Review: Grammy Awards Fail to Seize the Moment in a Number of Ways

A Tribe Called Quest Grammys
Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

Nostalgia is all around us in popular culture, in movies, on TV, and even in various clothing trends. So forgive me for being nostalgic for the kind of musical artists who didn’t mind using televised occasions to make potentially controversial political statements.

At Sunday’s Grammy Awards on CBS, connections to the turbulent era we’re living through were few and far between. Katy Perry wore a sparkly “Persist” armband when she performed off her new song, “Chained to the Rhythm,” which showed her tossing away a pair of rose-colored glasses shortly before a house and white-picket fence disintegrated on the stage behind her.

But for the Grammys’ first two or three hours, most of the collaborations, tributes, and speeches were notably light on politics, current events, or anything like the kinds of statements Kanye West, Madonna, or Prince could be counted on to make back in the day. It was a big night for the very talented Adele, of course, who won both record of the year and album of the year. But even she seemed to feel that something was off on Grammy night (and not just because she re-started her tribute to George Michael due to some kind of glitch).

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When the endless slog of a ceremony was almost over and she took home the night’s biggest award, album of the year, Adele tearfully talked about how Beyonce’s “Lemonade” was “so monumental” and how much she adored the singer, who looked on from the audience. Adele genuinely felt awkward about her win, which was touching, and one of the few moments of the night that felt spontaneous and charged. 

Beyonce did win one award, for best urban contemporary album, but the dreamlike performance by the pregnant artist, who wore an angelic halo as she sang, was more memorable than what she said when she accepted her award. Of course, it wasn’t the sole responsibility of Beyonce, whose pointed 2016 Super Bowl performance is just one example of her willingness to take chances with political commentary, to bring some kind of resonance with the current moment to the Grammys. But it’s a little surprising that so few other artists felt that desire, or the need to speak truth to power in even a moderately forceful way.  

Of course, it’s not unreasonable for artists to want to provide the audience with a fantastical outlet or a bit of an escape, especially during a glitzy celebration of the many different forms of commercially popular music. But even though producer Ken Ehrlich had said he welcomed political statements during the broadcast, much of the 59th Grammy Awards felt like it was taking place in a bubble that was disconnected from the events, protests, and political controversies that have gripped the nation for weeks. 

Near the start of the broadcast, Jennifer Lopez — quoting Toni Morrison — had said that “this is precisely the time when artists go to work.” The Grammy producers apparently took that to mean they should have very attractive artists show up, wear sparkly clothing, and sing pleasant songs. The sad fact is, the Grammy organizers couldn’t even get their tributes right, aside from Adele’s rather dirge-like but still heartfelt tribute to George Michael. In the otherwise fairly terrible tribute to the BeeGees, only Andra Day brought the kind of outsized, dramatic flourish that truly paid tribute to the Australian legends. The other artists involved in that particular tribute simply seemed out of their depth, and nothing about their performances felt particularly connected to the heritage of disco or the BeeGees.

At least those artists didn’t encounter the kind of technical problems that beset Lady Gaga and Metallica; James Hetfield’s microphone didn’t work during their hard-rocking duet, which featured lots of flames but not much in the way of a spark.   

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Host James Corden gamely kept things moving, but at a certain point, the weighty dullness of the ceremony just began to drag everything down.

Thank goodness for A Tribe Called Quest and Busta Rhymes. Just as the Grammys broadcast seemed headed for epic irrelevance, Tribe came out and performed snippets from a couple of their older songs, but then lit into a blistering version of a more recent track, “We the People.” During that room-shaking performance, Rhymes decried “President Agent Orange” more than once.

It was genuinely moving when the group brought a whole host of regular people to the stage, many of them apparently Muslim or Mexican; the song’s politically charged lyrics about who “must go” could not have been more topical. Some of the women were wearing hijabs, and Rhymes explicitly noted the current administration’s attempt to impose a Muslim ban from the stage. Moments later, Tribe’s Q-Tip shouted “Resist” three times. It was the kind of moment that would have fit right in during an awards ceremony during the Reagan or Bush eras. 

Two of the most joyful performances of the night came soon after Tribe. At the start of the tribute to Prince, a blast from the past from Morris Day and the Time — in the form of the irresistible “Jungle Love” — had the audience dancing in the aisles. Minutes later, Chance the Rapper, who had earlier won best new artist, clearly energized the room via a performance of “How Great” and “All We Got” with Kirk Franklin and an electrifying array of gospel singers.

One of the night’s most anticipated moments, however, was another swing and a miss. Reasonable music lovers may disagree on this, but Bruno Mars didn’t seem like the most apt choice to pay tribute to the late, great Prince. Given the Grammy organizers’ clear preference for marketable pop stars of the current moment, it probably was unrealistic to hope that the producers would try to reassemble the remaining members of Prince’s most famous backing band, the Revolution. Still, given how great that ensemble was, their absence was keenly felt. 

But even if the Grammys were still intent on using Mars, it seemed bordering on sacrilegious for Mars to don an imitation of the Minneapolis legend’s purple suit and use a version of the icon’s distinctive white guitar. Unlike much of the lengthy ceremony, those choices made a real statement. But it may well have been a misguided one.

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    1. Kay King says:

      “the need to speak truth to power in even a moderately forceful way” – sounds like author is sad there weren’t more political slams. Overblown sense of importance leads entertainers to lecture the rest of us about politics…maybe some of them realize many of us are “over it”. I don’t need a singer telling me what I think politically – and don’t care what they think. Adele was great – beyonce was a theatrical nightmare and way overdone. Bruno Mars always brings it.

      Plodding show didn’t seem to know where to go next – but I agree the awards themselves seemed to be irrelevant.

    2. Jacques Strappe says:

      Rock music used to rock the establishment but now it merely kisses up to it. Adele is made for Grammy wins with her lovely and soulful voice but her music is elevator suitable for the aging Grammy voters whereas Beyonce’s Lemondade collection was groundbreaking in so many ways. The Grammy Awards become less relevant each year. And what’s up with all the mic issues this year and last year for an awards show celebrating sound? Lame and inexcusable.

    3. ken says:

      Coden stunk! Why can’t we have an American host the American Awards? I can’t believe he continues to milk the tired out, carpool karaoke bit. Can’t his talents move forward with something new? Beyonce is all about Beyonce, again. Lady Ga Ga is played out and Metallica is just not up to par with current talent. Adele was the best but Legend and Bruno were also good

    4. Mister P says:

      Beyoncé’ performance was so self indulgent I wanted to puke. Was there really a song in there or was it just a runway show?
      GaGa “going metal” – complete with a choreographed mosh pit – was laughable. Next year, will she put on black face and sing R&B?
      Thought Bruno doing an impression of Prince felt more about Bruno than Prince.
      Hoping for more political statements from musical artists says a lot more about the writer than the musical artists.

    5. Kazu says:

      My favorite stars spoke viciously against president one by one. Supporting politicians is OK, like Oprah supported President Obama. Agitating people with horrible words, ” Bomb White House, Stand for Coup”
      are crimes. If some young people followed their words, those words are murder suggestions and terrorirsm. ThThose stars should be prosecuted. I can’t watch movies, musicals and Grammy etc. anymore. I want to enjoy without political hostility.

    6. Bill B. says:

      I usually enjoy this show, but this year was poor. Other than the very talented and seemingly genuinely sweet & sincere Adele, I didn’t much care for anything else and there were some talented people on the stage that were not at their best especially that overproduced self-indulgent endless number by Beyonce though at least she was trying for something, but it was something that didn’t work.

    7. dd says:

      Politics aside, because I feel everyone is entitled to their opinion…this year’s Grammy’s were awful in the fact that the stage seemed to small and dark, the entire night was wrought with mic problems, camera angles were off, presenters couldn’t read teleprompters… was there no rehearsal?? It was a sloppy night and the audience was sooo boring. People picked to sing Sweet Caroline didn’t even know the words!!!! How does this happen?? The night was a complete mess.

    8. jay says:

      They do not even live in the same world as us! How dare they speak politics and tell us what to do with the little money we may have and who to support when we are trying to keep our heads above water in this real world of money and life. I don’t mind them playing their music and even acting radical when it comes to their own lives, but really, who do they think they are? I want to know why they don’t put their money where their mouth is and donate it to people and foundations that us normal people do not want to pay for because we choose to have a roof over our heads, car to drive to work, food to feed our children and ourselves and we are not RUNNING AROUND NAKED HALF THE TIME. For example-If they want to support the ARTS that our president took out of our budget, because we are horribly in debt and need to find a way to support our everyday ordinary life, why don’t they use some of their money that paid for their night and their clothes, that alone could fund a school. I’m just sick of it! They need to really get off their high horses and stop mouthing off!! Just play their rich lives and stay out of politics!

    9. W. Bagwell says:

      Never thought I’d be anti Hollywood. I’m so disappointed in the ppl who represent them. Politics has no place in your agenda. I will no longer watch or be a part of your movies. I’ve canceled all my movie channels. When my at&t contract expires, you along with others will be wondering where you went wrong. I’m boycotting all liberal agendas. At least that’s one right decision that helps me me sleep @ night.

    10. Karen Armer says:

      Bruno Mars was great! Beyonce looked liked the Starbucks symbol lady and acted way too self important. Adele deserved her award.

    11. VeePo says:

      Note to Grammy’s: Over-producing shi*ty music might not be the answer.
      Note to Lady Gaga: Refocus your considerable talents on your artistic ability and drop the ass-wiggling.
      Note to America: Watch the movie “Idiocracy” and be warned – it’s happening a lot sooner than feared.

    12. Trump is a liar and you've been conned says:

      It’s style over substance with most of the “artists.” The only statement they make is “Look at me, I’m in love with myself and I’m great.” When in fact they are vacuous and have little talent except for self-promotion. Except for Adele…and a few others. I miss Prince, David Bowie, George Michael, Glenn Frey, Leon Russell and Al Jarreau.

    13. Becky says:

      In spite of what the reviewer thinks, I give a very big thank you to those performers who didn’t go the political route. If any celebrities are actually reading these comments, I really hope the trend continues into the Oscars. People need a break from politics! Once again, Variety, where are you getting these people who are writing for you? I’m not wishing unemployment on anyone but you might want to do a rethink of some of your out-of-touch-with-reality staff.

      • Bill B. says:

        I’m willing to bet that there will be plenty of politics at the Oscars and I also say, go for it. They are citizens of this country and they have the right to express themselves just as we do, but they are lucky enough to have a stage to express their outrage. We don’t. When you have a deranged president attacking and trying to silence the media, it will only make those in all media stand up for their rights. When Bannon’s puppet attacks minorities, this is the group that will not tolerate it. I say bravo.

      • Eric S. says:

        I have a feeling Becky that we are not going to get our wish with the Oscars. It’s going to be bad and Maureen will be in Heaven.

    14. Judy says:

      The Bee Gees are not Australian although they lived there for awhile and had their first #1 there. They were born on the Isle of Man then moved to England.

    15. Barry Smithkin says:

      Are all journalists as of late complete morons? Performers don’t have political opinions unless scripted by their corporate white washed productions. A majority of “hitmakers” are but pawns for publishing companies or sophisticated copy cat/cut and paste teams designing product to evoke “this or that”. The market and minds have been under control since Bush. Katy Perry is a tool, none the less!

      • Dunstan says:

        Barry, you need to get off of whatever drugs you’re on and attempt to make a clear-headed, coherent statement.

        Spare us your lunatic conspiracy theories.

    16. Millard says:

      Maureen Ryan is another dime-a-dozen leftist sycophant that spews the Hollywood line. Newsflash Maureen: America doesn’t tune in to see the country being bashed by a bunch of drug-addled racist misogynists.

    17. JeninDC says:

      I can’t believe Variety is saying there should have been more unrest and tributes to Trump hating, etc. Really? We are there to celebrate music, or that is what it used to be. People who didn’t like the presidents of some countries, or those who didn’t like political parties of one or the other variety didn’t ever speak up, unless it was U-2 about the unrest in the UK at the time. Why not protest Muslim nations that don’t allow women to work without a man’s permission? That don’t allow women to drive or hold a license of any kind? That don’t allow people to worship as they wish? All the places that don’t allow Jews into their country (mostly Muslim countries, more than 2 dozen of them around the world)? Stars don’t get up in arms unless it’s something safe, like a Trump fashion line, to protest. None of these millionaires has served in the military, most haven’t humbled themselves to live the lifestyles they say they are singing about (poverty, drugs, etc.). I would prefer a We are the World song, if someone wants to say something political. Stop the drama, because nobody wants to watch this kind of privileged, anti-anything but minority, spectacle any more.

    18. Dan says:

      I feared it was going to turn into the political show you were wanting Maureen, so I didn’t watch it. I know several of my “music loving” friends felt the same way. Hollywood and the music industry doesn’t seem to realize that they’re losing their audience.

    19. bean D says:

      Boring, self important rubes..why bother.

    20. Sam says:

      So your complaint is that the Grammys weren’t more political? That’s interesting. You didn’t learn how irrelevant hollywood really is outside of hollywood from the other 3-4 awards show that drew in historically low ratings? The election and the subsequent award shows didn’t tell you how little people cared about celebrities’ opinions and how out of touch liberal hollywood is? The left really should take a look at itself and realize there’s only one divisive party right now. Until they do, they’ll keep losing ratings and elections.

      • John James says:

        Did not watch them…..they have NO meaning for me or my family and friends …don’t go to the movies anymore either ….Hollywood….is a BIG disappointment to America and we intend on spending our money “MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN’ not lining the pockets of stars who DISRESPECTS OUR PRESIDENT and OUR GREAT COUNTRY!!!! Hollywood is dead to most of AMERICANS!!!!

        • Bill B. says:

          Does this mean that you don’t listen to music anymore along with not going to the movies anymore? I assume that you can’t watch television anymore either as these are the same liberal actors you hate so much. What is it you screwballs do? Play with your guns?!

        • Jo says:

          Wrong idiot!!!! Impeachment on the way, silly.

    21. James says:

      The world often sees things differently than the isolated Hollywood based reporters… The Oscar crowd won’t take the same approach .. The Grammy artists were smart to not go Trump crazy…
      The show wasn’t bad and you should be saluting the top performer of the night Bruno Mars….GaGa and Metallica were visually amazing!! Im still trying to understand the guys who took off their pants!

      • Bill B. says:

        Are you kidding?! The guys with no pants clearly EXPLAINED why and the audience loved it. It was funny and kind of touching.

    22. monique N givens says:

      Beyonce was really stunning pregnant

    23. Eric S. says:

      I too am pleased that the night wasn’t overly political. Enough already. Enough. I gather the only time you can get political according to this writer is when there’s a R by the president’s name. Ok then Maureen. Got you. I think these artists were wise to concentrate on their performances. if you do something political, that is all people will think about. They won’t think about how you did. I thought Bruno Mars did a great job with Prince. Enjoyed The Time and thinking back on the movie Purple Rain. Really ticked about what happened with Metallica. First they aren’t even introduced. Laverne Cox was so concerned with her Supreme Court speech that she forgot about one of the performers. Absolutely ridiculous. And then the sound is off for James Hetfield’s microphone for half the performance. You could tell afterwards he was ticked about the snafu and maybe about being snubbed by Cox. He flung his guitar toward his roadie and threw the mic stand down. Adele was great in the opening. I wasn’t too fond of her George Michael tribute. It was depressing. I thought many of his songs were fun and uplifting. You couldn’t tell from that. It does seem to me that every yr The Grammys gets away from the music I like. Mainly metal and rock. They just don’t care about either of those genres. It’s a shame.

    24. calibadger says:

      or maybe it’s just about the music. and what’s wrong with that?

    25. Matt says:

      Bruno Mars was the PERFECT choice for the Prince tribute, he did good.

    26. John says:

      As a fan of the bee gees I would like to educate your ignorant writer who referred to them as “Australian legends” They were born in the Isle of Man, an island west of Wales then moved and raised in Manchester. They are British and far from being Australian. Come on Variety, your better than this. Get your facts straight or are you dabbling in alternative facts as well?

      • JeninDC says:

        So true! Even Variety doesn’t know a legendary group that wrote songs for everyone, not just the “big” stars but the big country stars at the time, who were not really mainstream. And, those hits were huge. They wrote for Barbara Streisand, Kenny Rogers, you name it….and they are and were amazing. Can’t believe this article is so off. Sick of the political hype. Stick to the music, and get your facts straight, Variety. You owe Barry, Robin, and Maurice each an apology–and their fans, too!

    27. The Truth says:

      Sorry Maureen, but The Time’s performance was a nostalgic treat, and Bruno Mars’ rendition of “Let’s Go Crazy” — replete with guitar virtuosity that convincingly channeled the Purple One — was one of the most exciting moments of an otherwise musically lackluster and creatively weak show. Katy Perry’s number was a mess. Beyonce’s segment was visually stunning, but the song was instantly forgettable. Tamela Mann’s soaring vocals were a stellar counterpoint to Chance the Rapper’s largely unintelligible rapping, and the only thing that kept Adele’s George Michael tribute from completely deflating was her emotionally-laced mulligan. Neil Portnow’s speech conveyed an appropriately mature and focused political tone, but James Corden’s comedic talents were largely wasted. Would more activism from the entertainers have made the evening more enjoyable? Probably not. All in all, one of Ken Ehrlich’s poorer efforts.

      • JeninDC says:

        Totally agree. So boring, the little I saw of it. Sure do miss those wonderful nights of real MUSIC and tributes, big performances, which used to give us glimpses into the real magic of stars we often didn’t get to see in concert back in the day, because there was no Internet, just MTV. Why not show some of G Michael’s amazing, uplifting song catalog? That was the weirdest choice they made, for sure. I bet even George was sad. Adele needs to stay clear of live performances for these kinds of shows, as both years were horrible for her.

    28. ryan steven says:

      I was so glad that it wasn’t political. Enough of that. These idiots campaigned for Hillary….failed. Tried to convince the recall people to side with them…..failed (made money of that one though). Begged the electors of the Electoral College to not vote for Trump…..failed…..begged the Congress to not certify the results…..failed. And has acted childish since. I think Katy Perry must be getting the message that Americans want her to shut the heck up and sing.

      • Dunstan says:

        You voted for Trump because Clinton was going to be in Wall Street’s pocket. Trump wants to repeal Dodd-Frank and eliminate the Fiduciary Rule, letting Wall Street return to its pre-2008 ways.
        You voted for Trump because of Clinton’s emails. The Trump administration is running its own private email server.
        You voted for Trump because you thought the Clinton Foundation was “pay for play.” Trump has refused to wall off his businesses from his administration, and personally profits from payments from foreign governments.
        You voted for Trump because of Clinton’s role in Benghazi. Trump ordered the Yemen raid without adequate intel, and tweeted about “FAKE NEWS” while Americans died as a result of his carelessness.
        You voted for Trump because Clinton didn’t care about “the little guy.” Trump’s cabinet is full of billionaires, and he wants to take away your health insurance so he can give them a multi-million-dollar tax break.
        You voted for Trump because he was going to build a wall and Mexico was going to pay for it. American consumers will pay for the wall via import tariffs.
        You voted for Trump because Clinton was going to get us into a war. Trump has provoked our enemies, alienated our allies, and given ISIS a decade’s worth of recruiting material.
        You voted for Trump because Clinton didn’t have the stamina to do the job. Trump hung up on the Australian Prime Minister during a 5pm phone call because “it was at the end of a long day and he was tired and fatigue was setting in.”
        You voted for Trump because foreign leaders wouldn’t “respect” Clinton. Foreign leaders, both friendly and hostile, are openly mocking Trump.
        You voted for Trump because Clinton lies and “he tells it like it is.” Trump and his administration lie with a regularity and brazenness that can only be described as shocking.
        Let’s be honest about what really happened.
        The reality is that you voted for Trump because you got conned. Trump is a grifter and the American people were the mark. Now that you know the score, quit insisting the con-man is on your side.

      • Rbison says:

        Two thumbs up, Mr. Steven (I wonder how 2017 viewer ratings were?)

      • The Truth says:

        If you’re looking for failures and childish behavior, check out Agent Orange’s ridiculous first three weeks in office: an unconstitutional travel ban he doesn’t dare take to the Supreme Court, pathetic attempts to demean the judiciary, totally unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, unethically using the Presidential Twitter feed to promote his daughter’s failing clothing line, a $22 billion dollar tab on his formerly $8 billion dollar wall that (unsurprisingly) Mexico won’t be paying for, an evil clown posse of unqualified cabinet appointees, a pants-on-fire laughingstock for a press secretary, and a counselor who constantly gags on the Louboutin in her mouth. If you think this is what the nation needs, you’re the idiot.

        • JeninDC says:

          Wow, get an education! If you do the research instead of believing all you read (which would have told you, incorrectly, about a president’s death last night that didn’t happen!), you would find something different: Ivanka Trump’s clothing line is super-successful. Before her father won the presidency, she won all kinds of awards for it, for the designs, for sales, the past more than a decade it’s been in existence. If this kind of treatment were to have happened to the Obama girls or to Chelsea Clinton or Amy Carter, everyone would be “oh, poor girls, their lives are separate from their father”. But, no, and it’s sad. All those stores that caved to protesting by hate campaigns about the line being carried, who ordered more of it and then all canceled at the same time, will regret it. She had already removed herself from the line, so the only people being hurt now are those women whom she left in charge, and they don’t all work for Trump. Sorry, haters.

      • You were so glad politics were left out of the Grammys that you had to wax political here, displaying your ignorance and lack of acumen.

    29. Ruth Deutsch says:

      Bruno Mars playing the Prince tribute and Beyonce singing were my favorite parts. Morris Day was a waste of Time, literally and figuratively

    30. ninvoid99 says:

      The Grammys. It’s pretty much an irrelevant awards show that never really truly celebrate music as a medium or as a form of art. It’s more about an industry celebrating itself, as I quote Maynard James Keenan of Tool. It’s not just clueless in what they want to do and celebrate but often disrespect genres such as metal, electronic music, and traditional folk music. The fact that Metallica wasn’t introduced is a sign of how disconnected the Grammys are and Metallica were forced to endure technical difficulties that become embarrassing. Plus, let’s not forget that this is the same award ceremony that gave Milli Vanilli the Best New Artist/Kiss of Death Grammy. It doesn’t mean a fucking thing.

    31. millerfilm says:

      It is entertaining that Variety, after backing a losing candidate, is now demanding that all awards shows become political events.

    32. Faith says:

      We mustn’t forget that these same artists, and many other from other mediums are criticized for having an opinion to begin with. That their music or art is somehow separate from all forms of expression. Chrissy Teigen isn’t a singer but based on the kind of stuff she gets from people who tell her to shut up and just model, I can understand why some would choose to be apolitical in a contemptuously political climate. I think in general I will choose to applaud those who speak out and let it be those that don’t. I choose to do something but I can’t hold everyone else to my standards. History will judge us all.

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