The 2020 Grammys: How Much Weight Can One Awards Show Carry?

Jan 28, 2020
Originally published on January 27, 2020 10:50 am

Ann Powers: Here we are, Rodney, to talk about one of the weirdest, most emotionally fraught and repressed, most resistance-fueled yet frequently deluded awards shows I can recall seeing in recent years: the 2020 Grammy Awards. Let's start with Lizzo, not quite the spirit of the night that I expected her to be. "This is the beginning of making music that moves people again," the flute-wielding dynamo exclaimed when picking up an early statue, the only one she took during the televised performance. (She claimed three in total). To me, that sounded like an affirmation: say it enough, positive thinkers, and it will come true, despite the urgent allegations of financial, electoral and personal impropriety that have overtaken Grammy presenting organization the Recording Academy in the past few weeks. Behind every powerhouse ballad, frenetic dance number and fiery rock or hip hop jam was the knowledge that like the set for Gary Clark, Jr.'s monster performance of his anti-racist power anthem "This Land," the Academy's house is on fire.

Could music heal unmanageable grief, as Alicia Keys nearly prayed at evening's start, mourning Kobe Bryant, whose presence (and jersey) loomed over the crowd in Staples Center, full of L.A.-based celebs who might have counted the fallen athlete among their friends? Might it both express and ameliorate rage at the longtime exploitation of artist, now exposed yet again? I think the answer this evening was: sometimes, explosively; and then not at all; and then, for a few remarkable moments, sustainably. For me this evening was a lot like showbiz itself — unpredictable, hokey, sometimes deeply moving and sometimes just plain wrong. Future-thinking showbiz kids Billie and Finneas Eilish O'Connell, accepting their awards in a sweep that anyone could have anticipated but which still somehow shocked, seemed to agree. "We stand up here confused and grateful," Finneas said after their third win in the major categories. That's how I feel about pop in general lately, as long as you add: occasionally horrified. Truth hurts, and the Grammys showed the pain.

What pained you tonight, Rodney? And what — I hope something! — brought you joy?

Gary Clark, Jr. performs his song "This Land" with The Roots.
Kevin Winter / Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Rodney Carmichael: I must admit I've spent years trying my best to not let the Grammy Awards push my buttons. Hip-hop's relationship with the Grammys began with a boycott and 31 years later the Academy still struggles to get it right. It makes the controversy surrounding this year's awards a bittersweet acknowledgement. Diddy said it best at Saturday night's Clive Davis Pre-Grammy gala, during a 50-minute long acceptance speech as indulgent as the occasion of a Pre-Grammy gala might seem. "Truth be told, hip-hop has never been respected by the Grammys. Black music has never been respected by the Grammys," he said, going on to add that Dugan's allegations of impropriety around the nominating process and the systemic lack of diversity are "not a revelation."

I stopped being angry a long time ago. Even my cynicism has given way to indifference over time. So when the nominations were announced for this year's awards, I was almost pleasantly surprised. And then, last night, to see 21 Savage take home a trophy for "A Lot" — after an ICE detainment kept him from attending last year's awards — felt redemptive. To see Nipsey Hussle get such a rousing tribute — one that even put DJ Khaled to good use — felt honorable. Tyler, the Creator deserved a lot more than a Best Rap Album nod for IGOR ("a backhanded compliment," he called it), but the controversy surrounding this year's show may have served him well. Tyler's early performance happened in the context of a show where the euphemistically-labeled "urban" acts tend to get buried well below the lede.

And speaking of lead, the top of the show felt like a mandatory symposium on diversity and inclusion. Lizzo and her backup dancers, Tyler and his Tylerettes, Billy Porter and that hat — all within the first hour. It was so black I thought I'd accidentally turned to BET. Even if the Academy front-loaded the show with diverse acts to help curb criticism, it got my attention — which is something the Grammys rarely does.

I'm curious, Ann, what about the politics and the performances surprised you the most? And what put you to sleep?

Tyler, the Creator (center) performs with a troupe of lookalike dancers during the Grammys.
Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Powers: Regarding politics — first, I'll offer the required caveat, that the allegations brought by Deborah Dugan, who held the top job at the Recording Academy before being ousted just ten days before the telecast, remain unadjudicated. This story is unfolding with dizzying speed, and it turned an event that usually feels like an annual pause in the music biz's frantic calendar into a vessel nearly capsized by present-day flux. I'm not surprised that the voices onstage last night barely addressed Dugan's assertions — host Alicia Keys opened the show with a call for healing and the genuine-seeming declaration, "I'm proud to be here for the artists, with the artists," and that mild sauce was about all we got — but I was moved by the way what seemed like inner conflict and the longing for conviction drove many performances toward unexpected highs.

Sometimes the turn was palpably personal, as on Demi Lovato's wrenching rendition of her new song "Anyone," her first performance since an overdose last year. Elsewhere it was communal, especially in the tribute to slain rapper Nipsey Hussle that united his former collaborators DJ Khaled and John Legend, among others, in a gospel drive that felt truly impassioned. "So much Black pain on display at the Grammys tonight, but being mediated by Black joy," the essayist and scholar Brittney Cooper tweeted in response to that moment. The same dynamic characterized Lil Nas X's latest reimagining of "Old Town Road," which opened with him laying back like a neon nephew of Swamp Dogg and progressed into a celebration of the transporting power of imagination, with Korean superstar band BTS backing him up and rapper Nas — the original Nas — emerging like a reinvigorated ghost of YouTube past.

Throughout that night, artists projected a resolve to stress what motivates them most over glitz and glamor: it ran through Brandi Carlile and Tanya Tucker's loving and intimate exchange on the gorgeous "Bring My Flowers Now;" and Ariana Grande's let's-put-on-a-show charm assault, in a medley she reportedly fought long and hard to get on the air; and even in the corniest turns, like Camilla Cabello singing "First Man" directly to her father as baby pictures flashed behind her. "You see us? You see us?" Alicia Keys implored in her opening monologue. And Eilish, always right there where you can feel her in those complicated arrangements Finneas crafts, demanded the same. With a few exceptions — I didn't feel much passion between Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani in their soupy romantic turn — the evening's featured artists insisted that music stand above intrigue, forming rich alliances and sending healing energy. "The people are good. The system is rigged," a friend texted me. "A deep and melancholy night."

When the music stopped, though, there were cringeworthy moments. The worst for me was Sharon Osbourne repeatedly mispronouncing DJ Khaled's name before he won an award. I hated her insouciant ignorance, but also the fact that she and her Parkinson's disease-afflicted husband, Ozzy, had been inserted into the Best Rap/Sung Performance category as the progenitors of a punchline. I blame the show's producers for that. How about you? What did you really hate?

Grammy host Alicia Keys (right) and Brittany Howard perform during the ceremony.
Kevin Winter / Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Carmichael: I hated the Recording Academy's dereliction of duty. You're right, Ann: Dugan's allegations do remain unadjudicated for now. But the biggest omission of the night — the things that went unsaid — cast the Academy in a negative light. Nobody from the board saw fit to give a Neil Portnow-style speech like the one the former president (who stepped down last year in the wake of his bull-headed remark that female artist should "step up" if they want Grammy recognition) gave every year near the show's close. Where was interim president and board member Harvey Mason, Jr.? Why didn't he come out and make one of those speeches? There was so much that needed to be said, which I imagine the Academy's attorneys would never allow outside a court of law — especially since lead attorney Joel Katz has been implicated by Dugan's allegations, too. Instead, the Academy charged artists do its dirty work. Alicia Keys carried the weight of addressing — or dressing up — the elephant in the room: "We want to be respected and safe in our diversity. We want to be shifting to realness and inclusivity." By their mere presence, artists of color, women and queer performers (Lizzo, Rosalía, Ariana Grande, Camila Cabello, Lil Nas X, Gary Clarke Jr. and more) bore the brunt of the Grammy board's attempts at virtue signaling. Then there's Kobe. His untimely death gave this year's Grammys a shared sense of communalism and moral grounding it wouldn't have had otherwise.

Other things that were conspicuously absent and/or present: Public Enemy's Lifetime Achievement Award was not televised but Grammy executive producer Ken Ehrlich's Lifetime Achievement Award was (bordering a little too close to conflict-of-interest territory for me). Too much Alicia Keys and not enough Brittany Howard (whose brilliant solo debut Jaime came out a few weeks after the eligibility window for 2020 Grammy consideration closed). Too much Usher and not enough FKA Twigs (whose vocals were sorely missed during her stunning dance performance in the Prince tribute).

And no one came close to calling out the Academy — not like Chuck D or Diddy. "As always, a bunch of ignorant, testosterone-fueled, usually old white men stop progress and screw it up," Public Enemy's frontman said in the wake of Dugan's ousting. "Same old bulls***." And Diddy: "For years we've allowed institutions that have never had our best interests at heart to judge us — and that stops right now."

I guess you have to be a black revolutionary with a bullhorn or a black billionaire with a bully pulpit to take that leap. But who can you blame? In an industry where the political noise often supersedes the sound of music, artists are bound to find themselves in compromising positions.

All in all — and here's where the irony lies — these damaging allegations were the backdrop to a year in which you could read some actual progress in the proceedings: Grammys weren't so male. Grammys weren't so pale. The question is whether what we saw on stage Sunday night was in response to the events of the last week or the events of the last year. We may never know the answer and, ultimately, we may not need to. A change gon' come in due time. It's got to, because it's coming to America, too.

Lil Nas X (center) with members of BTS during his performance of "Old Town Road."
Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images

Powers: I hear you on the talk that needed to happen, to clear the road for some truth-telling in the weeks and months to come. Showing my cynical edge, I'll venture to say the Grammys will never offer that kind of bold opening toward the future. That's true about the performances, too. I agree that FKA Twigs should have been able to share her remarkable voice in tandem with her exquisite gift for movement, and might add that Tanya Blount-Trotter of the War and Treaty, the powerhouse Americana duo so very briefly featured in that crazy pageant number set to "I Sing the Body Electric," should have been granted more than one spectacular high note. A significant moment on a major telecast can make a major difference in an emerging artist's career — why not give viewers the thrill of discovery? Instead, distinctive performers are squeezed into tiny slots in group numbers that end up feeling less like historical breakthroughs than outtakes from a high school talent show. (Specifically, Blanchet Catholic High School's 1981 talent show, where I'm pretty sure one of my classmates went for the gold with that song from Fame, though it might have been "Out Here On My Own.")

Ultimately, though, the Grammys have never been about discovery. Nor does the program accurately represent the accomplishments of the best and brightest across popular music's spectrum. To begin to grasp that, we need to go to the longer list of winners, from the vibrant coastal preservationist in Ranky Tanky (Best Regional Roots Album) to the luminous labryinths constructed by composer Caroline Shaw (with the Attaca Quartet, Best Chamber Music/Small Performance) and the elastic elocution of Spanish Town teen Koffee (Best Reggae Album). What would a show featuring these winners be like? Not the usual network fare, that's for sure.

Aiming for mainstream and even casual viewers, the Grammy telecast is classic old-school programming. It offers viewers a few hours inside the elite club of Los Angeles and New York pop stars — stars who, by virtue of their wealth and (mostly) continued loyalty to the major-label system, share more in common, despite genre differences, than they do with the vast majority of everyday music-makers. They share producers and songwriters and stylists; they also share a tendency to favor accessibility over quirky — or visionary — distinctiveness. We need our pop stars; they provide us one of culture's most potent over-the-counter drugs, idealized commonality. "I'm gonna get you used to hearing music you love," Alicia Keys sang in a musical monologue; what she might have said that the Grammys get us used to sticking with music we already know.

But then, there is the bigger world of the awards, hopefully not completely discounted by a faulty voting system, because it is a place teeming with difference, community and life. In the streaming age, the diversity in the lower regions of the Grammy slate is more accessible to listeners than ever. Its infinite variation springs from the ground of experience in particular regions, languages and communities and then is multiplied through unanticipated connections across all kinds of borders. Making that diversity more than tokenism is the job the Recording Academy needs to put first, but the blueprint is already there. And it's sneaking into the main event, as you note. Spanish Rosalía and Korean BTS represent demographic changes that cannot be waylaid forever, even by (mostly white, mostly straight, mostly male) status-quo bearers determined to keep their power secure. You're right to ask whether the wider array of artists we saw last night was assembled by mandate to stave off charges of moral turpitude. At the same time, I think, it also simply represents the future — no, not the future. As anyone who's driven down L.A.'s Pico Boulevard or ridden the 1/9 subway to the Bronx knows, this multivocality permeates music's present day.

One person who knows that, I think, is Billie Eilish. It's complicated! Here we have a white brother-sister team sweeping an awards show obviously designed to foreground diversity. Is this just shady Grammy business as usual? Eilish undeniably represents a vanguard. It's one that brings the old major label hierarchies along with it. She is a disruptor who has had a pro stylist since she was 14.

The best proof that Eilish does signal change is in her music, which grapples with sources like hip-hop while skirting simple mimicry. Her album incorporates much more sonically than her surface identity implies, and judging by the way she clasped Rosalía's arm on the red carpet (I could almost hear her saying let's collaborate), she'll reach out for more, too. And as part of Gen Z, I think, she'll do in in different ways than her elders did. As she and Finneas concluded their sweep, they stopped with the thank-you's and didn't attempt to make a strong political statement. Instead, they just said, "Thanks!" and exited stage right. Maybe they just wanted to get to the champagne. But I like to think they were doing what the Academy needs to focus on next, too: making room for "all the kids making music in their bedrooms," as Finneas said. Room for the next brilliant outsider — brown, Asian, Spanish-speaking, queer, trans, non-binary, indigenous, working class, rural, Southeastern, Midwestern, neurodiverse, differently bodied, old, young, homeschooled, unschooled, self-taught, self-releasing, loud, quiet, poetic, prosaic, political — to come on in.

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