The Timid, the Tacky, and the Talented: The 59th Annual Grammy Awards
"I thought it was her year," Adele told reporters backstage after upsetting Beyoncé. "What the fuck does she have to do to win Album of the Year?"
The problem with the 59th annual Grammy Awards this year wasn't Metallica's non-functioning microphone.
In fact, the problem wasn't Adele singing in the wrong key and stopping/restarting her tribute to George Michael (that was one of the evening's more genuine moments). It wasn't Grammy President Neil Portnow's vague and on-the-nose speech about artistic unity, the hurried and forgettable tribute to the Bee Gees featuring Tori Kelly doing her umpteenth awards show circuit, or even host James Corden's painfully kindergarten-level-obvious gags and quips (to say nothing of his attempt at rapping).
The problem with this year's Grammy Awards was pretty simple: more than any other year in recent history, the Grammys were afraid.
For a show the CBS frequently bills as "Music's Biggest Night", it's amazing how hum-drum and lowly one can feel after, with so many artists tossed into the national television spotlight only to prop up the only song we know of their work, and failing to use this venue to present anything of note. One can't necessarily blame the producers of the telecast for wanting to get in front of artists and their vision, but audiences aren't dumb: they know that product will be shilled at them, but maybe, just maybe, some of it will connect or say something challenging or introduce whole new dimensions of genre, style, and sound into the mix. Yet more often than not in its decision as to who should be awarded, this year's Grammys played it uncomfortably safe.
On paper, certainly, some of these ideas at least intrigue: Metallica doing a new song with Lada Gaga on split vocals? Could be interesting, new, different. The result, however, was poorly mixed. Lead singer James Hetfield was clearly upset that his microphone wasn't working for the entirety of the first verse. But still, for "Music's Biggest Night" to include thrash-metal? At least it was bold. Katy Perry plugging her latest blast of post-Prism political pop vagueries? Less so, no matter how great her set was. Make no mistake: the production designers were the clear and obvious stars throughout the course of the evening.
Of course, this year, like any year, has moments that range from bland (Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood continuing to operate under the illusion that their latest synth-vamp single "The Fighter" could still be considered country) to boring (have fun hanging with Len in obscurity, Lukas Graham). For every moderately interesting performance like Ed Sheeran using a loop pedal to create his latest chart-topper "Shape of You" or Alicia Keys working with feisty country darlin' Maren Morris on "Once", there were artists that were content with sticking with their usual schtick and doing little to differentiate it (looking at you Pentatonix and Gary Clark, Jr.). Adele knew something was off when she restarted her cover of George Michael's "Fastlove", an act of defiance which certainly deserves to be lauded. But she turned the easy-breezy pop jam into a funeral dirge.
As the evening wore on and James Corden took off his pants in his continuing quest of being the most eager-to-please host this side of Jimmy Fallon, a question started to form: given all the talent gathered in one room, what is this telecast trying to say about it? Where was the goddamn outrage? Where was the defiance? Where was the venue for artists to push some art after having previously used their Twitter accounts to express frustration over the executive orders issued by the Trump administration?
Just one week prior, Lady Gaga was already harangued by both fans and critics for not being political enough in her Super Bowl halftime show appearance (for a much more nuanced take, read Ann Powers' "Should Anyone Expect Pop Stars to Lead the Resistance?"). What could we expect from the Grammys? Katy Perry wore a sparkly "Resist" armband during her performance before saying "No hate!" in front of a backdrop of the United States Constitution, but the messaging, as per usual, was both basic and expected, despite the fact that unlike so many performers in the evening, she at least tried doing something of note.
Leave it, then, to A Tribe Called Quest (with Busta Rhymes, Consequence, and Anderson Paak) to cut through the half-measures and get right out there in the open with it. Busta Rhymes called Trump "President Agent Orange" twice. An actual brick wall was busted down, and a woman in a hijab rushed through the opening. Q-Tip stood over the massive standing ovation "Resist!" over and over again. The group did all of this while still rolling in the thick grooves of "Award Tour" and the new classic "We the People", never once forgetting about their deep musicality but also proving they were unafraid to speak their minds. Their point of view was so pointed, so unique, and so thoughtfully expressed that despite being overt and defiant, it never once felt preachy or forced. It goes down with Kendrick Lamar as one of the great all-time Grammy performances and showed the rest of the performers on stage that one should not be timid when given a platform of this size.
Beyoncé / Photo: Robert Gauthier (Los Angeles Times/TNS)
That's not to say that Beyoncé didn't give it her all (she did as per usual, with a visually stunning meditation on motherhood featuring digitally refracted mirror screens, elaborate choreography, and a mechanical tilting chair that was used during "Love Drought"), just as how it's impossible to bemoan anything about Chance the Rapper's stunning performance of "How Great", bringing on Kirk Franklin and a fierce, fun gospel to help exacerbate what Chance does best when performing live: lifting up the spirits of everyone in the room.
Despite the hit or miss performance ratio staying about the same as it does every year, the set pieces that worked did so due to a boldness that sometimes skips over the Grammy Awards altogether. The Weeknd's duet with Daft Punk "I Feel It Coming" wasn't just a faithful recreation of the single: the song's last half built upon itself and grew in intensity to lead to a pulsating, light-filled crescendo that makes the single version of the track feel tame by comparison.
While it was wonderful to see a fiery young artist like Chance the Rapper take home trophies for Best New Artist and Best Rap Album, when it came down to the "big" awards of the evening -- Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Album of the Year -- the Recording Academy broke from a genuinely pushing narrative record like Beyoncé's Lemonade to again honor Adele for her monster smash 25. While many pointed out this was an expected move (read Zach Schonfeld's piece in Newsweek about how 25 was practically engineered to win its category), others have pointed out how over the past several years, the Album of the Year Is awarded to a white artist time and time again, with Taylor Swift trouncing Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly last year, Beck upsetting Beyoncé's self-titled the year before that, Mumford & Sons upsetting Frank Ocean in 2013, and so on.
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While at the end of the day art is subjective, and we will be speaking more about Album of the Year nominee Purple Rain over its eventual category winner Can't Slow Down by Lionel Richie, these seemingly isolated incidents only reveal themselves when stacked up next to each other. In 2015 a Rolling Stone article "Do the Grammys Have a Race Problem?", Racquel Cepeda noted how "It's one thing to be out of touch and another to be racist. However, when something begins to reek of both, that's when the theories start to fly."
Given the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences made a point to diversify its voting blocs after two years of a justifiably outraged #OscarsSoWhite showing of its acting nominees (and even then, there's still a long way to go), the Recording Academy would be well-advised to consider its optics, as well, because when your eventual Album of the Year winner spends the majority of her acceptance speech to praise the brilliance of Beyoncé (and later say backstage "I thought it was her year. What the fuck does she have to do to win Album of the Year?"), then you know it's time to stop being so goddamn timid.