Grammys. This performance mostly just sounded like the record, with a bonus Thundercat bass solo, but it definitely gained something just from Lacy looking like an alien from Planet Funk.
8. DJ Khaled, Rick Ross, Fridayy, John Legend, Lil Wayne, & Jay-Z
Usually, the last performance of the night is the grand anticlimax, the one that happens while CBS runs the credits. This time, that slot went to a bunch of huge stars performing an indulgent trifle of a song. Maybe the Grammy voters are the only people who still take DJ Khaled seriously, but this time, the starpower was enough. The visual of these guys rapping amidst smoke machines in the empty streets outside the Crypto.com Arena felt appropriately apocalyptic. Given the way the night ended, Jay-Z would’ve been justified if he just gave a deep sigh instead of rapping a single bar, but you don’t get to be unprofessional when you’re a business, man.
7. Sam Smith & Kim Petras
Look, I just want this shit to be fun. If you give me Sam Smith surrounded by a whole bunch of Samaras from The Ring in Imperial Guard robes and you put Kim Petras in a giant S&M cage, then I’m probably going to have a good time. This was fun. Too bad about whatever was happening with Sam Smith’s voice, though.
6. Brandi Carlile
Carlile always seems like a bigger deal on Grammy night than on any other night of the year. When she gets to do her power-wail on that stage, she goes a long way toward showing why Grammy voters like her so much. This year, she went for a leather-pants rock-star thing, and she pulled it off. I’m still mad that she beat Turnstile, though.
5. Mary J. Blige
“Good Morning, Gorgeous” is a pretty straightforward old-school self-empowerment soul song, but Mary J. sang it in a gigantic hat and scary-looking diamond gloves, with laser lights behind her, on a gold pyramid, while people played modern-art sculptures that I guess were supposed to be cellos. And she really sang it, too. At the Grammys, it’s usually enough to be either weird or good, but Mary managed to be both. Salute.
4. Kacey Musgraves
The extended in-memoriam segment really brought it this year. I’m sure that has something to do with all the transformative figures that we’ve had to mourn, but the staging was elegant and emotional, and it worked. The presentation here — just Kacey singing a solo-acoustic “Coal Miner’s Daughter” on Loretta Lynn’s guitar in front of a pretty arrangement of poppies — was all we needed.
3. Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt, & Mick Fleetwood
The big Bonnie Raitt award was funny, but when Raitt sings, you start to understand how she keeps getting those trophies. For Fleetwood Mac, even a fond goodbye should be weird and messy. Crow and Raitt’s “Songbird” harmonies were grizzled and perfectly imperfect, and Mick Fleetwood’s talking-drum situation added some ineffable strangeness that felt perfectly appropriate.
2. Quavo with Maverick City Music
Actual emotion is a messy thing, and the loss of Takeoff is still raw and ugly. It actually felt brave to see Quavo out there in his Phantom Of The Opera mask, and the “Without You” arrangement benefitted from the gospel singers and the little bit of “See You Again.” For a few minutes, this show stopped being a whole lot of music-business back-patting, and it became someone expressing something. It would’ve been cool if Offset was there, too, but the fact that he wasn’t just makes the loss hit a little harder.
1. The Roots, Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five, Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Salt-N-Pepa, Rakim, Public Enemy, Posdnous, Scarface, Ice-T, Queen Latifah, Method Man, Big Boi, Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott, Nelly, Too $hort, the Lox, Lil Baby, GloRilla, & Lil Uzi Vert
What a genuinely awesome extended moment. When they announced this all-star hip-hop 50th-anniversary tribute, I thought it would be a total clusterfuck. And it was a total clusterfuck, in the way that rap music is a total clusterfuck, which is to say in the best way. You could tell that this thing was assembled by fans — specifically, by the Roots — and not by TV producers.
This performance kept a rough chronological structure, and it kept everything moving with bam-bam-bam efficiency. Plenty of these performers didn’t do their greatest hits, and some of them weren’t even obvious choices as performers. It takes a true appreciator to make sure “Blow The Whistle” and “We Gonna Make It” and Busta Rhymes’ breakneck “Look At Me Now” verse get in there. Somehow, it made perfect sense for everything to end with Lil Uzi Vert’s anime hair, too.
The Recording Academy has a history of burying rap, and most of the people on that stage have never been properly celebrated at that awards show, but that didn’t make this moment any less ecstatic. There were little easter eggs all through this thing. Questlove has said that Will Smith had to cancel a planned surprise appearance because he couldn’t get away from the Bad Boys 4 set, but that would’ve been a fun full-circle moment, considering that DJ Jazzy Jeff And The Fresh Prince famously won the first rap Grammy. But we did get Jazzy Jeff up there! Lil Wayne and Future were supposed to be up there, too, and they didn’t make it for whatever reason. But you have to credit all the people who did perform with the way they all hit their marks and kept the show moving. This was so much more energetic and so much less self-righteous than it could’ve been, and it didn’t embarrass anyone. That’s a tall order, and they made it work.