Notes from the 2021 ceremony: Steps toward relevancy, but a long road ahead.
It was the same mixed bag Sunday at the Grammy Awards: When the show finally ended (thanks, Paramount+, for streaming it live) I had a sense that the Recording Academy might be making strides toward relevance, but also that the journey required to reach that goal will be long and hard.
The staging of the show left me with this sense: Some really clever people had some very smart ideas about how to avoid the traps that other pandemic-era award shows had struggled with (I’m thinking about you, the Golden Globes), but the ideas didn’t play out quite as well in practice as they looked on paper. For starters: The big room with the multiple stages (an idea possibly taken from the British music show “Later … with Jools Holland,” as The New York Times noted) seemed like a terrific idea to me at first, but increasingly felt stale as the night wore on. And every time the action shifted back to the rooftop where the awards were handed out, all I could think about were the poor saps who had to escort Taylor Swift away from her table so the next batch of nominees could take their places — and yes, despite what you may think, Taylor Swift was not nominated in every one of the 84 Grammy categories. Maybe next year.
As for Trevor Noah as the host, I appreciated that he felt the need to be a big fan throughout, but when he hosts again (and he should), he could tone it down a notch. (Although he gets points for being authentic about it; even Cardi B seemed taken pleasantly taken aback by his gushing, so to speak, after the performance of “WAP,” which was, to be fair, the most fun of the evening.)
The Recording Academy likes to tout the Record of the Year Grammy as its flagship award, but I’m always more interested in the winner of the Album of the Year, which went this year to Taylor Swift’s “Folklore,” a relatively safe and (more or less) unobjectionable choice. (I’m still steamed that Fiona Apple’s “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” was snubbed in the category, although Apple did win two Grammys in lesser categories.) Swift will be able to win next year for “Evermore,” and she very possibly will, based on Billie Eilish’s Grammy performance Sunday.
Eilish, who swept the top four Grammys last year, won Record of the Year for the second straight year. But this year’s winning record, “Everything I Wanted,” is one of Eilish’s least-memorable tracks, and Eilish seemed genuinely stunned that the award hadn’t gone to Megan Thee Stallion (with Beyonce) for “Savage.” This led to a moment that occurs frequently at the Grammys, as The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber astutely has noted: A white musician apologizes to a Black musician for winning a Grammy that the white winner thinks should have gone to the Black artist. Think of Adele and Beyonce. Think of Macklemore and Kendrick Lamar. As it turns out, a Black musician hasn’t won Album of the Year since 2008 — and that was for Herbie Hancock’s (excellent) album of Joni Mitchell covers. This does suggest that one way the Recording Academy could stop this embarrassing tradition might be to, you know, give the Album of the Year Grammy more than once every 20 years or so to a Black musician.
To be fair, the show, and the awards, took a few steps in the right direction — the Song of the Year award went to H.E.R. for “I Can’t Breathe,” and Megan won for Best New Artist (not to mention Brittany Howard’s victory for Best Rock Song for “Stay High”). And it surely didn’t escape anyone’s attention that the most riveting performances of the evening were from its Black performers, leading up to the deliriously over-the-top performance by Megan and Cardi B.
And it wasn’t that long ago that the Recording Academy was caught in an uproar about remarks from a previous president about how female musicians needed to “step up.” This year, at least, the academy seemed to understand that women musicians already had — the top four Grammys went to women (and the category this year for Country Album of the Year was dominated by women, although I guess Little Big Town has a couple of guys; Miranda Lambert won for “Wildcard”).
The Recording Academy is talking a good game about diversity these days and its interim president, Harvey Mason Jr., is well-respected in the industry. But at some point — maybe next year? — the Grammys need to demonstrate how that commitment to diversity plays out in the nominations for, and winners of, its highest awards.
A few other quick notes from the Grammys:
— Your Grammy MVP: Megan Thee Stallion, who looked like she was having a blast throughout. Maybe she can co-host next year with Trevor?
— Yes, it’s a big deal that Beyonce now has won 28 Grammys thus far in her career. But you might have missed that Chick Corea’s two wins Sunday night (both for his album “Trilogy 2”) give the jazz pianist 25 for his career. Shockingly, Corea died of cancer on Feb. 9 at age 79, but he remained a vibrant musical force right up to the end. And considering how prolific he was over his career, I would be surprised if Corea’s vault didn’t contain plenty of Grammy-worthy material.
— Corea, of course, was among those featured in the show’s “In Memoriam” slot. At first, I thought that the segment had made a critical error by starting with the Bruno Mars-Anderson.Paak tribute to Little Richard — how could it top that energy? But then the segment made some classy moves: No one came out to play Eddie Van Halen’s guitar, an understated moment that made the point that no one could fill those shoes. I liked Lionel Richie’s performance of Kenny Rogers’ “Lady” (some Rogers fans might not recall that Richie wrote the song). But I would have swapped the order of the final two memorial performances: Brittany Howard and Chris Martin’s performance of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” a tribute to Gerry Marsden of Gerry and the Pacemakers, should have come before Brandi Carlile’s devastating solo performance of “I Remember Everything,” the last song written by the late great John Prine. Now, if organizers had chosen “Ferry Cross the Mersey” for the Marsden tribute, I might have reconsidered: that song, in that final spot, would have been shattering. And it would have put an exclamation point on the sheer devastation that this past year has wrought.
— You might also have missed that Kanye West won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Christian Music Album for “Jesus is KIng.” It’s West’s 22nd Grammy.