Every year watching the Grammys telecast I have the same thought: I enjoy more kinds of music than I realize. Rap, R&B, pop, soul, rock, folk, funk, classical, Broadway – and whatever Johnny Depp and Alice Cooper were doing, I actually liked that too. I should listen to more kinds of music throughout the year. Maybe this will be the year I follow through on that resolution.
But I’m not sure I want to listen to it for as long as the Grammys went on for. As usual, the event was three and a half hours, but these 210 minutes felt even longer than usual. That’s probably due in part to the interminable wait for actual awards, especially the last two of the night. Before every commercial break we were promised “Album of the Year coming up” for what felt like days, like the “Waiting for Godot” of award shows.
But in the end the telecast itself turned out to be a lot more forward-thinking than the awards were. The performances were varied and dynamic – not all winners, but they never are. And while the concert half of the event moved from an explosive performance by Kendrick Lamar (the performance of the night) to a tribute to late blues legend B.B. King by Chris Stapleton, Bonnie Raitt and Gary Clark Jr. that was just as good in a completely different way, the winners in the top categories were the usual adult-contemporary acts that always win.
Lamar would have been a rare and refreshing hip-hop winner for Album and Song of the Year, but he was bested, respectively, by Taylor Swift (“1989“) and Ed Sheeran (“Thinking Out Loud“), who have made strong impacts on music but are the kinds of radio-safe, older-voter-friendly acts that almost always win. True, Lamar won the most awards of the night (five), but if Taylor Swift had been an option in rap categories, she might have won those, too.
So while we can’t quite claim #GrammysSoWhite (especially given Bruno Mars‘s Record of the Year victory for “Uptown Funk“), it’s impossible to ignore that the general field is where the academy’s musically conservative biases reveal themselves, as they did last year (Beck over Beyonce for Album of the Year), the year before that (Macklemore and Ryan Lewis over Lamar in most categories, including Best New Artist), the year before that (Fun. over Frank Ocean for New Artist) and so on.
But as a concert to showcase a wide variety of music’s best – or at least those the recording academy held up as their best – it was far more satisfying.
Little Big Town brought an orchestral elegance to their double-Grammy-winning “Girl Crush” (Country Duo/Group and Country Song), which made the controversial tune sound fresh without trying to reinvent the wheel as some attempted Grammy “moments” try to do.
The cast of Broadway’s “Hamilton” performed their opening number before their inevitable win for Best Musical Theater Album (and they’ll almost surely win all the Tonys in a couple of months), and it was terrific, but that’s all you’re getting since you probably won’t be able to get tickets until the next ice age.
Lady Gaga was dynamite in a slightly chaotic tribute to David Bowie. It might have benefited from streamlining it down to two or three signature Bowie classics instead of what seemed like all of them, but Gaga’s idiosyncratic persona, unrestrained passion and chameleonic style proved she was probably the only contemporary artist who could have paid proper tribute to the iconoclast.
Then there was Adele. There were reportedly major sound problems during her performance of her ballad “All I Ask” – she later explained on Twitter, “piano mics fell on to the piano strings, that’s what the guitar sound was. It made it sound out of tune” – but I’ll admit that apart from the obvious loss of sound for a few seconds near the beginning of the performance, I didn’t actually notice the glitch, and any rawness in her voice only added to the emotion of the song for me. It goes to show that an out-of-tune Adele still beats most vocalists on their best day.
As usual, I dreaded the Grammy “moments,” those now-obligatory mash-up performances where the telecast producers cross their fingers that two unrelated artists will sound good singing each other’s songs. There were no clunkers among those, per se, but none reached the heights of, say, Lamar performing with Imagine Dragons two years ago.
Carrie Underwood and Sam Hunt performed her “Heartbeat” and his “Take Your Time,” and the two country artists sounded perfectly compatible, though they didn’t elevate either song. Same goes for Ellie Goulding and Andra Day, two outstanding singers with very different musical styles who sounded great but still seemed to be giving two separate performances on-stage.
Best New Artist nominees James Bay and Tori Kelly were probably the strongest of the mash-ups, complementing each other with styles that were similar enough to be compatible but different enough to contrast in a compelling way.
If there was a lowlight, it was probably the tribute to Lionel Ritchie, who had been named MusiCares Person of the Year. It started well with John Legend singing “Easy” and ended well with Ritchie himself doing “All Night Long,” but none of the performers in-between sounded particularly comfortable with the songs they’d been given, including Demi Lovato over-singing “Hello” and Luke Bryan over-twanging “Penny Lover.”
But as low points go, even that wasn’t very low.
Nevertheless, if the Grammys want to manufacture “moments,” they should go big instead of playing it safe. The best mash-ups are the ones that seem like they almost shouldn’t work, but do anyway (like Imagine Dragons and Lamar, which could just as easily have been a fiasco). Maybe combine Kendrick Lamar and Adele, Bonnie Raitt and Bruno Mars (who didn’t perform, but would have been a welcome addition). Those could be disastrous, but the conflict is often where you find greatness. And whether they rise of fall, at least then you’d truly have a “moment” to remember.
Photo credits: CBS