Will the Grammys ever get it right?

By Katherine St. Asaph

We know the Grammy routine: Every year we somehow hope for good television, good music, and deserved awards—really, one of three would be fine—and every year the show yanks the football away to the halcyon tones of a piano ballad from the musical past. And every year, the streak continues: Kendrick Lamar lost to Daft Punk. Beyoncé lost to Beck. Kendrick Lamar lost to Taylor Swift. Beyoncé lost to Adele. And now Kendrick Lamar, despite sweeping the rap categories, lost Record and Album of the Year to Bruno Mars.

Bruno Mars is a lot like Adele, too: talented and immensely likable, hard to begrudge at a personal level, and he even used his status as the Grammys’ beloved to shout out Babyface and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. But it looks worse when put into a pattern like this, right?

#MeWho?

Days before the Grammys, executives, artists, and hosts took a cue from the Golden Globes’ Time’s Up movement by urging attendees to wear white roses as a stand against sexual harassment. As protests go, this ranks somewhere around wearing a safety pin to #resist Donald Trump. But by Grammy standards it’s radical, and was hailed upon announcement as a daring move to bring #MeToo to the forefront of the music industry. This is technically true, but it’s also like saying a sudden wind brought water to the forefront of the ocean: sure, it’s louder, more dramatic, makes a bigger splash, but it’s also the same damn water that’s been there since time eternal.

At the Grammys, it was more like a pinkie’s ripple in the tiniest kiddie pool. Only 17% of award winners were women. Most female nominees—notably Tina Turner, for the Lifetime Achievement Award, and Lorde, whom the internet rallied around—were denied solo performances. “There’s no way we can really deal with everybody,” said producer Ken Ehrlich, about a show that gave multiple slots each to relevant artists Sting and Shaggy.

As for Time’s Up, Janelle Monáe was the first to even mention the movement, two hours in, before introducing Kesha’s much-awaited “Praying.” Of course no one on the Grammys was going to mention Kesha’s alleged abuser Dr. Luke or anything he did, lest they be sued by multiple entities. (Presumably the Grammys’ entire legal budget went to the city of New York, lest its residents sue for damages resulting from Bono shouting on a yacht.) But without acknowledging what “Praying” is about, it’s just another piano ballad on a show with dozens; the effect is blunted, the understandably emotional Kesha is left to flounder.

Bebe Rexha, Cyndi Lauper, Kesha, and Camila Cabello perform at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards. Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic.

The packaging, too, was suspect, an attempt to wring as much as possible out of Kesha’s trauma, while simultaneously “dealing with” as many female performers as possible by throwing them into an anonymous choir. But hey, Sony loved it! Just not enough to let her out of her contract, or at least not sue her to death.

Elsewhere, the tone was set by:

  • Returning host James Corden wearing a rose on the side of his suit covered by his mic.
  • The four women nominated for Best Pop Solo Performance losing to Ed Sheeran.
  • Multiple performances by Bono, recently in the news for bemoaning music becoming “very girly.”
  • Subway passengers being serenaded with “Every Breath You Take,” a song about stalking a woman that Sting himself has called “nasty,” “sadistic,” and “really rather evil.”
  • Logic taking it to the Macklemesosphere and urging women to “crush all predators under the weight of your heart.” It sounds good! It also, taken literally, asks women to smush men to their bosom.

The Rest of the Politics

Oh, but Logic had plenty more to say, most notably informing Africa and South America that they “are not shitholes.” And getting bleeped, because despite the word showing up on cable news, the president writing off huge swaths of the world is still less morally objectionable to half the country than hearing the dreaded s-word.

More pointed, and less censored, was Kendrick Lamar, dipping into DAMN., as well as his guest verses, for the show’s most incendiary material in a set that concluded with simulating men being shot and live-annotated by Dave Chappelle: “I just want to remind the audience that the only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America is being an honest black man in America.” (He’s correct on that. And he himself has been in the news recently for some pretty terrible takes on predators like R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein.) For the conservative Grammys, this performance pulled remarkably few punches.

The rest was… uneven. For every Camila Cabello speaking out in support of Dreamers, there was a Neil Portnow room-reading fail to the max by bragging about working with the notably functional Congress, or a Sarah Silverman showing up “to encourage you to vote. Just kidding. Do what you want to do, the world is basically over anyway.” Power to the polls!

Then there was a reading of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, shoehorned in over music because the Grammys have a spoken-word category and audiobooks are a thing. Tiny portions of the book were read on-air by celebrities including a surprise Hillary Clinton. (Clinton was just in the news for shielding a pastor accused of harassment. )

It wasn’t unamusing; Cardi B, in particular, could make reading the tax bill interesting. But out of all the genuine scandal in the book, it’s telling that the Grammys chose to spit such furious political fire as the revelation that Donald Trump likes burgers and hates reading. As trolling, it worked—ambassador Nikki Haley was piiiiiissed. But you can successfully troll the Trump administration just by breathing in an insufficiently fawning way, so what’s the point?

The Revolution Will Be Commodified

As the Grammys fill more and more time with lugubrious piano sludge—even consummate professional Bruno Mars complained about “too many ballads” while accepting an award—brands have swooped into the resulting void by granting artists uninterrupted airtime for their own music videos, premieres, and interviews, all of which double as blatant ads.

The beneficiaries of this sponcon are usually women, getting the solo showcases the Grammys didn’t give them, for the low, low cost of a shill. Tonight, we got:

  • Julia Michaels, Best New Artist nominee, who didn’t perform solo, describing her songwriting process to an admiring Uber driver who hopefully got paid for this. (Uber, of course, is amid a huge sexual harassment scandal; take a shot.)
  • Country ingénue Maren Morris, who didn’t perform solo, getting hired by EDM dudes Zedd and Grey as a budget Alessia Cara for “The Middle.” Here, she gets a whole song to herself! It’s just that it’s also a vehicle for a Busby Berkeley Target logo.
  • Camila Cabello, who didn’t perform solo, shown primping backstage while being hyped up: “Everybody loves a comeback.” Will it be a grand debut for her surprisingly decent solo album? Nope: “Dry hair can have one too.” Empowering!

The Highlights, So to Speak

Kendrick was great, always is; in addition to not winning big awards, he and Beyoncé trade off virtuosic, provocatively staged performances that the Grammys rarely acknowledge as such. Labelmate SZA was also great, in voice and good Matrix/Battlezone staging. Lady Gaga powered through “Million Reasons.” Bruno Mars and Cardi B’s “Finesse” demonstrated throwbacks don’t need to be fusty. Rihanna existed.

Then there’s Childish Gambino. While thoroughly negged by the announcer promising “Childish Gambino and Grammy moments by…,” his performance was the most surprisingly momentous. Somewhere in the past couple years he went from a rap dilettante with a name from a Wu-Tang name generator to a credible funk artist, and “Terrified” smoldered, dangerous and compelling enough to make you forget it’s on this show.