On Sunday night, the Grammy Awards’ identity crisis entered a penitent “cool dad” phase. Last year, Neil Portnow, the longtime president of the Recording Academy, which produces the awards, put his foot in his mouth when a member of the press asked about the overwhelmingly male slate of 2018 nominees and he responded that women needed to “step up” in order to earn more recognition. In the aftermath of those awards, which spawned a #GrammysSoMale protest campaign, the Recording Academy invited nine hundred potential new members, all under the age of thirty-nine, women, or people of color. (The Los Angeles Times reported that only two hundred of them accepted the invites.) No surprise, this yielded a wider breadth of nominees for this year’s awards. The Recording Academy, in 2019, finally acknowledged that the kids were right to care about rap and about female artists, and the overlong telecast served as a form of sheepish contrition. But in lieu of offering up refreshing plain talk about past industry wrongs the ceremony dispatched a smooth-talking Alicia Keys to bathe us in “peace and love.” Toward the end of the proceedings, Portnow, who will step down from the Recording Academy this year, presided over his own memorial. Artists praised him in pre-recorded videos, and then he praised himself, promising “diversity and inclusion” in future awards. The only problem is that the people he was ostensibly speaking to—the artists who had been slighted year after year—don’t care anymore. Not even a Michelle Obama cameo could change that.
“Tell the Grammys fuck that O for eight shit,” Jay Z raps on the track “Apeshit,” from “Everything Is Love,” referencing his numerous Grammy snubs last year, for “4:44.” (“Everything Is Love,” his collaborative album with Beyoncé, won Best Urban Contemporary Album in the pre-ceremony fusillade of ancillary award announcements.) Titans of all musical genres have exhibited a coolness bordering on fatal indifference toward the Grammys in recent years, among them Frank Ocean, Lorde, Taylor Swift, and, most recently, Ariana Grande. Last week, Grande, who is inarguably the biggest pop star in the world, called out the show’s producer, Ken Ehrlich, for misrepresenting Grande’s reasons for cancelling her scheduled Grammys performance. Ehrlich had said that Grande hadn’t been able to pull together a performance in time; Grande tweeted, “i can pull together a performance over night and you know that, Ken.” (Grande, whose “Sweetener” won the Grammy for Best Pop Album, spent Sunday tweeting from home.) Ahead of the ceremony, it was reported that Drake would also be skipping out, effectively extending the boycott that he initiated in 2018. In the end, he did attend, but he emerged from backstage only once, to receive his award for Best Rap Song for “God’s Plan.” The gramophone trophy might as well have been a twenty-five-dollar gift certificate. “You’ve already won if you have people who are singing your songs word for word, if you’re a hero in your home town. You don’t need this right here. I promise you. You already won,” he said, before his mike was cut off.
It was admittedly thrilling to watch so many women performers occupy the stage, especially as they shredded on their guitars, jerked their microphone stands, and commandeered two pianos. In an ode to the pianist Hazel Scott, who was the first black woman to be given her own television show, Alicia Keys sauntered through an amiably strange medley of songs—from Roberta Flack to Juice WRLD and Kings of Leon—that she said she wished she had written. The Instagram pianist Chloe Flower banged on a grand piano as Cardi B, who arrived wearing vintage Mugler in the key of Georgia O’Keeffe, performed her sleeper hit “Money.” H.E.R., an R. & B. upstart who is sweetly focussed on craft, cradled a crystal-clear guitar. (She won for Best R. & B. Album.) Janelle Monáe, who may have suspected that she would again not receive an award, was so professionally on point in her “Dirty Computer” medley that I wondered if she was telling the Grammys goodbye. A tribute to Dolly Parton starring a wound-up Katy Perry was rescued by the legend herself. In the diva fashion that she helped to invent, Diana Ross talk-sang through later, lesser known standards and hypnotized the audience with inspirational sayings. Brandi Carlile, tearing through her song “The Joke” with folk puissance, was the most emotional and the all-around best performer of the night. Dua Lipa, the Albanian-British singer of languid dance music, performed with St. Vincent, her eroticized mirror image. When Dua Lipa won for Best New Artist, she took a delightful dig at Portnow. It was an honor, she said, in her acceptance speech, “to be nominated alongside so many incredible female artists this year. Because I guess this year we really ‘stepped up.’ ”
Some acts had a harder time world-building. I genuinely appreciate the madcap workmanship of Travis Scott, who is not content as a performer unless he throws himself into a crowd, but his punk maximalism didn’t quite translate in his shoehorned Grammys set. Lady Gaga interpreted the mellow “Shallow,” her hit song from “A Star Is Born,” through the filter of Ziggy Stardust, which was frightening in an amazing way. (She surely got the attention of members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who begin their voting on Tuesday for the Oscars, where “Shallow” is nominated for Best Original Song.) Inexplicably, Jennifer Lopez was tasked with doing what was essentially a six-minute tribute to Motown. Lopez’s Vegas kicks were dazzling, if wholly unfit for the Motown standards she performed. Also unpalatable was Post Malone’s failure to shout out 21 Savage, who is currently being detained by ICE, while performing “Rockstar,” the pair’s melancholic song about the numbing effects of fame.
The sixty-first Grammys made history. The question is whether the history-making was born out of panic or out of vision. In the cases of Kacey Musgraves, who won Album of the Year for “The Golden Hour,” and for Cardi B, who became the first solo woman to win Best Rap Album, for “Invasion of Privacy,” the Grammys seem to demonstrate an overdue shift in taste-making. The awards given to Childish Gambino, a.k.a Donald Glover, for “This is America” don’t sit as well with me. The track won for Best Music Video and also Record of the Year, making it the first rap song to take the prize. (Glover wasn’t there to collect the awards.) Of all the songs that could have been honored, this was it? Glover’s single drop-landed on the Internet last summer and became a think-piece magnet; only weeks later, though, its force had waned. I never heard it play in a club, like “I Like It,” by Cardi B, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin; I never heard anyone absentmindedly hum its lyrics, as with “Shallow.” Despite its light melody, the song is scornful, and it has a squirrelly haughtiness that the Recording Academy likely did not sniff out. Lines like “We just want to party / Party just for you,” “Get your money, black man,” and “Imma go get the bag” poke sarcastically at Atlanta-rap excess, making the recruitment of the Atlanta rapper Young Thug to appear on the track feel underhanded. And yet it was this song that won Young Thug his first Grammy, for Song of the Year. At least he didn’t go onstage to accept it.