The telecast's efforts to create one-of-a-kind moments end up feeling off the shelf.
A few quick Grammys-related thoughts:
- The Grammys have tried to make “Grammy Moments” the telecast’s calling card. The idea of creating one-of-a-kind live moments is a promising one, and when it works as it did spectacularly when St. Vincent and Dua Lipa provocatively joined “Masseduction” and “One Kiss,” but when it fails, it’s a wipeout. Post Malone (of course Post Malone) sang by himself, then walked through a tunnel while singing “Rock Star” to find Red Hot Chili Peppers, strap on an inaudible guitar, and churn along while they played “Dark Necessities” as if he wasn’t there.
As Grammy telecasts go, it was better than recent ones and only occasionally cringeworthy. Katy Perry sang Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again” like she wanted the song to drop and give her 20, and Jennifer Lopez remade Motown as J-Lotown. The video tribute package to Recording Academy CEO Neil Portnow conspicuously included female artists who sang the praises of the guy who told them last year that their poor representation among the Grammy winners and performers was because they needed to “step up.” The fact that he got as much airtime as the Aretha Franklin tribute should embarrass the Grammys.
Still, for me the glaring takeaway from the Grammys is how little faith the telecast shows in its artists and their music each year. The blueprint for a “Grammy Moment” that producer Ken Ehrlich defaults to year after year is to put a singer onstage alone with a piano (Kacey Musgraves, Shawn Mendes) or guitar (H.E.R., St. Vincent) and start their songs in ways that they didn’t start on the records that earned him or her nominations. That stark, quiet start usually slowly builds (though not in Musgraves’ case), adding the band and eventually strings and/or a gospel chorus--again, in ways that didn’t happen on the record. Thankfully, St. Vincent’s duet with Dua Lipa developed in a far more interesting way, but Ehrlich’s adherence to that dynamic produces a specific kind of whisper-to-a-scream, widescreen drama that is alien to many of the artists presented in that way, and it makes very different artists seem oddly similar.
The best moments came when artists were most themselves. Janelle Monáe’s “Make Me Feel” was a five-minute immersion into her world that begged for five more when it started to break out in Prince-ly, James Brown-like jam after she joined her band on the walkway in front of the stage. Brandi Carlile’s radical earnestness isn’t my thing, but her performance of “The Joke” worked as a passionate, artifice-free “Here is my truth” moment. I was ambivalent about the Dolly Parton tribute as a whole, but Dolly’s ability to assert her persona and musicianship in the constantly shifting cast around her (inCLUDING Katy PERRY and the worker drones Little Big Town) made the tribute seem necessary.
Monáe, Carlile, and St. Vincent and Dua Lipa showed how well the show could work when it respected the artists’ visions and the specifics of the music they were being recognized for. Unfortunately, Ehrlich’s production team fills too much space with by-the-numbers combinations to let those moments become the telecast’s artistic voice.
- Speaking of #grammysdontgetit, the telecast could only be watched online through CBS.com’s pay window, CBS All Access. That meant that fans of Camila Cabello, Dua Lipa, Chloe X Halle, and Post Malone who most likely experience music and television through their phones had to decide if they cared enough to pay to see them. These are the Grammys’ future viewers, and they’re put on the outside looking not in but at something else entirely. To make matters worse, only some performances are available on YouTube so they’re not going to enter the world virally either. In the streaming era, CBS and the Recording Academy doubled down on exclusion.
- Drake hiding backstage was the worst kind of bet-hedging, seemingly absent and adding to the number of hip-hop artists in effect boycotting the Grammys for its lack of respect until he won an award. Then he appeared, which selfishly made the issue not whether or not the Grammys embrace hip-hop but whether it loves his hip-hop. The Grammys then fumbled and cut off his acceptance speech, which won’t help get other rappers back at the show and almost did the unimaginable as it made Drake sympathetic.
- The Grammys clearly engineered the show to say that they don’t have a problem with women. Host Alicia Keys with Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Jada Pinkett Smith and Michelle Obama made a strong statement when the five appeared on stage together, but they said little that came from the unique perspectives that their success has earned them, and none of it specifically spoke to women. Smith came the closest to saying something that mattered when she said, “Every voice deserves to be honored and respected.” The segment used as much firepower as the Grammys could muster in 2019 to settle an age-old debate. Now we know—music’s good!