Let The Deep Sighing About The Grammys Commence
“Those weren’t real headlines,” a beaming Harvey Mason Jr. announced. “But they could be.”
The Grammys had just aired a fake commercial in which the power of song was demonstrated through news clippings such as “Music Is Medicine: First Ever Music Prescriptions Issued.” Mason, the CEO of the Recording Academy, was giving his annual spiel about the organization responsible for this slow-motion trainwreck. The sequence, which drew comparisons to parody ads from SNL and 30 Rock, was spiritually in tune with a broadcast that found revolutionary new ways to be cringe in addition to the time-tested Grammy foibles.
It may have been even more superfluous than the ongoing bit in which a panel of superfans lobbied for their Album Of The Year picks via produced vignettes and in-the-crowd interviews, functioning as avatars for their favorite artists and You, The Fan simultaneously. While padding out a notoriously bloated production, these randos got more screentime than most of the nominees. I learned more about the ABBA fan whose house burned down than I learned about ABBA, to say nothing of the lady from Connecticut who argued with a straight face that Music Of The Spheres, Coldplay’s desperate bid for pop relevance, deserved to win. The fake advertisement was just as grimly hilarious, and it worked as a reminder that the Grammys exist within a bizarre fantasy world of their own making.
For a while there, this year’s ceremony was going well by Grammys standards. The first several performances were entertaining, especially Bad Bunny’s show-opening merengue dance party. Early on, more time than usual was devoted to the awards themselves, with a decent mix of genres represented onscreen and winners that at least made some kind of sense. A trio of tribute performances during the in memoriam segment were well-executed and moving, and the all-star medley celebrating 50 years of hip-hop — curated by Questlove and mostly focused on the genre’s 20th century output — was one of the most purely joyous sequences in Grammys history.
Yet by the time that 13-minute odyssey came along, a jolt was very much needed. Energy had been flagging and attention spans were fleeting. Even at its best, the Grammys had descended into numbing spectacle — and things were about to get much worse. It’s easy to grade on a curve, to judge these Grammys against past iterations of the show. The big-picture view is still a strange simulacrum of pop culture, sort of a funhouse-mirror mainstream weighted toward sanitized prestige and high-fructose, lowest-common-denominator fare. The Academy often comes so close to getting it right, only to end up getting it wrong in befuddling, enraging ways.
Beyoncé is the most obvious case study for the Grammy paradox. She won four awards Sunday, bringing her total to a record-breaking 32 career Grammys. It’s evidence of a long history of recognition for the most consistently awesome pop star of her generation — something the Academy has gotten right over the course of decades. Yet despite releasing some of the most acclaimed music of her career in 2022, Bey was once again boxed out of the “big four” general field categories. She’s been nominated for Album Of The Year four times and lost all four — a designation she now shares with Kendrick Lamar and, uh, Sting — which highlights a far less flattering pattern on the Academy’s part.
Before he went off the deep end, Kanye West used to talk about how he’d won armfuls of Grammys but never against a white person. His masterful albums, which moved big numbers, spun off actual hits, and inspired critical hosannas, were regularly passed over for the biggest awards. The same thing repeatedly has happened to Kendrick and Beyoncé, Black superstars driving culture and making deep, meaningful art. The racial dynamic is more complicated than some critics make it out to be; two of this year’s “big four” awards went to Black women, and last year’s Album Of The Year was by a Black man. But after previous Beyoncé losses to Taylor Swift, Beck, and a profusely apologetic Adele, it felt like cycling through the same old story when Renaissance, an album near-universally hailed as a masterpiece, lost to Harry’s House, a sleek but ultimately hollow adult contemporary outing from Harry Styles. “This doesn’t happen to people like me very often,” a dazed Styles remarked from the podium, stirring confusion about what he could have possibly meant by “people like me.” Handsome young white men making retro-tinted easy listening music?
Ultimately, that tendency toward nostalgia and musical conservatism is the throughline. The Black artists who did win big last night were decidedly retro, be it jazz crooner Samara Joy’s Best New Artist win or Lizzo’s funky throwback “About Damn Time” claiming Record Of The Year. The same principle applied to Jon Batiste’s Album Of The Year win last year. Meanwhile, artists pushing music forward don’t often get their flowers in this venue. Did you know Björk now has 16 nominations and zero wins? Bad Bunny, a superstar who has both evolved the sound and expanded the audience for música urbana, had by far the most popular album of 2022; if the Academy sought to reward blockbuster sales figures, Un Verano Sin Ti was right there. But with all due respect to the legend Bonnie Raitt, her surprise Song Of The Year win for the folk song “Just Like That” underlines that constant pull toward the past, toward old templates of authenticity and accessibility.
For every historically significant milestone, like Kim Petras becoming the first transgender Grammy winner in decades or Beyoncé becoming the first Black woman to win Best Dance/Electronic Album, there were countless more moments of insult or inanity. The in memoriam segment left out rappers galore — Gangsta Boo, Trouble, Lil Keed — plus Modest Mouse drummer Jeremiah Green and former child star Aaron Carter. The night’s “Oprah, Uma” moment came when host Trevor Noah introduced Dwayne Johnson to Adele, who I guess is a fan of his? A goateed Dr. Dre won the inaugural Dr. Dre Global Impact Award, a new lifetime achievement trophy of sorts? First Lady Jill Biden showed up to honor some YouTuber’s viral song about social justice? It all started to blur together around the time Luke Combs failed his audition to take over Chris Stapleton’s turf as the Academy’s resident burly country dude. (It must be noted that Grammy mainstay Stapleton held his own alongside no less than Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson during a Motown tribute early in the show.)
Even some moments that were technically a step forward felt backwards in some way, like the show ending with an eight-minute rap song — by DJ Khaled. Playing out on the street outside Crypto.com Arena, in front of a biblical-scale table full of food, “GOD DID” matched Grammy fixture John Legend with a parade of veteran rap stars including Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, and Jay-Z. (The fact that Jay was scheduled to perform outside the arena right after Album Of The Year was handed out should have been our tipoff that his spouse wasn’t winning.) The song climaxed with a verse from Jay, whose “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” lyrics Noah had quoted to crickets from the crowd in his opening monologue. I guess the Academy clientele wasn’t really rocking with hip-hop circa The Blueprint. But Jay and the rest of those collaborators fit into the Grammy picture exceedingly well now that they’re past their prime.