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Grammys 2019: How Music Reclaimed Its Power

The four-hour broadcast silenced political division with dynamic performances by three generations of women and proved ‘less dancing, more singing’ can be a winning formula.

The 61st annual Grammy Awards ceremony was the best version of itself in at least a decade. Held at Los Angeles’s Staples Center Sunday night and helmed by singer-songwriter (and 15-time Grammy winner) Alicia Keys, the variety show flowed with few frills, and made room for talent ranging in age from 18-year-old Halle Bailey to 78-year-old Smokey Robinson. With its focus on women, including an introductory speech from Keys, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Jada Pinkett-Smith, and surprise guest Michelle Obama (who proclaimed, “Music has always helped me tell my story“), the evening began the necessary unlacing of six decades of industry domination by male artists, producers, engineers, writers, and performers. The mood made way for Janelle Monae’s edgy “Make Me Feel” (with a nod to “PYNK”), but overall was less about feminist proclamations than celebrating the many women who earned this year’s nominations and golden gramophones, including country crossover Kacey Musgraves, who took home the coveted ‘Album of the Year’ honor for her sublime Golden Hour and Brandi Carlile, an LGBTQ hero who electrified her way into the mainstream with an incredible take on her ‘Best Americana Roots Song,’ “The Joke.”

After years of slipping ratings (the broadcast has been on a downward trend in the Neilsen rankings since 2009), the 2019 Grammys bested the previous year by a one-point share, which is a positive sign in the current climate where major-network shows struggle to compete with cable and streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon. Beyond winners, gaffes, missteps (more on those below), and rare mentions of American politics, the show hammered home the power of music to bring people together. The Grammys is always at its most potent when it lets the music do the talking.

Here’s what worked, and what didn’t:

Alicia Keys hosted the 61st Annual Grammy Awards on February 10, 2019

Alicia Keys hosted the 61st Annual Grammy Awards on CBS television February 10, 2019

Alicia Keys brought grace and gratitude to the stage.

Seeing pianos onstage during almost every performance of the night was a huge shift in the show’s focus, and watching the inimitable Keys play the keys reminds us how rare natural, unadulterated musical talent has become in our current technological landscape. She kept her singing and hosting duties classy, making sure that the songs took priority over egos. Her two-piano medley of personal favorites (including Irving Gordon’s “Unforgettable” and Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody”) was a highlight.

The “Havana” intro’s West Side Story-style staging was culturally apropos and visually exciting.

Watching Camilla Cabello climb around in that mega-sized play gym almost felt like a gamified experience, and when she joined Ricky Martin, Young Thug, and J Balvin in the simulated streets of Havana, Arturo Sandoval’s trumpeting sounded extra satisfying.

The Chili Peppers and Post Malone were a real mess, but above all, they were real.

Playing an acoustic guitar on his hit, “Stay,” 23-year-old Austin Post, a.k.a. Post Malone, recalled Britpop hits of the 1990s. This mom (who only hears the annoyingly repetitive “Rockstar” blaring from a teenager’s room) had her eyes opened at the fact that he can actually sing and play an instrument. 2016’s “Dark Necessities” is one of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ best radio hits, but the energy and stage lights overwhelmed the mix, and in spite of Post Malone’s attempts to be heard singing background vocals, the television viewing audience was left with a muddy impression. Still, it was far better than watching fake choreography.

The Miley-Dolly segment appealed to multiple generations in the best way.

The Dolly Parton medley (including the singer on her 1977 single, “Here You Come Again” with Katy Perry and Kacey Musgraves; Parton’s goddaughter Miley Cyrus on “Jolene” and Trio’s “After the Gold Rush, ” which also featured Maren Morris; Little Big Town on new song “Red Shoes;” and a self-congratulatory all-star “9 to 5”, admirably wrangled by Linda Perry) was a loose and fitting tribute to the 73-year-old star who defied odds to become a national treasure and a country music legend, actress, theme park owner, and literacy advocate. Smokey Robinson singing along in the audience boosted the segment’s warm-fuzzy feelings.

Chloe Flower played Liberace’s piano, and Cardi B needs her own late-late-late-night talk show.

With peacock feathers protruding from her behind, rapper Cardi B pranced around a mirror-encrusted grand piano once belonging to Liberace (and played by phenom pianist/activist Chloe Flower). In a brilliant rendition of “Money” she brought traditional instrumentation into a song which, on headphones or in the car, feels like the sonic epitome of 21st century soullessness. This is not to slight the beats or rhymes on the recorded version of the track, but Cardi B’s live performance added context to lyrics which might reference the shallowness of gold-digging. Like her admonition of the recent government shutdown and a home video clip of the birth of her daughter Kulture (with Migos star Offset), she would do well in arena where she can talk as much as she wants.

What Drake said was true.

Drake’s right. Awards don’t matter. Streaming numbers don’t matter. What matters is the impact the music has on the listener.

Lady Gaga’s a keeper.

Love her: a winner, a fighter, a singer who gets it.

J. Lo’s Motown tribute DID NOT need a microphone.

The Motown tribute felt awkward, not only because it could have included more living Motown legends and the younger artists they’ve influenced, but also because it was a pink-feather Vegas showgirl revue which had absolutely nothing to do with the music or the choreography for which the Detroit label and its generations of talented R&B performers are known. Jennifer Lopez is a fantastic actress and world-class dancer who, at 49, is a feat of nature. However, handing her a microphone during this tribute was a mistake: the performance lacked the proper diversity, was at least partially lip-synced, and the vocal track did not sound anything like J.Lo’s voice. Smokey and Ne-Yo were fine, but the rest was a bizarre waste of 13 minutes.

Ariana Grande, Donald Glover, and Kendrick Lamar were absent, and Drake didn’t perform, but the show worked anyway.

Childish Gambino, a.k.a. Donald Glover, won Grammys last night ( ‘Song of the Year’ and ‘Record of the Year’) for “This is America,” a track the Atlanta star amplified in 2018 with a highly-lauded music video about racial symbols. He did not attend the ceremony and reportedly said no to performing during the broadcast. He is one of the most creative artists working in multiple media at the moment, and a performance of his winning song, had it not been reined in by censors, could have brought important topics into the larger conversation. Ariana Grande, also a no-show, won for ‘Best Pop Vocal Album,’ and Kendrick Lamar, who won ‘Best Rap Performance’ on “King’s Dead,” would have been impressive additions. If each of these artists had performed, the show might have felt like being stuck in a car for four hours listening to the homogenous playlist of a Top-40 station. Love them all, but their absence made room for a broader range of genres to be represented in the broadcast.

Diana Ross picked the best possible song to perform last night.

The show needed a regal moment, and Ms. Ross provided it as she took the stage in a gauzy red gown to sing her first solo release, 1970’s “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” a classic ballad by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Was it a stellar vocal performance? No, but the song’s message of unity is one Ross has returned to over the years (she performed it at the 2008 Noel Peace Prize Concert); as have the songwriters: in an unforgettable moment at the 1985 Live Aid concert, Ashford and Simpson brought Teddy Pendergrass onstage to sing it. Last night’s Grammy audience, including those put on the spot to sing along with Ross as she strode through aisles, seemed to revel in the chance to openly embrace the people standing next to them.

Brandi Carlile is everyone’s mom now (and Kacey Musgraves is our sister).

Brandi Carlile’s performance of her song “The Joke” might have been one of the best Grammy performances of all-time, exposing a television viewing audience to her massive voice, thoughtful lyrics, and guitar playing. Kacey Musgraves’s performance of “The Rainbow” was a subtle statement of femininity in an arena where many female performers feel they must be hard-edged and loud in order to compete with men or each other.

The Aretha tribute should have been bigger, and Robert Flack should have sung with Chloe x Halle.

Fantasia, Yolanda Adams, and Andra Day slayed on Carole King’s “Natural Woman” in honor of Aretha Franklin, who died last August. It was superb, but the Queen of Soul deserved more. Likewise, Chloe x Halle’s beautiful tribute (“Where is the Love”) to posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award winner Donny Hathaway could have benefitted from original duet partner Roberta Flack singing along with the young sisters on her 82nd birthday yesterday.

Everything is going to be OK.

Maybe music’s not totally down the toilet yet. Maybe the algorithms won’t quash talent. Maybe artists will become the prominent voices for justice and peace in a new way. Maybe the piano will be around forever. Maybe generations will listen to the same songs together again. Maybe we’ll all wake up on a few years from now and look back and think, “Music helped us get through. Sometimes it’s the only thing that can.”

Photo: Kristi York Wooten/TV screenshot


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