The Grammys make a clear statement: Sometimes feeling good is good enough
Ann Powers: I feel like I ran 10 laps around the entirety of popular music. Last night's Grammys telecast was fun and exhausting in its embrace of so many different styles and stars, with everyone going for extra dazzle and yet none really dominating. The balance between elaborate set pieces like Olivia Rodrigo's fully automotive take on "Driver's License" and more unfettered barn-burners like Silk Sonic's James Brown-ian "777" kept the show's pace lively. The show gave us a lot to talk about. Throughout the evening we had about 18 rewrites of the rock and roll myth, a mini-set from rap elder Nas, BTS jumping lasers, full body jazz hands from Lady Gaga and a psychedelic jaunt through the African diaspora with Jon Batiste. Sweeping the four categories in which they were nominated for their Silk Sonic project, Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak dapped like no winner has dapped before.
It all came across as highly professional, yet convincingly energetic. The awards hardly mattered, it seemed, with no one artist standing out as the night's huge winner. But that felt okay. After some tough pandemic years, pop — or at least the version of pop that fits into the Grammys' definition — made an argument for its renewed health tonight by connecting with its own history and emphasizing pleasure even when the concepts ran high. Am I being too enthusiastic about what was essentially an excellent variety show?
Nate Chinen: It was a dizzying ride, with the dial turned way up on well-crafted enjoyment. I want to start with the final award of the event: Jon Batiste's win for album of the year, an outcome I knew was within the realm of possibility, but didn't dare to expect. Anyone familiar with J-Bat's career knows that he came from jazz, though his artistry and persona are too capacious for a single genre or tradition. He didn't win awards in the jazz categories for which he was nominated, but I'd venture to say Batiste qualifies here – in his major category win — as a jazz artist. That means WE ARE is only the third or fourth time a jazz musician has won album of the year — after Stan Getz with João Gilberto (1965), Herbie Hancock with an all-star cast (2008) and maybe Norah Jones (2003), depending on where you draw the line. (She counts, in my book.) I know this feels especially meaningful to me given my interests, but it also speaks to something I've noticed over a few decades of Grammy watching. Batiste is precisely the sort of artist to win over the Recording Academy: wildly proficient, ineffably charismatic, genre-transcendent and down for whatever. One of the four other awards he won yesterday was best music video, for "Freedom" — and his performance on the telecast of that song felt just as much like a blast from a confetti cannon.
Maybe no one stood out as the night's huge winner, as you say, but I'd suggest that Batiste, who took home more Grammys than anyone else, came closest. And that's cause for celebration, even if it doesn't reflect popular music reality. As the man said from the stage: "It's more than entertainment to me, it's a spiritual practice." (And yet: Were we not entertained?!?)
Powers: Batiste's win made this a banner night for jazz, as you say. Yet, I'd argue, it reflects a mainstream that's increasingly open to jazz's swing and syncopation, if not its full challenge to create in the moment. Native New Orleanian Batiste revels in the magpie side of the form rather than its purist tendencies: Listening to his winning album is like walking down Magazine Street in the Lower Garden District, absorbing what's pouring out of the cars rolling by with their windows down. His pastiche remains unfussy, almost obstinately playful, like the spangled cape and blue suit he wore to perform "Freedom," a song whose infectious utopianism is as unattached to heavy historical signifiers as Pharrell's Grammy-winning "Happy" was back in the Obama era. Nostalgia rolls off these songs because they don't adhere to any one set of reference points.
That's true of much of tonight's winning music — Rodrigo's Disney-born pop-punk, for example, may bear the imprint of '90s queens like Alanis Morissette, but her vocal timbre's pure Internet bedroom pop (and it was nice to see her spiritual elder sibling Billie Eilish rooting for her every win). Silk Sonic, you could argue, aims for the car-freshener scent of one specific era, the 1970s; yet the band's winking knowingness has a distancing effect that makes its schtick feel strangely contemporary. This is the music of the infinite archive, the end result of streaming making every era and style not only instantly accessible, but eternally available for study and imitation. The retrofitting in which Grammy's favorite artists engage may be comforting in some ways — we're living in uncertain times, and nostalgia can be a boon — but it also surprises. Eilish, for example, took her torchy anthem "Happier Than Ever" into full metal territory with her brother Finneas thrashing out a classic guitar solo. And Lil Nas X, that intelligent meme generator, stuffed his medley of hits with Easter Eggs including costumes that invoked chanting Benedictine Monks and Michael Jackson's military garb and a giant sculptural head that could have been lifted, metaphorically, from Travis Scott. In a show light on hip-hop, there sure was a lot of sampling, and I for one enjoyed the sincere inauthenticity of it all.
It was fitting that the Grammys had moved to Las Vegas after the pandemic postponed their usual late January date — where else is postmodernism so permanently ensconced? Given the setting, Silk Sonic's three wins for the slow jam "Leave The Door Open" felt most particularly appropriate. I've been a Bruno Mars stan since he first was singing features with Travie McCoy, and one thing I love about the guy is his total commitment to Vegas-style pizzazz. There's no fakery in his immersion in jukebox tropes — as you know even better than me, because you saw him back then, he's been donning Elvis's sequins since childhood. Silk Sonic was a lark, an ideal match with the equally lighthearted trickster .Paak, but it also feels like an apex for Bruno.
Chinen: You're spot on about the streaming era's effect not only on style but also tone — the way it encourages a full tilt toward pastiche, with a knowing wink but barely a trace of irony's acerbic edge. This is how Silk Sonic has run the table, I think. The group was first unveiled at last year's Grammy Awards, and at the time I remember some "They can't be serious!" takes rattling around in the discourse. But as you suggest, Bruno Mars does not fake the funk. He's got a method actor's commitment to the part, and he's much more natural with retro immersion than copilot Anderson .Paak (who's terrific in most other respects).
I'm glad you mentioned Pharrell Williams, because one thing Silk Sonic's dominance tonight calls to mind is the 56th Grammys, when Daft Punk took home four awards — including two for "Get Lucky," with Pharrell out front. Remember how they performed the song on a set designed to resemble a wood-paneled 1970s recording studio? Silk Sonic took that page from the playbook and then boosted the slick exuberance. (Even the way they stood up from their table, when their name was called for the record of the year award, felt designed for maximum pleasure.) It's easy to understand how their fastidious reference points, especially on a satin-sheet throwback like "Leave the Door Open," would charm the Recording Academy, which (still) has a lot of members with residual attachments to that era. And you're right, they were the pitch-perfect act to open a Grammy Awards in Las Vegas — truer to the terroir than even Lady Gaga, in uncorked razzle-dazzle mode. It literally set the stage for an awards show that, at least for the first hour or so, brought forth one potent performance and ingenious set piece after another. (I was especially taken with Billie Eilish, sporting a Taylor Hawkins T-shirt, beginning "Happier Than Ever" next to light-flooded curtains in what looked like a luxury hotel suite — and the gradual reveal that she was ankle-deep in water, and the room was upside-down. And all this before the grunge catharsis!)
As Trevor Noah said, with striking candor, at the top of the broadcast: "Don't even think of it as an awards show. This is a concert where we're giving out awards." Understanding that distinction made a difference in the production tonight — and the artists who know how to parse and navigate that line, like Silk Sonic, Lil Nas X and BTS, were the most winning (even when they didn't, you know, actually win).
Powers: This was a Grammys full of pros, artists the Academy has embraced and relied upon for years. It breezed along because most everyone who took the stage was familiar with the format and unafflicted by novices' nerves — much less outsider attitude. (Exception: Rodrigo, but she's a generationally emblematic child of stage and screens.) I guess I'll be the one to nod at the disruption that exposed the pressure cooking behind the Academy Awards last week, which our affable host Trevor Noah barely mined for humor and by my count only one presenter — Questlove, who certainly had a right — mentioned. Behind multiple Grammy winner Will Smith's breakdown was a long history of inequity and impossible expectations that myriad think pieces (I'll just point to this one by Wesley Morris) have hashed over in the days since.
It would be ridiculous to suggest that the music industry is any less scarred by racism, sexism and other forms of oppression, or that previous Grammy nights haven't suffered under the weight of those inequities. This year, though, the show came off as genuinely cheerful, if mostly determined not to shine a light into the industry's darker corners. Offscreen wins by problematic men Louis C.K. and Ye (the latter for the troubled Donda project) might have burst the night's giddy bubble if they'd been incorporated into the show, and deliberately or not, this year's performers, presenters and winners displayed zero interest in raising controversy. Most were old hands — from the consummately charming Brandi Carlile to the dependably soulful Chris Stapleton to John Legend, more on whom in a minute — and played their roles with enthusiasm but no visible or audible nerves.
Only the speeches from first-time winners Doja Cat and Jazmine Sullivan felt thrillingly spontaneous. Doja, the chaos agent pop needs right now, showered her collaborator SZA with effusive praise and quipped about almost sacrificing her winning moment to a bathroom break before bursting into joyful tears, while Sullivan (whose Heaux Tales deserved a best album nomination, but won in R&B categories) gave the night's most memorable speech, shouting out "all black women who are just living their lives and being beautiful." That neither of these dynamic women got the chance to share their music was puzzling; were the show's producers trying to avoid the kind of prudish complaints Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion's 2021 "WAP" performance inspired last year? If so, their caution was our loss. Also, it's time to elevate the Latin categories from the pre-show and give Latin performers more than one slot. J. Balvin and Maria Becerra brought their best, but Latin acts dominate the global charts and deserve at least as much Grammy real estate as country, which claimed three slots.
So the show wasn't perfect. And it also wasn't all fun. In fact, in what may be the most disconcerting booking "triumph" of all time, the night's buoyant flow was interrupted mid-set by the beamed-in appearance of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in a trademark forest green t-shirt, whose characteristically stirring words implored Grammy viewers to support his nation's efforts to fend off Russian attacks. "What is more opposite to music?" he asked. "The silence of ruined cities and killed people." His nation's musicians, he noted, wear body armor and sing to the wounded in hospitals. John Legend debuted a new song, "Free," in the aftermath of Zelenskyy's somber and poetic plea; three Ukrainian artists joined him onstage. While Legend's genius for uplift suited the sobriety of the moment, the juxtaposition of this inimitably urgent and tragic message with the glitz of the Grammy environment raised a question critics like Cynthia Ozick have asked in the past: How can popular culture approach realities that cannot be redeemed? The rough sorrow in Zelenskyy's voice haunted the rest of the night, even as the elite crowd at the MGM Grand continued to exude their own energetic gratitude for the chance to be lighthearted for a few hours.
More bearable was the In Memoriam segment, which began with a moment of silence for drummer Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters, who died just last month, and morphed into a Stephen Sondheim tribute featuring several Broadway notables singing "Send in the Clowns" among other favorites by that theater great as photographs of the departed were projected behind them. This worked, despite the occasional thought that this or that particular soul (Mark Lanegan? DMX?) might have questioned being mourned to the soundtrack from West Side Story. Still, to see the late, great visionary writer Greg Tate among the honored made this critic's heart sing. There was a place for grief in this light-strewn evening, and for remembrance.
Chinen: I hear you on the disjunctive effect of the mid-show Zelenskyy cameo — it was a hard swerve, and maybe a buzzkill. But how else to acknowledge this inescapably dire moment in modern human history? I really appreciate that a space was cleared for it, and I think "Free" met the moment well, under difficult circumstances. And speaking of heavy sentiment: I too liked the Sondheim focus for In Memoriam, though I'm sure he would have balked at hearing his songs overlaid that way, as if in a round. I won't spend precious space complaining about the many unfortunate omissions from In Memoriam, though I'm tempted. As always, it reminded me of how the Recording Academy is a clubhouse, a sort of gated community with a steep barrier to entry but a world of perks once you're inside.
Every year, I stream the Grammy Premiere Ceremony — where the lion's share of awards (all but nine of the 86 last night) are distributed, with a minimum of fuss or fanfare. Watching it with The Club in mind imparts a certain wry insight to the proceedings. For instance: The brilliant keyboardist-composers Chick Corea and Lyle Mays, who died almost exactly one year apart, were card-carrying members of The Club, with more than three dozen Grammys between them; each received a posthumous award this year. (Corea, in winning Best Improvised Jazz Solo, bested Batiste.) The Foo Fighters, who just upped their Grammy total from 12 to 15, obviously belong to The Club too, as does banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck, who was all but assured to win Best Bluegrass Album with an album titled My Bluegrass Heart (his 15th win, so far).
It can be easy to get cynical when a win feels like a fait accompli — but there's something stubbornly affirming about seeing someone inch their way toward acceptance. I got that feeling in the Premiere Ceremony from Native Hawaiian troubadour Kalani Pe'a, who's now three-for-three in the best regional roots music album category; Pakistani singer and composer Arooj Aftab, who scored her first Grammy, for best global music performance; and violinist Jennifer Koh, who won best classical instrumental solo for a track off her resourceful pandemic project, Alone Together. You mentioned the moving acceptance speeches from Doja Cat and Jazmine Sullivan, and those were clear harbingers of arrival, too. (Better late than never, in Sullivan's case.) What this all has to do with sheer musical excellence is, as always, tangential. But there was a remarkably high quotient of musical excellence on hand — in both the broadcast and the Premiere Ceremony — and a sort of urging toward communion. From Bruno to Brandi to J Balvin, we kept encountering manifestations of the ways that music enlivens and edifies. I'm sure neither of us needs a reminder of that, but it was welcome truth. It made me want to go back and listen. What better endorsement can I give?
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