December 1, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

2021 Grammys may have just revived awards shows

The Grammys were expected to be another COVID-era awards show disaster, much like last month’s Golden Globes. Then something incredible happened: When music’s biggest night was forced to go small on Sunday, the 63rd Grammy Awards delivered its best telecast in modern memory.

In a year when little else has worked particularly well, if at all — the strange, surprising Emmys perhaps excepted — the Recording Academy’s annual celebration found its long-lost groove, defying its disappointing recent history and a pandemic that’s disrupted every other time-honored tradition, television and otherwise.

The overblown dance numbers, pyrotechnics and packed arena audiences of Grammys past gave way to an intimate and charming night at the club with America’s favorite artists, where songs rather than spectacle took center stage. The uneven performances, terrible acoustics and forced pairings of stars that had become commonplace during the ceremony were replaced by compelling sets. Of relevant artists. Doing their own songs! The organization’s blindspots around honoring female artists, and an internal sexism scandal, was also countered when female artists ended up winning big. Beyoncé and Taylor Swift broke records, Megan Thee Stallion and H.E.R. won top awards and record of the year went to Billie Eilish’s “Everything I Wanted.”

The scaled-down celebration took place at the Los Angeles Convention Center, where nominees such as Miranda Lambert and Bad Bunny sat at socially distanced tables on an outdoor veranda overlooking the event’s prior home, the Staples Center, accepting awards or watching the teary speeches of their rivals.

Beyoncé, who led with nine nominations, made history when she won rap song with Megan Thee Stallion for “Savage” and R&B performance for “Black Parade,” making her the most-awarded woman in Grammy history, besting the record previously held by bluegrass singer Alison Krauss. And, like the night’s other victors — including Megan, Dua Lipa and Eilish, among others — she removed her high-fashion mask before traversing the steps to the podium in impossibly high heels.

Indoors, performances by Harry Styles, Cardi B and Black Pumas took place on a small collection of stages with dim mood lighting, warm-toned wooden floors and cascading floral arrangements in close proximity to one another — which meant that the stars doubled as the audience. After Styles was done waltzing on air with “Watermelon Sugar,” he watched Eilish croon “Everything I Wanted” on the next stage. Eilish in turn soaked in Haim’s rendition of “The Steps.” And when the band of sisters was done, they swayed to Black Pumas. Every 45 minutes or so, the stages changed and so did the artists, from Silk Sonic to Swift and so on.

Host and pop music enthusiast Trevor Noah moved with ease between the indoor and outdoor realms and between buoyant humor and topical snark.

“I’ll be your host tonight as we celebrate the last 10 years of music that got us through the last 10 years of coronavirus. I know it’s been one year, but it feels like 10,” joked Noah in his opening monologue. “Tonight is going to be the biggest outdoor event this year besides the storming of the Capitol.” But as Noah ushered TV audiences down a ramp and through hallways to the indoor performance space, he struck the hopeful mood that would last the rest of the evening: “Tonight is about bringing us all together as only music can. Well, music and vaccines.”

It was a refreshing departure from the “Zoom screen” style that has been used to bring other live events to life since the pandemic started and it forced the Grammys to reevaluate their traditional approach, which has often been mocked as “tired” and “out of touch.” And with “The Late Late Show” executive producer Ben Winston taking over from Ken Ehrlich, who had been producing the show since 1980, Sunday’s telecast marked a significant tonal shift from a “really-big-show” aesthetic to a tighter, if not necessarily niche-ier, event.

Another major difference from past Grammys was that a number of the sets were pre-recorded rather than performed live. Previously on music’s biggest night, most everything was played live, which is why bum notes were to the Grammys what soused speeches are to the Golden Globes. (If airing pre-recorded pop feels like cheating, remember what a horrible year it’s been and that we deserve to be pampered.)

The ceremony also addressed tough and pressing topical issues. Lil Baby turned his performance of “The Bigger Picture” into powerful commentary on police brutality against Black people when he opened with a scene of actor Kendrick Sampson being pulled over by two white police officers who shoot him as he runs away. Atlanta rapper Killer Mike and activist Tamika Mallory also took the stage during the song. And singer-songwriter H.E.R. won song of the year for “I Can’t Breathe,” a Black Lives Matter anthem.

Throughout the night, the telecast acknowledged the hardships facing the industry due to COVID-19. Personnel who work at independent music venues, a sector of the business that has been hit particularly hard over the past year, presented awards for various categories: Billy Mitchell, tour director of the Apollo, spoke about the history of the Harlem venue in a taped segment, where he also introduced the nominees for best rap song, before appearing live to present the award. A representative of the Station Inn in Nashville, Tenn., presented the country album award to Miranda Lambert’s “Wildcard,” while staff from L.A.’s own Troubadour gave away the best pop solo performance to Styles for “Watermelon Sugar.”

It was a creative and moving tribute in a year when social distancing became the norm — and the Recording Academy responded with a norm-breaking telecast of its own. Mark 2021 as the year the Grammys got their groove back.