Five Takeaways from the 61st Grammy Awards

Image Courtesy of Getty Images

Image Courtesy of Getty Images

By John Martin

Oh, the Grammys. Year after year, Music’s Biggest Night attempts to celebrate the achievements of an industry it struggles to understand, forcing a subjective field into objective constraints. Granted, it does have some good moments and standout performances. But the fact remains: it’s a four-hour behemoth, annually marred by controversy, industry politics and fading cultural importance. And yet, the ceremony chugs along, grasping at straws to stay relevant in an ecosystem that is quickly moving beyond it. This year’s Grammys strived to right some of its previous wrongs, though its ratings and its viewership continue to decline. Here are my five takeaways from the 61st Grammy Awards.

Women Dominated the Show

Following the lack of major female nominations and wins at the 2018 Grammys, Recording Academy president Neil Portnow remarked that women should “step up” if they want more recognition, a comment met with harsh criticism. With 38 awards won by women (up from last year’s 17), it’s clear that the Grammys have taken steps to be more inclusive in their award recipients. The night started off with a women led introduction featuring Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Jennifer Lopez and former first lady Michelle Obama. There were tribute performances to Dolly Parton, Diana Ross and the late Aretha Franklin. Cardi B even made history as the first solo female to win Best Rap Album. Regardless of the circumstances that precipitated the push for more inclusion, it’s exciting to see such a diverse array of women honored at this year’s ceremony. Dua Lipa put it best in her acceptance speech for Best New Artist: “I guess this year we really stepped up.”

The Recording Academy Still Struggles with Black Artists

The Grammys have a long and complicated history with hip-hop, rap, R&B and the representation of Black artists in general. One of the more glaring injuries came in 2014 when Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ The Heist won Best Rap Album over good kid, m.a.a.d city by Kendrick Lamar. Considering that a rap album hasn’t taken home the Album of the Year Award since Outkast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below in 2004, Music’s Biggest Night has routinely failed to adapt to a rapidly changing music landscape where hip-hop has eclipsed the popularity of other genres. And in response, some of the highest selling Black artists in music right now (Beyonce, Jay-Z, Kanye West, etc.) have largely shunned the award show.

This year, Drake won Best Rap Song for “God’s Plan”, which was followed by a speech calling attention to the insignificance of a Grammy Award (“We play in an opinion-based sport, not a factual-based sport”). Though he was saying what many people believe, the show abruptly cut to commercial after a brief pause in his speech. Grammys’ producers claim that the flub was accidental, but the move could also have been motivated by an instinct not to televise its own criticism, especially from a veteran Grammy winner. One of the more misguided decisions of the night was allowing J Lo to perform a lengthy tribute to Motown. As arguably the greatest Black record label in American history, giving a non-Black artist the opportunity to perform Motown classics like “Do You Love Me?” and “My Girl” is irresponsible to say the least. The performance, though flashy, was ultimately a tasteless way to celebrate Motown’s legacy, especially during Black History Month.

It’s not all bad news though. Childish Gambino’s “This is America” won all four awards it was nominated for: Best Music Video, Best Rap/Sung Performance, Song of the Year and Record of the Year. More importantly, it became the first rap song to win Song of the Year and Record of the Year. However, his absence from the show speaks louder than any words he could have said in an acceptance speech. Considering that “This is America” is a criticism of how Black art and Black suffering are exploited and commodified in American culture, showing up or performing the song on stage would have compromised its message. Yes, the track has made history, but it’s wins could never absolve the Grammys for their past and ongoing struggles with Black music.

Alicia Keys Should Host Everything from Now On

After this year’s controversy over who would host the (now hostless) Oscars, it started to feel like no one was up to the task of hosting anymore. But Alicia Keys, the first female Grammys host in 14 years, proved to be one of the best parts of the ceremony by bringing a comforting and inviting energy every time she appeared. One of the night’s highlights was her medley of songs ranging from Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody” to Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop” to Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams”. Playing two pianos at once in reference to Hazel Scott’s groundbreaking performance in the 1943 film, The Heat’s On, Keys dazzled the audience with her amazing ability on piano. As a fifteen-time Grammy winner and a joy to watch on screen, Alicia Keys was exactly what the show needed.

Big Absences Can’t Go Unnoticed

After reports came out that Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino all declined offers to perform at the Grammys this year, the news was a reflection of the declining prestige of the cable mainstay. Be it lack of interest or lack of previous recognition, artists like Ed Sheeran, Rihanna, Jay Z, Beyonce, SZA and Taylor Swift all opted not to show up to this year’s ceremony. Considering that the show thrives off the star power that attends, significant absences signal that the Grammys’ reputation has continued to suffer.

Following disagreements with producers about which song(s) she would perform, Ariana Grande pulled out of the show, citing the stifling of her creativity and self-expression. Her proposal to perform her recent single “7 Rings” was rejected by the Grammys and would only be allowed if the track were in a medley with a song of the showrunners’ choice. If anything, the fight is emblematic of the disconnect between recording artists and the ceremony that is supposed to celebrate them. Although she won her first Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album, her absence further evinces the Recording Academy’s failure to tap into vital parts of our current cultural moment. But would it really be the Grammys without controversy?

Other Notable Absences:

  • Bradley Cooper was attending the BAFTAs so he couldn’t perform “Shallow” with Lady Gaga

  • 21 Savage’s detainment by ICE was not referenced during Post Malone’s performance of “rockstar”

  • XXXTentacion was rejected from the In Memoriam segment

  • Childish Gambino missed the three televised awards he won for “This Is America”

Surprise! The Album of the Year Is Actually Good This Year

The Album of the Year Award has historically been one of the more criticized trophies handed out at the Grammys. There was Mumford and Sons’ Babel winning over Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange in 2013. There was Taylor Swift’s 1989 winning the award over Kendrick Lamar’s sprawling opus, To Pimp A Butterfly, in 2016. And who could forget last year’s controversy when masterpieces like DAMN., Ctrl and Melodrama were overlooked in favor of the likeable-but-not-lovable 24K Magic by Bruno Mars. A penchant for selecting inoffensive crowd pleasers over albums with greater artistic merit has left the Grammys dramatically out of step with what critics actually believe. But what happens when an album both delights critics and fills the exact niche that the Recording Academy is going for?

Possibly one of their best Album of the Year picks in recent memory, Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves presents artistically liberated pop-country music in its most accessible form. Not only pleasing listeners at home, the album sits comfortably in the top five of at least twenty-four ‘top albums of 2018’ lists in publications ranging from Pitchfork to Stereogum to The Rolling Stone. As someone who was wholly prepared to criticize the Recording Academy for choosing a middle of the road album like Drake’s Scorpion, I will now graciously eat my words. Maybe this pick is a sign of change for the Grammys. Or maybe Golden Hour was just that impressive. Regardless, I’m pleasantly surprised.

Conclusion

If you asked me last year, I would have said the Grammys are an institution too steeped in tradition to actually change itself. Too inaccurate to be taken seriously. Too beholden to pleasing everyone that it winds up pleasing no one. However, significant increases in the diversity of the makeup of its voting pool show that the Recording Academy is trying to update itself. It still struggles to hold the attention of American audiences, but considering that my expectations were low, the 61st Grammys were at least better than last year’s show. Whether this trend will stick has yet to be seen; but maybe, just maybe, the Grammys can regain some of its status in the coming years.

Steven Norwalk