The Grammys Return, but Struggle to Hit the Right Notes

It’s not terribly surprising that the public’s appetite for televised awards shows in which moneyed and powerful people squeeze into gowns and cummerbunds and skinny sunglasses and metal-plated Balenciaga platform Crocs, and heartily congratulate each other is waning. In general, the ratings for these sorts of elaborate pageants have been bottoming out recently, which can be partially attributed to the tumult of the pandemic, but also feels indicative of some collective weariness—or just an increasing awareness of the vast and devastating divide between the way some people live and the way most people live. Never before has the phrase “In this economy?” felt more germane. At last night’s Grammy Awards telecast, even the show’s host, Trevor Noah, seemed eager to put a few miles of road between the event and that cursed phrase, “awards show.” “Don’t even think of it as an awards show,” he offered. “This is a concert where we’re giving out awards.”

This year, the Grammys were held at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, a pandemic-related shift from their usual home in Los Angeles. The new location made an already overdone extravaganza feel several measures more lurid (“No one wants to go to that gross ass town,” an anonymous flack told Page Six earlier this week). There can’t be many music fans left who truly believe that the Grammys are a relevant marker of our cultural hungers or tell a story about the best art produced in a given year, though relevance itself feels like an awkward metric in an era in which the very idea of a consolidated mainstream—that there is a global “music” and we can gather to judge it qualitatively—is increasingly absurd. Despite the self-branding as “Music’s Biggest Night,” the Grammys rarely speak in a coherent or edifying way to present trends in music; at this point in the show’s history, there’s not even a significant sales bump for the big winners. (The economist Will Page recently told the Times that Taylor Swift’s 2021 Album of the Year win, for “folklore,” netted her only an additional fifty-thousand dollars in royalties.) Yet I’d wager that the Grammys will continue to persevere—for a lot of artists, even some of the more validated ones, it can still feel nice to collect an award. The rest of us, I suppose, are just bored enough to remain complicit.

Before the show began, there were dark portents. Will Smith’s behavior at the Oscars suggested that sudden violence on live television is largely O.K. if you’re famous enough. Taylor Hawkins, the widely beloved drummer for Foo Fighters—who had been scheduled to play, and won awards for Best Rock Performance (“Making a Fire”), Best Rock Song (“Waiting On a War”), and Best Rock Album (“Medicine at Midnight”)—died unexpectedly last month, while the band was on tour in Bogotá, Colombia. (In one of the best and most genuinely forceful performances of the night, Billie Eilish performed her song “Happier Than Ever” while wearing a T-shirt with a large photo of Hawkins on the front.) Meanwhile, Kanye West was preëmptively disinvited to perform, following several weeks of troubling behavior (including calling Noah a racial slur, after Noah suggested that West should stop harassing his ex-wife, Kim Kardashian). West didn’t show up at all in Vegas. (Other notable absences included Tyler, the Creator, who won Best Rap Album; Drake, who pulled his music from contention; the Weeknd, who has made good on a vow to never mess with the Grammys again; and Cardi B and Taylor Swift, who were nominated in one category each.)

There were brief nods to suffering elsewhere on earth. John Legend led a sombre tribute to the people of Ukraine, performing his song “Free” with cameos by three Ukrainian artists: the singer Mika Newton, the bandura player Siuzanna Iglidan, and the poet Lyuba Yakimchuk. The segment was preceded by a short, pre-filmed statement from the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who emphasized the surreal distance between whatever was happening in Las Vegas and what continues to happen in Ukraine: “Our children draw swooping rockets, not shooting stars,” he said. “Our musicians wear body armor instead of tuxedos.” However well intentioned a tribute of this kind might be—and surely there is an argument to be made for raising awareness of a war, particularly when journalists are being persecuted and suppressed—it’s difficult not to wonder why the Grammy organizers didn’t just cancel the whole thing (and I mean the whole thing) and donate the production costs to groups that might help prevent children from being bombed.

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As far as looking toward the future with hope, the evening was focussed on the nineteen-year-old phenom Olivia Rodrigo, who was nominated seven times, including in all four of the major categories: Best New Artist, and Album, Song, and Record of the Year. From afar, Rodrigo can seem as though she’s some sort of factory-made assemblage, engineered to collect dollars and Grammys—she combines the earnestness and ardor of Taylor Swift with the angst and drama of Billie Eilish, and performs with the confidence of someone who has been on television since she was thirteen. But “drivers license,” her début single, is a tender and elegantly produced song about surviving a breakup. It throbs with genuine pathos and heartache—all the confusion and bitterness of losing a love that you believed you’d hold until you died (or at least until graduation). “You said ‘forever,’ now I drive alone past your street,” Rodrigo sings, her voice velvety, rich, and trembling. The song features a hazy, sing-songy bridge: “I still fuckin’ love you, babe,” Rodrigo admits, her voice full and forceful, rising red and flush, like a sunrise. The track broke Spotify’s record for the most streams of a non-holiday song in a single day, and spent eight weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100. There was chatter that Rodrigo might sweep the big categories, as Eilish did in 2020. Instead, she won three over all: Best New Artist, Best Pop Solo Performance for “drivers license,” and Best Pop Vocal Album for “Sour,” her début LP.

Silk Sonic, the duo of Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars, who are presently in the midst of a Las Vegas residency, opened the show with “777,” a rousing homage to debauchery. They wore sunglasses and Nudie-style suits embossed with rhinestone pips. It was my favorite performance of the night:

Pretty motherfucker with some money to blow
I’m ’bout to buy Las Vegas after this roll
I’m ’bout to buy Las Vegas after this roll
Come on, seven, seven, seven
Let’s gooooooo!

Mars and .Paak announced the formation of Silk Sonic in 2021, and it’s part pastiche—their songs are modelled after smooth, medallion-laden nineteen-seventies R. & B. and soul—and part dumb joke. “Not to be dramatic, but I wanna die,” .Paak sings on “Smokin Out the Window,” a lament for an apparently inequitable divorce agreement. .Paak and Mars are so uncannily expert—so genuinely good—it’s often hard to know when to snicker and when to pour a snifter of brandy, toss some scarves over the floor lamps, and sway along. The band won all four of the Grammys it was nominated for, including Record of the Year, a category that honors a single track and seems to have overtaken Album of the Year as the ceremony’s most coveted commendation, a shift that likely reflects the playlist-heavy way people consume music now. “We are really trying our hardest to remain humble at this point, but in the industry, we call that a clean sweep,” .Paak said. “So all the other nominees, you all know we love y’all. We love y’all. Drinks is on Silk Sonic tonight. We getting drunk. I know a lot of y’all fans might be upset, so we’re gonna get out of here before the Internet get to talking.”

This year, the Recording Academy increased the number of nominees for the top four categories from eight to ten the day before they were announced, a move that Harvey Mason, Jr., the chief executive of the Academy, said was intended “to make room for more music, more artists and more genres, and to embrace the spirit of inclusion.” But awards are by nature exclusive, which is what makes them desirable and interesting, and the oversized category merely felt overwhelming. Of the ten songs nominated for Record of the Year—“I Still Have Faith in You,” by ABBA; “I Get a Kick Out of You,” by Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett; “Freedom,” by Jon Batiste; “Peaches,” by Justin Bieber, featuring Daniel Caesar and Giveon; “Right on Time,” by Brandi Carlile; “Kiss Me More,” by Doja Cat, featuring SZA; “Happier Than Ever,” by Eilish; “MONTERO (Call Me by Your Name),” by Lil Nas X; “Leave the Door Open,” by Silk Sonic; and “drivers license,” by Rodrigo—only “drivers license” and “MONTERO” felt truly of 2022, but no matter.

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