In spite of itself, there were legitimate reasons to be excited about the 58th Annual Grammy Awards.
Trust us: we are keenly aware of the fact that rarely do “the Grammy Awards” and “excitement” go together hand in hand (as other, better phrases like “terrifying sideshow” and “ear torture” feel infinitely more applicable), but after spending previous years alternating between being a pleasant if inoffensive distraction and a bonfire for corporate America’s raging id, it felt as if were actually due for an evening of legitimate fun and maybe, if we were really lucky, a celebration of some great music.
Instead, what we got was a watered down, washed out dumb show of talented artists collapsing in a vacuum. Only Kendrick Lamar delivered a moment of undisputed thunder that proved so provocative and scintillating that, as if by design, his performance was immediately followed by the cool it down quick splash of cold water that was Seth MacFarlane. Indeed, the contrast was so jarring that it’s surprising there isn’t a class action suit for whiplash being filed against the Recording Academy the day after.
Yet, for the sake of context, let’s not forget that even after a year of considerably great music and a nomination spread that felt surprisingly well-informed (Chris Stapleton? Alabama Shakes? Indie-electronica great CFCF? The great Jason Isbell picking up some hardware before the night is over? Great!), 2016 started off with what seemed like a never-ending litany of tragic deaths, ranging from David Bowie’s unexpected passing to the Eagles’ Glenn Frey to Natalie Cole to Earth, Wind, and Fire’s Maurice White, all celebrated icons who were each pillars in their own right. Heck, even during the broadcast proper, news broke that iconic Prince protégé and one-time movie star Vanity had passed away, compounding what has proven to be an already difficult year for music fans — and the year has just begun.
So questions lingered: how would the Grammys pay tribute to these legends? Back in 2012, the show deftly and honorably acknowledged the death of Whitney Houston less than 24 hours before the broadcast started, giving a surprisingly reverent and respectful tone that carried throughout the rest of the evening. The way the show’s producers handled such a tragedy then provided some hope for this year’s announced tributes to the likes of B.B. King, Frey, White, and Bowie.
This year, following a string of heralded public performances, Lady Gaga seemed liked a viable candidate for doing a proper Bowie tribute, but by the time we got there in the broadcast’s final third, her attempt to cram as many covers as she could into such a short amount of time felt less like an acknowledgment of what Bowie had accomplished and more like a vehicle for Gaga to show just how diverse and talented she is, which actually may have worked had she spent even a little bit of time attempting to infuse any of the songs with her own mark or personality. It was a big disappointment in a night that was at that point so very blah, blah, bland. Far too many performances got caught up in serving only themselves, most artists thinking this gig was a definite career booster and not, in fact, a chance to actually entertain a wider audience.
Opening the show with Taylor Swift’s repetitious single “Out of the Woods” made for a bloodless start. Thereafter, virtually every new pairing placed before us (Sam Hunt and Carrie Underwood, Tori Kelly and James Bay, an upsettingly off-key Ellie Goulding and Andra Day) led us farther down the path of blandness. Quiet, simple moments have worked before (see: that time in 2011 when Keith Urban, Norah Jones, and John Mayer wowed with a short-but-sweet cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”), but for an evening built on spectacle, it takes more than Miguel going through the motions of Michael Jackson’s “She’s Out of My Life” to entice the average home viewer, as years of watching everything from the Grammys to countless designed-to-be-hatewatched live TV musicals have left audiences craving not over-the-top spectacle but, instead, authenticity. Thankfully, in some artists, in spite of the Grammys, we got it.
Pop stars will strike the same poses year after year and their hardcore fans will always find a way to celebrate it amongst themselves, but audiences aren’t dumb: they can smell a fake from a mile away, which is why those rare moments when a person steps out on stage and gives us a real piece of their heart resonates so deeply. Whether it be Adele or Beyoncé or Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump (this article is written in 2016 let’s not forget), the Authentic Self has never had more merit or impact than it does now, and as pop stars and politicians are finding out, authenticity is the hardest thing in the world to fake.
Yet even Ms. Authenticity herself, Adele, still couldn’t get over a hurdle as simple as having one of the piano mics during her song “All I Ask” fall into the piano strings, creating a weird, atonal guitar sound that marred and sometimes off-key performance of the Bruno Mars co-penned weeper. Broadway mega-hit Hamilton did exactly what it needed to do to impress, and given that it was that very musical that helped anchor the Great White Way’s banner year, it made sense to present the Best Musical Theatre Album award live on air, a rare treat given that the Recording Academy rarely gives such niche/under appreciated categories the time of day. But let’s be real: none of this would be a problem if the broadcast allowed a few more awards presentations to transpire during the broadcast instead of dolling out a meager eight gongs over the course of several bloated hours.
That being said, the wins for Record and Album of the Year (for Mark Ronson and Taylor Swift respectively), normally the controversial highlights of any given Grammy Awards, felt like mere afterthoughts following the enormity and power of Lamar’s performance of both “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright”. Entering the stage in chains and dressed like a prison inmate, Lamar thrilling and challenging performance gave the Grammys much needed sound and color. There were wild jazz saxophones, an enormous onstage bonfire, and flickering strobe lights. Lamar rapped like a man possessed. Every word focused and imbued with emotion. His rapid-fire delivery ended with him standing in silhouette in front of the outline of Africa with the word “Compton” printed across it. It was a striking, dynamic image that left an indelible impression and little doubt as to Lamar’s uncanny talents — or intent.
That’s not to diminish some of the evening’s smaller moments, however, which ranged from Stevie Wonder playfully taunting the audience for not being able to read his braille envelope for the Song of the Year winner to Chris Stapleton’s soulful rendition of B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” with able assists from Gary Clark, Jr. and the inimitable Bonnie Raitt. Heck, even the Alice Cooper-fronted, Johnny Depp-assisted Hollywood Vampires, for all their cheese and unrepentant hard rock excess, managed to make viewers stir in their sits a bit during their tribute to Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister, giving us straight-up hard rock, lots of fire, but, alas little else. It may have come across as a shambling mess to some (and you are not wrong for thinking so), but for the Grammys to acknowledge a hard rock icon beyond a mere In Memorium slideshow is both welcome and appreciated.
Outside of the rightly-heralded performances and laughably bad attempts at performances (we’re lookin’ right at you, Pitbull’s “El Taxi”, with your by-the-numbers casual sexism), the Grammys felt more mainstream than ever this year. It gave its top two prizes to one of the bestselling songs of 2015 (“Uptown Funk”) and one of its bestselling albums to Taylor Swift’s 1989). Yet the moments that stick with us the most are, again, the ones that cut through the same tired narratives we’ve seen before, ranging from Lamar’s deserved ownership of the cultural conversation to even Swift’s Album of the Year acceptance speech, which proved legitimately empowering. It even managed to take a much-needed swipe — in a deft and gloriously dismissive fashion — at Kanye West’s claims that he made her famous.
We want that authenticity to shine through in the Grammys. We want to see and hear musicians who are not afraid to be themselves, ala the formidable Brittany Howard and the incredibly talented Chris Stapleton, who can stand on stage backed only by their art and talent and “wow” us. It makes for great TV, it makes for good conversation, it makes for moments that the Grammys can never manufacture.