From Kendrick Lamar’s literally incendiary opening performance to an In Memoriam segment that transitioned to a suicide prevention awareness song, this year’s Grammys strove to stand up and take notice of the myriad challenges facing the country and the world. In the end, though, the night’s biggest awards went to the feel-good dance music of Bruno Mars, who swept Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year with his 24K Magic.
Lamar’s performance, a typically stunning mini-set that culminated in the image of figures in red hoodies falling down only to rise up amidst pillars of flame, paused for Dave Chappelle to say, “I just wanted to remind the audience that the only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America is being an honest black man in America.” Lamar took every hip-hop award this year, but when the top prizes were handed out, he was left with onstage shout-outs from Mars.
While some were disappointed at that outcome, there’s no question that the Recording Academy moved with purpose this year to put the days of #GrammysSoWhite behind them. This was the first year since 1999 that no white man was nominated for Album of the Year, and a diverse group of performers and presenters left viewers with numerous memorable moments.
A few white guys did spend quite a bit of time on stage, and they looked appropriately awkward about it — particularly host James Corden, who strained to strike a respectful and engaging tone but fell flat more often than not. The nadir was a boring subway sketch starring Sting and Shaggy, whose unlikely collaboration was given a huge amount of airtime that also included a live performance and, for Sting, an appearance as presenter.
Then there were U2, hailing, like Corden and Sting, from across the Atlantic. Their performance, staged in front of the Statue of Liberty, was one of multiple moments when the ceremony’s relocation back to New York City, after a decade and a half in Los Angeles, was used to make pointed reference to the waves of immigrants who have made this country their home.
If that sounds like a shot at Donald Trump, it was. Any ambiguity regarding the president’s status in the music industry was cleared up in a segment where various celebrities “auditioned” for a spoken-word Grammy by reading passages from Michael Wolff’s White House exposé Fire and Fury. The final auditioner? Hillary Clinton, who as it happens actually did win a spoken-word Grammy in 1997, for her It Takes a Village audiobook.
There was no need to make explicit reference to any individual, not even Dr. Luke, during Kesha’s powerful performance of her song “Praying.” Joined by Cyndi Lauper, Camila Cabello, Andra Day, Julia Michaels, Bebe Rexha, and a white-clad women’s chorus, Kesha poured her all into the ballad from her 2017 album Rainbow, unambiguously about her battle with the superproducer, whom she has accused of sexual assault but who still holds her in a tight contractual agreement. The song ended with all the women joining in an onstage embrace.
Alessia Cara took Best New Artist, accepting graciously and saluting artists who don’t get the recognition they deserve. Some would say that includes her fellow nominee SZA, an up-and-coming R&B singer-songwriter who turned a lot of heads with a slow-burning performance of “Broken Clocks.” Nominated for five Grammys, SZA went home with her hands empty.
There were two memorial segments. One was for music-world notables lost this year, soundtracked by Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” as performed by Emmylou Harris and Best Country Album winner Chris Stapleton. With Chester Bennington as the final slide, that transitioned straight into “1-800-273-8255,” a song about suicide prevention awareness (the national hotline is the song’s title) performed by Logic, Khalid, and Cara. Earlier, Eric Church and Maren Morris covered Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” in memory of the victims of attacks at music performances in Las Vegas and Manchester.
Comedians had a higher profile than in recent years, with the Best Comedy Album award being moved into the main telecast and multiple nominees (including winner Chappelle) appearing as presenters. That’s not to say that any of them were particularly funny, but it does reflect the increasing importance of spoken-word audio to the podcast-era recording industry.
Two of the most conspicuous absences at the ceremony involved one major nominee who was there but didn’t perform, and one big winner who didn’t show up at all. Lorde reportedly balked at the fact that she was the only Album of the Year nominee not invited to perform solo; she brought a flask that matched her dress. JAY-Z also didn’t perform, but sat in the front row with his wife Beyoncé and daughter Blue Ivy. There may have been no artist more disappointed with the way the evening went, given that JAY-Z was the night’s most-nominated artist but didn’t win a single award.
Ed Sheeran won Best Pop Solo Performance for “Shape of You,” one of the year’s hugest hits, besting four women including Kesha and Pink (who sang “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken,” about to jet to Minneapolis to sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl). The internet was “done with the Grammys” after that, as USA Today put it — and Sheeran didn’t even show up to collect his prize. “So sorry I asked you to pet sit tonight,” tweeted Ellen DeGeneres.
(Recording Academy president Neil Portnow didn’t do much to assuage women’s frustration when he told Variety that women need to “step up” to be recognized for their work.)
Amidst all this drama, late in the evening, the telecast made room to honor a few living legends. Elton John, who’s just announced his very eventual retirement from touring, gamely sang “Tiny Dancer” with a little help from Miley Cyrus. A segment honoring Broadway, this being New York and all, got theater kid Corden more visibly excited than he’d been all night. It ended up being a very Broadway tribute, with Dear Evan Hansen star Ben Platt singing “Somewhere” from West Side Story; and none other than Patti LuPone saluting the richest person in the room by reprising her 1981 performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.”
However you felt about the way the awards went, it was hard for Minnesotans not to feel a burst of pride at the end of the night when Mars saluted his musical “heroes,” the people who wrote the songs he’d sing as a teenager to entertain Hawaiian tourists.
“Later on in life, I found those songs that I was singing were either written by either Babyface, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, or Teddy Riley,” said Mars. “And with those songs, I remember seeing people dancing that had never met each other, from two sides of the globe, dancing with each other, toasting with each other, celebrating together. All I wanted to do with this album was that.”