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How the Grammys Embraced Diversity and Still Lost

If O. Henry had survived long enough to write about the music business, he couldn’t have written a story with a sadder twist than the tale of the 2018 Grammys. The whole saga led to a series of no-win reversals that a fiction like “Gift of the Magi” could only envy.

To wit: The nominating committees’ emphasis on hip hop in the top categories led to a lot of stories about how pop and rock were being shoved aside in this, the Year of Hip-Hop. That, along with a more socially and politically-aware telecast, should have greatly increased the Grammys in the perceived relevance department, right? The sense of increased relevance might have even been seen in some quarters as a reasonable, if costly, tradeoff for the record-low viewership that had to be at least in part a result of the “Grammys don’t care about Ed Sheeran or pop’s biggest stars” meme. Except that the Grammys didn’t even get their credibility consolation prize. Because the overall voting membership had different ideas than the nominating committee and gave all the top awards to non-hip-hop nominees, leading to a world of renewed memes about how out-of-touch the Grammys are.

In other words, the nominations may have seemed too cool for the general populace, who tuned out early, while the winners weren’t nearly cool enough for the folks who get to go on grumbling that the Grammys are just a populist contest after all. Everybody loses, really. O. Henry’s Della has given up her hair for money, while her husband Jim has given up their money for combs. And… curtain!

The Grammy saga is never just about who gets the awards. In fact, it’s rarely about that. The cliché is that no one ever recalls who wins the Grammys, but they do remember who performed on the show. That’s suddenly less true in 2017 and 2018 than it has been in previous years: The thing that everybody holds onto from last year is how Beyoncé lost album of the year, and the big takeaway this year is the “Lemonade”-ization of Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z, as they both ceded every big cross-genre category in which they were nominated to Bruno Mars, a great but far from weighty entertainer. Even the Men in Black might have a hard time getting the industry to soon forget these perceived slights.

But if we could set aside what the voters did and re-focus on what the telecast’s producers did, maybe there’d be some celebrating going on, instead of the mass weeping and gnashing of teeth and rush to recriminations we’re seeing on the day after. This may be going out on a crazy limb to say, but the show itself — while nobody’s idea of perfect — was topical, lively, well balanced, well staged, provocative, entertaining, and … did we mention going out on a limb here? … relevant.

If you think this year’s Grammy telecast was stodgy, maybe you’ve gotten too used to seeing major music awards shows open with Lamar using shocking choreography to send out a Black Lives Matter message. (Sarcasm spoiler: there haven’t been any others.) Lady Gaga and especially Kesha spoke powerfully to the #MeToo movement. Bono offered a (bleeped) commentary about “s—hole countries.” In a speech, Cuban-born Camila Cabello, arguably the biggest pop star of January 2018, spoke directly to the Dreamer experience. Logic also addressed the issue as part of his suicide-prevention show-closer. You could criticize the Grammys for trying too hard — certainly Nikki Haley and Donald Trump Jr. were eager to suggest just that — but you couldn’t accuse them of being tone-deaf to the moment, at least if, like most of the music industry, your thoughts about the state of the country lean a little center-left. Don’t imagine that the ratings dive the Grammys took this year didn’t have a thing to do with putting that incendiary Kendrick performance in pole position. Does that overshadow the actual trophies going to a song-and-dance man instead? There’s a good argument for a “yes” on that.

There were other smart decisions about the telecast that had nothing to do with politics or social commentary. Like having Pink do the ultimate anti-stunt stunt: just singing. Putting Gaga at a piano at the small satellite stage for a nearly-as-intimate performance. Taking a risk by letting Childish Gambino stop the show with a song that is anything but a clear-and-obvious show-stopper. Putting Miley Cyrus in Veronica Lake drag alongside the not-so-noir Elton John. A great “West Side Story” throwback with a contemporary Broadway star. Chris Stapleton and Emmylou Harris, a match made in heaven, for the coil-shuffling memoriam segment. And SZA and Patti LuPone. Not together — damn it! — but still, SZA and Patti LuPone. On the same show, killing it, in their respective fashions.

Were there things that didn’t work? Of course. With all due respect to U2 and their established penchant for memorable outdoor performances, the band’s obviously pre-recorded number on a barge was a moment that absolutely no one was talking about around the water cooler Monday morning. The country salute to the victims of the Las Vegas massacre — well intentioned, and nearly well executed — might’ve worked better if it’d been a country song … or really, any other song than “Tears in Heaven.” Sting began to feel like Zelig over the course of the telecast; you half-expected him to be accepting with Bruno at the end as a previously unrecognized member of the Stereotypes. As for James Corden, he’s probably not going anywhere as host for years to come, given the need for network cross-promotion. But someone should have taken a look at that filmed subway sketch with Sting and Shaggy and been willing to say that these are five horrific minutes that maybe we should give instead to … oh, I don’t know … Lorde?

Ah, the Lorde Problem. Grammy producers surely wish they had a do-over on that one. It’s not a huge stretch to think of the reasons they might have wanted to squeeze her into a collaborative performance, against her will: She only got one nomination — albeit a key one — unlike any other nominee who earned a solo spot on the show. And her album, great as it was, was not a smash, nor were its singles hits. But there was an equally compelling case to put her on just because she’s That Good. And, clearly, the optics that emerged when her MIA status became public were not good. Her non-performance made the show suddenly about perceived sexism … in a year when 12 of the 19 live performances had women as either the main or featured artists, including bravura turns from a good share of the most powerful women in the business. Sometimes the Grammys can’t lose for winning.

And that led to the most regrettable Grammy Moment of them all, albeit one that occurred after the telecast. Asked about the regrettable fact that less than 10% of the nominees were women, Recording Academy president Neil Portnow could have done the safe thing and pointed to the fact that the actual telecast was so diva-heavy as their attempt to lead the way and redress that imbalance. Instead, he suggested that women haven’t been as motivated to infiltrate the business and that they need to “step up” … a pile he surely almost immediately wished he could have stepped out of. It was just one more reason why a year that should have earned a #GrammysSoWithIt hashtag ended up being more #GrammysSoSad.

It’s easy to see how this cycle might repeat for the Grammys. The Recording Academy’s blue-ribbon nominating committees aren’t likely to want to stop honoring the edgier side of hip-hop … and voters aren’t likely to stop casting ballots for the most conservative and/or popular choice they’re offered, short of some kind of new sign-up drive that makes the Oscars’ membership overdrive look like nothing. The show’s producers will feel compelled to put on a telecast that includes a lot of that edginess, which may turn off a lot of middle America in a year without an Adele. And the inevitable dichotomy between nominees and winners somehow ends up making the Grammys seem way too diverse or hip for Kansas and much too square for the coasts.

And the loss of “Despacito” as both Record and Song of the Year? In shutting out the biggest global phenemenon of 2017, the Academy found an inadvertent way to alienate the pro-diversity bloc and those who quietly think it’s okay for the Grammys to represent some kind of a popularity contest, in the very rare year where those two constituencies overlap.

In the midst of all this, though, is it possible to consider that Mars’ sweep is far from the most disastrous one the Grammys have ever accorded? Probably most in the industry would have applauded if the love had been split between him, Lamar, and Jay-Z. Pundits sacrifice their own credibility if they’re actively rooting against someone so seriously dedicated to every aspect of writing, recording, performing, and showing general hardest-working-man-in-show-biz tendencies … and whose work is, if not actual hip-hop, certainly steeped in that culture around the edges. O. Henry could surely appreciate the irony of somebody whose lineage is a mixture of Puerto Rican, Filipino, and Jewish somehow getting caught in a supposition of institutional racism. Some performers speak out about diversity, and some, like Mars, are diversity. A lot of us might wish for Grammys that didn’t always incline so inevitably toward the middle of the road. But that doesn’t preclude celebrating how much the center has shifted.

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