Wokeness, Out of Focus: The 60th Annual Grammy Awards

Evan Sawdey
Kesha / Photo: Anthony Behar (Sipa USA/TNS)

It was a year of truly progressive nominees. It was a year of confrontational, powerful performances. It could've been an all-timer -- and then the Grammys went horribly, painfully wrong.

The problem with this year's Grammy Awards is the same problem that has plagued the ceremony for decades now: it almost said something significant.

And in truth, this particular Grammys broadcast was one of the more enjoyable in recent memory, despite garnering its lowest ratings in a decade. It was rife with surprisingly progressive, inventive, and downright emotional performances, most coming from nominated performers who walked home empty-handed. It was depressing how safe the final award picks were, but every year we tend to forget that celebrating mediocrity very much falls in line with Grammys' questionable past.

Yet hope in the institution that is the Recording Academy was not misplaced this time out: when the nominations were announced, seeing critically revered artists like Lorde and especially Kendrick Lamar snag top bragging rights was a sight to behold. Somehow, between Jay-Z's controversial 4:44, Kendrick's landmark DAMN., Lorde's wry and literate Melodrama, and multihyphenate Donald Glover's funk-ified about-face, this batch of Album of the Year potentials genuinely felt like the aging and increasingly-out-of-touch Academy finally had their ear to the ground, that they were listening to and elevating the music that was truly changing and shaping our culture. This music was proud. This music was unafraid. This music challenged and dared. (And also, Bruno Mars was nominated.)

In fact, it's hard to think of any awards show that has ever opened as boldly as this year's Grammys did, with Kendrick Lamar delivering a near-cinematic "satire" complete with title cards, marching soldiers, comic and pointed interjections by Dave Chappelle, a guest appearance by Bono and the Edge, simulated gunshot murders of hoodie-wearing dancers, an ever-changing musical track that kept the audience entirely on their toes -- it was stunning. Lamar has given the Grammys some all-time performances before, but this felt bold and confrontational, opening a show with some daring imagery and his own fiery intensity. It wasn't pointedly political, but it was intentionally disarming: this assault to the senses wasn't supposed to lull you into any state of relaxation one bit. It was to wake you the hell up, and wake us up it did.

It was a tough act to follow (and to his credit, host James Corden mostly kept out of the way, avoiding a stumbling idiotic opening number like he did last year but remaining ghastly unfunny throughout the entire broadcast), but Lady Gaga and her molting piano tried. Unlike previous years where WTF acts like Hollywood Undead were invited on stage, there were no outright terrible performances this time, even as celebrated pop vocalists like Sam Smith and Pink just stood there and gave us a lot of belting, making for pleasant but ultimately unmemorable viewing. Some collaborative acts (like Bruno Mars/Cardi B, Luis Fonsi/Daddy Yankee, and DJ Khaled/Rihanna) basically gave us staged versions of their music videos, the multi-part tribute to Broadway went on for far too long (despite Patti LuPone continuing to be a national treasure), and Eric Church's voice cut awkwardly into what was otherwise a gorgeous rendition of Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven" by Brothers Osborne and Maren Morris, designed as a tribute to those lost in the 2017 Las Vegas shooting massacre.

Highest above all, however, was Kesha, a singer whose time in the industry ultimately trapped her into an allegedly abusive relationship with a demanding, demeaning hitmaker. She took him to court, lost multiple times, and suffered in public. People came to her aide, the producer was blackballed, and now, Grammy nominated for the first two times in her life, Kesha gave a powerful tell-off in the form of the stunning forgiveness anthem "Praying". Joined by a litany of divas past and present (Cyndi Lauper, Camila Cabello, Andra Day, Bebe Rexha, and more), these women all donned white outfits while an emotional, crying Kesha powered through her artistic breakthrough. The front of female voices swelled, Kesha's voice scraped the top of her range, and the entire arena came to its feet. It was one of the single most emotional Grammy performances of all time.

And then, right after, was James Corden, who applauded politely and referred to the performance as "powerful and relevant".

If that remark strikes you disgustingly flippant, that's because it was. Unfortunately for the Grammys, despite trying to galvanize a moment where women are speaking out about harassment and representation in the workplace and finally being heard, there hung an air of male entitlement to the evening, with only two women (Rihanna and Alessia Cara) winning awards during the televised broadcast out of the nine awards presented in the evening. When confronted about such a male-dominated winners circle after the fact, Recording Academy president Neil Portnow released a rambling statement to Variety where he said that when it comes to women who want to be musicians, engineers, and be part of the industry "on the executive level", they need "to step up" because he thinks they would be welcome.

The casual sexism of such a statement is stunning as if indicating that women haven't been in positions of power before. Has he perhaps forgotten that Adele won for Album of the Year last year? And Taylor Swift the year before that? Pink wasn't having any of that. Nor were a lot of women, like Tristan Coopersmith, who the day after the Grammys published an open letter to Republic Records executive Charlie Walk, a man that is at present enjoying his time as a panelist on the singing competition TV show The Four. Coopersmith openly accuses him of feeling her up and speaking lewdly to her because he was in a position of power, one that has gone unchecked for far too long. Universal Music Group started an investigation immediately, but the damage was done: for a Grammy night that was supposed to be filled with empowering moments, it took less than 24 hours for the industry to show its bias once again.

As for imposing, lived-in albums by Kendrick, Lorde, and Jay-Z losing the Album of the Year trophy to the safe, self-obsessed radio pop of Bruno Mars' 24K Magic? This, unfortunately, was to be expected. The Grammys have made a point of nominating the politically and artistically significant albums of any year (often liked-to-loved long-players that at least were somewhere on the commercial radar) but usually end up giving the top prize to a fun-if-ultimately-forgettable release. Think Christopher Cross' debut album over Pink Floyd's The Wall in 1981. Or Lionel Richie's Can't Slow Down over Prince's Purple Rain in 1985. Or the 1997 ceremony where Celine Dion's Falling Into You topped Beck's Odelay, The Fugees' The Score, and The Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Guess which albums we're still talking about and citing as influences to this day.

In the end, let's be fair: the 60th Annual Grammy Awards were probably well-intentioned. Most genres of music (that weren't rock, classical, jazz, or world) were represented. A dynamic group of performers was brought together, and none of them were outright terrible. Kendrick stunned. Kesha gave us a rallying cry. The nominees were fascinating, interesting, and perhaps born out of genuine artistic interest -- not purely commercial considerations. There was a lot to like this evening. Then it all came crashing down with safe wins, poorly timed statements, and fronts of unity that only masked the institutionalized sexism that has been baked into the industry for years.

Who knows: maybe they'll get next year's nominees right. Maybe we'll get excited again. Maybe the Grammys will almost say something significant next time.

And then we'll remember that Kesha lost both her nominations this year to the inoffensive mediocre schmaltz of Ed Sheeran. And he wasn't even there.

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