The 2020 Grammy Awards Didn’t Chase the Dark Clouds Away

Video still

In 2019, a spotlight on queer musicians and fast-paced broadcast made the Grammys have some real cultural relevance. Its 2020 edition, clouded by tragedy, scandal, and bloat, only served to remind us why award shows are so problematic.

The 62nd Annual Grammy Awards


26 January 2020

It wasn't just one dark cloud that hung over the Grammy Awards this year. No, there were enough to be considered a thunderstorm.

On 26 January 2020, the day of the 62nd Grammy Awards, the world was shocked to find out that Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter accident earlier that day. While he served as an inspiration to many, it was lost on no one that "Music's Biggest Night" was being housed in the Staples Center, where Bryant lead the L.A. Lakers to numerous NBA records, awards, and victories. In truth, this wasn't the first time that the show's producers had to scramble to acknowledge the passing of a pop culture titan. One day before the 54th edition of there ceremony in 2012, the legendary Whitney Houston passed away, leading to a solemn, reverent tone and a lovely, last-minute tribute by Jennifer Hudson.

The show acknowledged Bryant's passing in many ways. There were shoutouts, Bryant jerseys decorated on performance sets, and a rendition of G.C. Cameron's "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" performed by Boyz II Men and host Alicia Keys at the top of the show.

The program was less ready to touch on the bombshell accusations levied against the Recording Academy just days before by the suddenly-terminated new President Deborah Dugan. Initially brought in to help clean up the mess brought on by long-standing predecessor Neil Portnow, who himself had come under fire for comments for saying that women needed to "step up" in the industry, Dugan's expulsion from the body soon lead to a brutal sniping in the media. The Recording Academy said Dugan created a “toxic environment” and demanded a payoff in the millions. Meanwhile, she filed a complaint accusing the organization of reducing female voices, brushing away sexual assault complaints, and rigging the Grammy Award voting process for insiders and influencers, citing specific categories and specific years in her filing.

For this reason, interim President Harvey Mason Jr. did little to mess with what was already planned in the broadcast. A sensational opening medley from pop music's newest breakout star Lizzo soon segued to a friendly, easy-going Keys who wanted to check in and make sure everyone was feelin' alright. The less said about her horrendous "parody" of Lewis Capaldi's "Someone You Loved", the better. Yet part of Dugan's complaint noted how Grammy Awards long-standing producer Ken Ehrlich was involved in the nominating process. He had a hand in deciding what acts were nominated in part because that would make for a better Grammy broadcast. If that allegation bears any water, then suffice to say, Ehrlich was in a very dour mood when he decided the evening required a near endless stream of ballads.

In terms of performances, it was a rough run. Camila Cabello's tribute to her father ("First Man") was immediately followed by Tanya Tucker's plodding "Bring My Flowers Now". There was Demi Lovato's big comeback song ("Anyone"), Billie Eilish's morose "When the Party's Over", and H.E.R.'s "Sometimes". The list goes on.

When the show aimed for more upbeat fair, it ranged from the forgettable (Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani's duet) to the truly awful. The rambunctious and unfocused revisiting of Aerosmith and Run-DMC's "Walk This Way" was a true broadcast low-point. Then, there was the downright head-scratching. Usher is leading the Prince tribute? The big all-star singalong is for "I Sing the Body Electric" from Fame?

Even the presenters at times seemed utterly mismatched, with Tanya Tucker and Brandi Carlile reading off Best Comedy Album and comedian Jim Gaffigan introducing Camila Cabello. This added to an overall feeling that for all of the meticulous planning that went into these large production numbers, the show itself shambled along, at one point going close to an hour between presenting actual awards. At the very least, Sharon Osbourne had the time of her life reading off the names of the Best Rap/Sung Performance honorees.

So what went wrong? On the previous year's broadcast, the show thrust queer women with guitars front and center, which in turn made for a dynamic, unexpected, and thrilling bit of television. It was easily the best Grammys telecast in a decade. Here, however, the over-reliance on balladry, tawdry pop confections -- literally no one is talking about the Jonas Brothers' performance -- and moments of self-congratulations weighed down a show that is already notorious for running on for too long. By the time Billie Eilish had won Song of the Year and Best New Artist, it was obvious the rest of the evening would follow a similar faultline and she would clean sweep "the big four" categories.

While the Grammys may think itself in-touch for honoring such a daring new voice, one also has to remember that in the past ten years, only once has the show awarded an Album of the Year trophy to a person of color: Bruno Mars for 24K Magic in 2018. It's no surprise that interim President Harvey Mason Jr. announced new inclusion initiatives to combat a track record with such racial bias. But he also announced it the morning of the Grammys -- a news day when that kind of item would easily be swept under the rug.

Between some questionable outcomes and bloated run times, there were few truly standout performances that bordered on envelope-pushing. Early on, Tyler, The Creator brought in Boyz II Men and Charlie Wilson to help aid in rollicking renditions of "Earfquake" and "New Magic Wand". The latter song had a scorched-earth feel with its blaring synths, numerous Tyler doppelgangers, sets on fire, and Tyler falling into a chasm that opened in the “road” beneath him. It was a truly daring blast of borderline-atonal music that felt wonderfully out of place with the Grammys' usually "safe" music. Watching Tyler gave viewers a much-needed rush of adrenaline, as one of the most out-there mainstream artists was given a chance to unleash his weirdness on one of his biggest platforms yet.

Even more stunning was Lil Nas X, tackling his planet-swallowing single "Old Town Road" and its numerous remixes with the help of Billy Ray Cyrus, a particularly amped-up BTS, Diplo, and pint-size country yodeler Mason Ramsey. Nas came out shortly after to duet with Lil Nas (get it?) on "Rodeo". The rotating sets, the changing aesthetics, and the overall sense of fun had by every performer involved made it a genuine standout moment in an evening with far too few of them. Throw in Latin star Rosalía's particularly riotous routine around "Malamente" -- which was about as star-making a turn as they come -- and you have an evening that had moments of success almost in spite of itself.

Despite this handful of highlights, the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards were an overall slog, spending all of the goodwill the event earned just one year prior. The 2020 Grammys reminds us why people are so dismissive of award shows. Dark clouds truly were hanging over the normally-joyous event. If the Recording Academy wants to break into sunshine in 2021, it will have to get serious about making some genuine, lasting, positive change.




By the Book

Jack Halberstam's 'Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire' (excerpt)

Enjoy this excerpt of Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire, wherein Jack Halberstam offers an alternative history of sexuality by tracing the ways in which wildness has been associated with queerness and queer bodies throughout the 20th century.

Jack Halberstam

Sotto Voce's 'Your Husband, the Governor' Is Beautifully Twisted DIY Indie Folk-rock

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Gabos releases another odd, gorgeous home studio recording under the moniker Sotto Voce.


Numün's 'voyage au soleil' Is a Trippy, Ambient Ride and Ambitious Debut

Eclectic instrumental trio numün combine a wealth of influences to create a vibe that's both spacey and earthy on voyage au soleil.


L7's 'Smell the Magic' Is 30 and Packs a Feminist Punch

Abortion is under threat again, and there's a sex offender in the Oval Office. A fitting time, in short, to crank up the righteously angry vocals of feminist hard rock heavy hitters like L7.


Can Queer Studies Rescue American Universities?

Matt Brim's Poor Queer Studies underscores the impact of poorer disciplines and institutions, which often do more to translate and apply transformative intellectual ideas in the world than do their ivory-tower counterparts.


Jim White Offers a "Smart Ass Reply" (premiere)

Jesus and Alice Cooper are tighter than you think, but a young Jim White was taught to treat them as polar opposites. Then an eight-track saved his soul and maybe his life.


Ed Harcourt Paints From 'Monochrome to Colour'

British musician Ed Harcourt's instrumental music is full of turbulent swells and swirls that somehow maintain a dignified beauty on Monochrome to Colour.


West London's WheelUP Merges Broken Beat and Hip-Hop on "Stay For Long" (premiere)

West London producer WheelUP reached across the pond to Brint Story to bring some rapid-fire American hip-hop to his broken beat revival on "Stay For Long".


PM Picks Playlist 4: Stellie, The Brooks, Maude La​tour

Today's playlist features the premiere of Stellie's "Colours", some top-class funk from the Brooks, Berne's eco-conscious electropop, clever indie-pop from Maude Latour, Jaguar Jonze rocking the mic, and Meresha's "alien pop".


Plattetopia: The Prefabrication of Utopia in East Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the licence to take a wrecking ball to its nightmare of repression. But there began the unwritten violence of Die Wende, the peaceful revolution that hides the Oedipal violence of one order killing another.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Electrosoul's Flõstate Find "Home Ground" on Stunning Song (premiere)

Flõstate are an electrosoul duo comprised of producer MKSTN and singer-songwriter Avery Florence that create a mesmerizing downtempo number with "Home Ground".


Orchestra Baobab Celebrate 50 Years with Vinyl of '​Specialist in All Styles'

As Orchestra Baobab turn 50, their comeback album Specialist in All Styles gets a vinyl reissue.


Hot Chip Stay Up for 'Late Night Tales'

Hot Chip's contribution to the perennial compilation project Late Night Tales is a mixed bag, but its high points are consistent with the band's excellence.


The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.


Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.


For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?


Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.