Just another out-of-touch Grammys
The Grammys were held on Sunday, April 3. For about one hour, they were incredible. Then, they went back to being the Grammys.
The Grammys are not known for being a particularly worthwhile award show — in fact, they’re probably best known for being out-of-touch. Upsets throughout the 21st century like awarding Macklemore and Ryan Lewis “Best New Artist” over Kendrick Lamar; Beyoncé never winning “Album of the Year”; and Tyler, the Creator being put in the rap categories for his album “Igor,” despite it being a pop record, have shown a specifically anti-Black streak. Meanwhile, the performances are rarely electrifying, instead tending toward being odd pairings of contemporary artists with legacy artists that have nothing to do with them (why were the Jonas Brothers paired with Stevie Wonder in 2009?).
The Grammys have tried to address these accusations over the years by doing things like getting rid of the nominating committees that oversaw the nominations and simply allowing the contenders with the most votes to be included. They’ve also attempted to be seen as less anti-Black by doing things like constantly mentioning that Beyoncé was the most awarded performing artist in history at last year’s ceremony, despite only having one win in the major categories, a fact which undercuts their assertions handily.
That attempt has kind of worked. Instead of a completely out-of-touch ceremony and instead of a genuine celebration of current music, we got about half of each.
The evening began with a performance by Silk Sonic, a duo composed of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, who later took home two of the night’s biggest awards: both Song and Record of the Year. Silk Sonic is, in many ways, perfect Grammy bait. The Grammys have always liked Bruno Mars to a fault, and Silk Sonic performs the kind of technically precise pastiche that the older voters feel comfortable with. But “Leave the Door Open” was a genuine hit, and I liked their performance. By the end of the night, though, I’d largely soured on the duo. They’re so intentionally unchallenging that they leave almost no impression, and that’s fine, but the Grammys should aspire to more, although they rarely do.
After Silk Sonic’s performance, all of the exciting performances seemed to happen in a row — they clumped Olivia Rodrigo, J. Balvin, BTS, Lil Nas X, and Billie Eilish together at the start. It was an electrifying hour. All of these performances were interesting, rewatchable, and showed off the talent that defined the music of 2021 for most people. Yet, by grouping them all in a row, the Grammys left themselves feeling top-heavy. The rest of the night felt like we went back to a version of the Grammys that I expected, and, in many ways, dreaded.
John Batiste won Album of the Year for his album “We Are,” leaving most people a bit confused. His win likely comes down to a few factors: he was heavily nominated in other categories, he is well-respected within the industry as well as being a performer, he recently won an Oscar for the score of Pixar’s “Soul” and leads Stephen Colbert’s band on “The Late Show”, but, most of all, he won because he is a very safe choice.
I wasn’t angry at the win, personally. Batiste is an extremely talented musician, and his performance at the show was one of the more exciting parts of the latter half of the night. Yet, I can’t shake the feeling that his win was intended to elicit this exact reaction: a shrug. Of the nominees, I would have liked to see something like Lil Nas X’s “Montero,” Doja Cat’s “Planet Her,” or Olivia Rodrigo’s “Sour” win the award. Those artists are less technically proficient than Batiste, yes, but they are the artists that historians will write about when they write about 2021. Batiste will likely be only a footnote because of his win here.
Though, if we’re talking about what should actually have won these big awards, Song, Record, and Album of the Year, it seems like two winners of so-called “less important” categories might be the place to look. Jazmine Sullivan and Tyler, the Creator won Best R&B Album and Best Rap Album respectively, despite neither getting any nominations in the big three categories. It’s odd to see two of the biggest genres in music have their apparently best work of the year completely shut out of the biggest categories. Both Jazmine Sullivan’s “Heaux Tales” and Tyler, the Creator’s “Call Me If You Get Lost” were positively vital albums last year, completely original and somehow also completely of the moment. While I was happy to see them rewarded, it was difficult to understand why they weren’t deemed worthy to compete in the general categories.
If there was one moment that stood out as a pure distillation of “Grammys,” it was H.E.R.’s performance with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Lenny Kravitz, and Travis Barker. H.E.R. has long been a Grammy favorite, going as far as to win Song of the Year last year, and this performance showed why. It was so perfectly Grammys: technically impressive, retrospectively focused, rock and roll without any boundary pushing, etc. It was a good performance but one that felt like less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps it was just too expected. The damning thing is that when I try to remember what year this performance happened, I won’t know.
I would be remiss to end this without mentioning the one moment that stood out from the rest for its pure and unadulterated cringeworthy stupidity. That would be Justin Bieber, in what looked to be vinyl pants, performing an acoustic version of his song “Peaches,” including a soulful rendition of the line “I took my chick up to the north, yeah/Badass bitch.” On a night that felt like a constant battle between exciting newness and retro-respectability, this moment stood out for being neither. And also for being so, so bad.