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It’s only been two weeks since the Golden Globes mounted a pandemic-impacted telecast in which they were unable to successfully hook up a Zoom call — much less think of any way to refresh the stale format sufficiently to stop the post-show conversation from being about the embarrassing organization giving the award.
Since that’s where the bar was coming into Sunday (March 14) night’s 63rd Grammy Awards, it’s not enough to just say that CBS and producer Ben Winston put on a spectacularly smooth show punctuated by strong, relevant performances with just enough reminders of our precarious current moment to add poignancy.
This was perhaps the most consistent Grammys telecast I can remember. The Grammys often try to take big swings, to produce unlikely pairings, daring musical mashups and unlikely tributes to legends; those big swings frequently result in indelible moments discussed for years to come, and they just as often lead to fiascos. This year, the big swing was putting on the show at all, much less staging over a dozen performances in multiple venues, giving out a handful of awards in another venue and doing it all without jaw-dropping technical gaffes or running overtime.
Ok, fine, the Grammys telecast failed at the latter part, going a solid 15 minutes over on a show that was already slated for 3-and-a-half hours. And it’s not like there weren’t ways to save time. Gibson Hazard’s short films about the song-of-the-year winners were decent personality pieces for audiences who couldn’t pick Post Malone out of a lineup, but would definitely run screaming from Post Malone in a dark alley. Still, they were mostly included so that host Trevor Noah had content to tell viewers to seek out at Paramount+ after last week’s Harry/Meghan/Oprah interview took place with no opportunities to plug the fledgling streamer.
But let’s accentuate the positive. That was the theme of the telecast, after all. We’ve had various music award shows since the pandemic hit, with different themes and tones. The BET Awards aired in June at the peak of protest and unrest, and felt fully reflective of that moment. To give you a sense of the difference between that show and this telecast, I’d urge you to compare Da Baby’s searing rendition of “Rockstar” at the BET Awards — a horrifying recreation of police violence against Black civilians — and his Grammys performance of the same song, with background singers kinda dressed like judges, a violinist in go-go boots and a more upbeat, sparkly performance from the singer himself.
This was a night about celebrating the music that got us through the year. That’s how Noah, hosting with surplus enthusiasm, expressed it to the small outdoor crowd, socially distanced and occasionally interrupted by traffic sounds from downtown Los Angeles. Initially unnerving — I compared it to a bar mitzvah thrown for a kid with few friends, but a very rich father — the setting grew increasingly appealing.
The need for hasty turnarounds in the smaller, audience-free venues meant more intimate numbers, illustrated by the opening back-to-back-to-back performances from Harry Styles, Billie Eilish and Haim. You had the unmistakable swagger of Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” leading into the evocative, cinematic moodiness of Eilish’s “Everything I Wanted” topped off by the sheer energy of Haim’s “The Steps.” Without a crowd, Styles and Eilish stuck around to lend support, and their and Noah’s bopping along to Haim got the night off to a terrific start. The sound was stellar and the reasonably open stage gave the camera crews easy navigation around the stars.
There were certainly bigger performances. Much bigger performances.
The one-two punch of Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” and “WAP,” with Cardi B donning metallic lingerie that put any similar Madonna look to shame, was joyfully deranged and raunchy — from the aggressively censored lyrics to the psychedelia-meets-porn-meets-Monty-Python animation to the masked dancers paying homage to the Nicholas Brothers to Megan and Cardi ending up in a gigantic bed together. One can only imagine the angry letters that viewers — no doubt the same people having anxiety about liberal cancel culture — are going to be sending to CBS tomorrow.
Dua Lipa also took advantage of performing two songs to go from the Old Hollywood fuchsia glamour of “Levitating” to the sexier, dance-driven “Don’t Start Now,” adding spark at a moment where the show was lagging.
BTS couldn’t make it to Los Angeles, so they recreated the Grammys stage in Seoul and executed an ambitious piece of choreography that took the group from the main venue, up a stairwell, to a rooftop bathed in both spotlights and Seoul’s city lights. It was epic and electric.
The night’s most talked-about performance — or at least the one that should be its most talked-about — came from Lil Baby (not to be confused with Da Baby). He used a stretch of parking lot and road around the L.A. Convention Center to stage a harrowing movie that began with actor-and-activist Kendrick Sampson being pulled over and shot by a cop, and included speeches from activists Tamika D. Mallory and Killer Mike. It was in the vein of half of the performances from the BET Awards, but I’m glad the Grammys didn’t forget that the systemic problems called out in the summer protests remain largely unsolved.
Also worthy of praise was the way the Grammys handled the In Memoriam segment in a year that saw both the music industry and nation at large lose too many good people. It was a 20-plus minute necrology that included Lionel Richie honoring Kenny Rogers, Bruno Mars’ all-too-perfect salute to Little Richard and Brittany Howard tearing the roof off with a cover of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
There were also very good performances from Black Pumas, Silk Sonic, Taylor Swift, a trio of country chanteuses led by Mickey Guy, and Bad Bunny, in a night that, it has to be said, paid only the most cursory attention to Latinx artists.
The winners? This is the Grammys. It hardly matters. Beyonce made a surprising appearance, shocking Megan Thee Stallion when she joined her in accepting an award for their “Savage” — though her presence became less shocking when she broke the record for Grammys won by a woman or singer, male or female, later in the show. Swift won her third album of the year trophy and was giddy. Billie Eilish won her second straight song of the year award and told Megan Thee Stallion that the prize belonged to her. And many of the awards were presented by employees of various independent musical venues as a reminder of businesses hurt by COVID and the hope that music will lead to their resurrection sometime in the future.
It was a good show, elevated by a high degree-of-difficulty to a near-great one.
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