15 Thoughts On the 2021 Grammys

15 Thoughts On the 2021 Grammys

03/15/2021

As a fictional singer-songwriter who once fictionally peed their fictional pants at a fictional Grammys ceremony once sang, via real-life, dry-trousered songwriter Jason Isbell, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” And, like, it really is. The 2021 Grammy broadcast was already poised for reinvention, with producer Ken Ehrlich stepping down following a decades-long tenure. As Covid-19 forced a deeper rethink, and Late Late Show with James Corden’s Ben Winston took over the production, along with longtime BET Awards producer Jesse Collins (who also just worked on the Weeknd’s hit Super Bowl performance), last night was an unprecedented chance for a full reset.  

For the most part, it worked incredibly well — but only as a broadcast. The Grammys as a TV show have always been better and more inclusive than the oft-disastrous nominations and awards process (which the makers of the televised show have always been separate from, a point that’s understandably hard to convey to artists and fans alike). That disconnect was stronger than ever this year, and fixing a Recording Academy that has never given its Album of the Year trophy to Beyoncé is going to be a lot harder than making a few wildly entertaining hours of TV. A few thoughts on the performances:

Harry Styles is really good at this, and by this, I mean everything. Everyone of a certain age who’s still trying to locate the 21st century’s rock stars should, of course, look to hip-hop first. But another answer was standing right there in a green feather boa, delivering the swaggiest, most charisma-dripping show-opening performance by a dude in tight black leather since Elvis Presley sang “Trouble” in his ‘68 comeback special. And Elvis didn’t have Dev Hynes on bass.

Haim made an impression. The L.A. sisters are anything but newcomers, but they understood they were playing for the biggest-ever audience of their entire career, which, judging from social media, included a startling number of people who had never heard of them. They fully brought it, casually switching instruments while playing  one of their best, most deeply Los Angeles-y songs, “The Steps,” which presents a beguiling proposition: What if Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks weren’t just collaborators but the same person? (And also split up into three sisters.)

Just how did they pitch DaBaby’s performance of “Rockstar”? “DaBaby is going to conduct an orchestra while Roddy Rich raps his part, and the back-up singers will be a scary all-female version of the Supreme Court singing a tribute to ‘Duel of the Fates’ from The Phantom Menace score — trust us, it’ll be great?” (It was, in fact, great.) 

I, for one, salute our new British pop overlord. Just compare Dua Lipa’s commanding performance to her tentative first Saturday Night Live appearance back in 2018, and you’ll see a pop star who’s used her time in quarantine to prepare for world domination. The hypnotic visuals at the beginning of her performance suggested she was luring us into some esoteric new religion of her own creation — Duanetics, perhaps — with millions no doubt ready to sign up.

Bruno Mars should’ve gone full Wandavision, and done all the decades. First came his performance with Anderson .Paak as Silk Sonic, which was downright uncanny in its invocation of ‘70s vocal-group R&B (measured against this duo’s standards of accuracy, Greta Van Fleet sound nothing like Led Zeppelin). Then Bruno popped up again with a fantastic take on Little Richard in the In Memoriam segment, leaping back to the Fifties. But that left whole swathes of the 20th century untouched. A shocking oversight, but there’s always next year.

Taylor Swift may be headed into the mystic. So her crew probably didn’t plant a whole forest somewhere 30 years ago just to have it ready for Taylor’s cottagecore-meets-woodnymphcore medley masterstroke — but can you be positive they didn’t? Set in what looked a bit like an other-dimensional version of Long Pond Studio, and embellished with some Stevie Nicks-onian twirls (Stevie was the unofficial Grammy godmother last night), the enticing fairy-tale air of the performance hinted at yet another new direction for the night’s big winner. (Maybe there’s a portal to the Upside Down behind that mall.)

Mickey Guyton’s performance was an actual cultural reset. The first solo black woman in country music to perform at the Grammys gave one of the night’s best performances with the brilliantly blunt “Black Like Me,” which uses the musical and lyrical tropes of radio country to deliver a message that the format apparently isn’t quite ready to convey: “If you think we live in the land of the free/You should try to be black like me.”

Lionel Richie singing his version of Kenny Rogers’ “Lady” was the most old-Grammys moment of the evening. It was perhaps an odd choice to honor Rogers, out of all the lost musicians of the last year, so extravagantly. On the other hand, it was good at see at least one musician over 50 performing, proof that the Grammys can embrace youth without going full Logan’s Run. 

Brandi Carlisle, run us over with a bulldozer. Carlisle’s performance of John Prine’s “I Remember Everything,” delivered with seemingly effortless gravitas, was the evening’s most devastating emotional neutron bomb.

Megan Thee Stallion put TikTok back in its place. Few artists are better than Megan at making songs that work as chopped-up “sounds” within the universe of TikTok, sparking challenges and dances and other Gen-Z stuff that can all but dominate the app. But her regal medley was a reminder of who really owns those songs, and that their true impact arrives only when all those sonic pieces are reassembled.

Cardi B and Megan stood athwart history, yelling “WAP.” Nothing could make would-be cultural cops like Ben Shapiro look smaller than the gleeful good humor of that performance. In fact, if you looked closely, poor Ben was trapped inside the lucite heel of the giant boot.

Do not attempt to surprise Beyoncé. The slight wariness with which Beyonce seemed to greet Trevor Noah’s announcement that she had tied Alison Krauss for a Grammys record said everything about generations of understandable suspicion of the Grammys.

Are we sure that was Post Malone’s whole performance? Something cool — fire? a full band? — seemed perpetually about to happen during Posty’s Ozz-play performance of “Hollywood’s Bleeding.” Instead, it all felt like a song-length intro to nothing.

BTS should’ve opened or closed the show. No act had more energy or joy on the show than BTS, who practically beamed themselves across the ocean to L.A. by sheer force of will, and provided the evening’s single most visually stunning moment when they showed off their rooftop view of Seoul. Sticking them in the second-to-last slot felt like a slight insult (as did nominating them only once, but that’s another story).

Artists, and stars, are hardly dead. “I think we’re seeing the death of the artist,” Lucas Keller, the CEO and founder of Milk & Honey, a company that works with songwriters and producers, recently told Out magazine. In the age of streaming, he suggested, fans just want their playlists, and don’t really care who’s pumping out the content to fill them. Last night’s entire show was a powerful rebuke to that idea: The star power on display, from Bad Bunny to Lil Baby, from Doja Cat to Billie Eilish, suggested that it takes more charisma and distinctiveness than ever to rise to the top of an industry inundated with product. Just look at how unforgettable Lizzo’s presence was, and she was just giving out an award. Go ahead and try to tell her she’s just an anonymous content provider.

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