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On the heels of last week’s memorable Academy Awards ceremony, the 64th Grammy Awards had a lot to live up to — whether that inspires dread or excitement depends on which of the many sides of The Slap you landed on. But the glittering event, rescheduled from Jan. 31 to April 3 because of the ongoing pandemic, was ultimately a tedious, pedestrian affair.
Like most mainstream honors, the Grammys seemed in search of meaning. With the exception of a few performances, the live telecast felt like another attempt at the onerous task of re-establishing relevancy, an exercise that pulls the awards further from its purpose of highlighting recording artistry and toward a more amorphous goal of — what? Courting younger generations? Capturing the zeitgeist? Proving the Recording Academy is listening and learning? It’s unclear. But the show’s choices revealed that its commitment to any issue beyond its continued existence is, at best, superficial. Trevor Noah, the evening’s host, acknowledged this bleak reality best in his opening monologue: “This is a concert where we give out awards.”
And the show did feel like a concert, albeit an uneven one. It began with a rousing performance by the night’s most decorated act, Silk Sonic, performing “777.” Its members, Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars, wore white bejeweled vintage outfits as they belted and grooved onstage. Their performance (one of many electrifying ones during the evening) was followed by Noah’s serviceable monologue. He tried to drum up excitement in the crowd by listing the performances and, of course, made a passing reference to last weekend’s events. “We are going to keep people’s names out of our mouth,” he said before the show moved on to Olivia Rodrigo’s moody arrangement of her hit “Drivers License,” followed by J Balvin and Maria Becerra’s kinetic medley.
Questlove, who on Sunday won an Oscar for his documentary Summer of Soul, appeared next to present the Song of Year award to Silk Sonic’s “Leave the Door Open.” He also took time to reference The Slap: “I trust that you will stay 500 feet away from me.” I prayed it would be the last mention of the Oscars debacle.
BTS’s rendition of “Butter” and the medley that followed from Lil Nas X and Jack Harlow, of “Dead Right Now,” “Montero” and “Industry Baby,” offered glimpses into the show’s alchemical potential. Harnessing the power of erotic undertones, suggestion, precise choreography and brilliant production, these acts momentarily loosened the event, freeing it from its air of rigidity. The seven members of BTS used all of Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena as their stage, conscripting Rodrigo in the opening moments of their dazzling, James Bond-esque rendition: a knowing glance, a whispered message, a smooth convening on the stage. Lil Nas X and Harlow maintained this energy. The former incorporated the controversy around his music into the production and the latter cleverly circumvented television censorship guidelines.
But the magic of these and other performances were no match for the Recording Academy’s cheap and vampiric approach to putting on a show. Take the decision to include a prerecorded video from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, which was an idea floated to and rejected by the producers of the Oscars. Just why this was never a good suggestion became apparent as the leader pleaded his case with a largely American audience. Nothing could be more antithetical to the joys of music than the violence of war, he intimated before urging viewers to support Ukrainian efforts. “Fill the silence with your music. Fill it today. To tell our story. Tell the truth about this war on your social networks, on TV. Support us in any way you can. Any — but not silence,” he said in the solemn message. There was no time to digest it before John Legend appeared onstage, parked in front of his piano singing the opening lyrics of a new song titled “Free.”
The irony of a Black man crooning about freedom in a country committed to denying its own active efforts to curtail liberties was almost too much to bear. Focus on it too long, though, and one risked missing the Ukrainian artists — Siuzanna Iglidan, Mika Newton and Lyuba Yakimchuk — who performed alongside Legend. As Yakimchuk offered a spoken-word bit of verse, her chyron read “Fled Ukraine just days ago.” The note, coupled with the fact that this moment was sandwiched between unrelated performances and jokes about The Slap and COVID, was an unsettling reminder of America’s selective application of sympathy and artificial way of handling current affairs. If the Oscars wanted to stick to escapism, the Grammys wanted to lean into reality, regardless of whether the show’s approach was logical or helpful.
To highlight the importance of touring and the behind-the-scenes efforts required to stage concerts, the Grammys also highlighted select tour managers. Awards were not, to my knowledge, presented to them, though. Instead, these individuals received brief airtime to talk about how much they loved their job and their bosses. But these presentations quickly adopted a strange tenor and the tour managers started to feel like props instead of people.
The Grammys were at their best when the proceedings let the artists take the lead. Jazmine Sullivan, whose phenomenal Heaux Tales was named best R&B album, talking about her project’s inception and the community of Black women she fostered through it. Doja Cat and SZA gushing at each other after their song “Kiss Me More” won for best pop duo/group performance. Cynthia Erivo, Ben Platt, Rachel Zegler and Leslie Odom Jr. performing a Stephen Sondheim medley during the in memoriam segment. Album of the year winner Jon Batiste’s earnest and honest speech about music as a mystic, subjective experience that finds its audience. These moments refocused the evening, shifting it from a self-serving, half-baked attempt at relevancy to a tribute, albeit imperfect, to the form.
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