Grammy Awards Review: A Slick Ceremony With a Few Moments of Urgency

James Corden Grammys Host
Matt Sayles/Invision/AP/REX/Shut

Thank the musical gods for Kesha, SZA, Janelle Monae, and Rihanna. These women, among others, rode to the rescue of Sunday’s Grammy Awards ceremony, which was generally quite tame — with a few exceptions.

Sure, several musicians made statements with their music: Kendrick Lamar’s time on stage was electric, and there were energizing performances from Childish Gambino, Logic and Pink. One could make the argument that Bruno Mars won too many awards, but it was not humanly possible to resist Mars and Cardi B’s rendition of their infectious pop tune “Finesse.”

Other than that, though, the Grammys were professional, smooth and generally predictable. The first half of the broadcast seemed especially disconnected from the cultural moment. It felt, for long periods, as though it came from another planet — one on which Times Up, #MeToo and the post-Weinstein era were distant entities.

Of course, many presenters and audience members wore white roses in support the Times Up movement. One live performance paid tribute to music lovers who died in violent incidents at concerts in Manchester and Las Vegas, and Lady Gaga worked a “time’s up” mention into her performance.

But otherwise, the proceedings often felt fairly unremarkable. Singles were plugged, managers and executives were thanked, jokes were made, and there were many references to the Grammy’s 60th anniversary. In the Best Pop Solo category, four female artists competed with Ed Sheeran, who won the award. When he didn’t show up to collect it, you could feel the air drain out of the room. All in all, in an era in which female musicians dominate not just all kinds of musical categories but also popular culture in general, to see so few collect major awards on Sunday was a bit surreal, to say the least.

And though James Corden was an affable host whose energy never flagged, it wasn’t his best outing at an awards show. His jokes and introductions were acceptable, but not much more than that. A contrived attempt to make Corden’s subway ride with Sting and Shaggy into a viral moment went on too long and was quickly forgotten.

Unlike that awkward “Carpool Karaoke” moment, there were a few moments in the broadcast that are destined to live on after the credits rolled on Sunday’s Grammys. Two of them came courtesy of Janelle Monae and Kesha, whose time on stage shifted everything, at least temporarily.

Monae delivered a concise warning to the audience: She said that women “mean business” and that their patience was at an end when it came to harassment, pay inequality, abuse of power and discrimination. Whether the most powerful people in the audience in Madison Square Garden will do their utmost to curb those kinds of abuses in the music industry is anyone’s guess, but what Monae said needed to be spoken out loud, and her delivery was charismatic and powerful.

Her speech was succeeded by the most moving and relevant performance of the night. Surrounded by her fellow artists, who were all dressed in white, Kesha performed “Praying,” and the intensity with which she delivered the song was galvanizing. It was an emotionally raw moment in a glossy broadcast that very much needed one. As she collapsed into understandable tears, she was embraced by the other women on stage — a visual reminder of the kind of female solidarity that has come to the fore of late.

For much of the rest of the broadcast, however, it would seem that Grammy organizers were, paraphrasing the words of “30 Rock’s” Jack Donaghy, trying to make it 1991 again through science or magic.

Midway through the ceremony, Sting performed “An Englishman in New York,” a song that came out more than three decades ago. The most generous reading of that moment was that the organizers of the Grammys wanted to draw attention to the plight of immigrants to this country — but it’s hard to give that explanation much weight when the song was sung by a famous, wealthy white man. Few would argue that Sting’s in danger of being deported.

More importantly, why was Sting performing at all? Every minute of a high-profile broadcast like this is potentially important — commercially, of course, but culturally and politically as well. But Sunday’s Grammys, the first in 15 years to be broadcast from New York, took not just one but two opportunities to showcase the work of the former Police frontman, and he also presented an award. I cede my love of the Police to no one, and of course Sting has built an impressive career. But he’s not especially relevant to this moment in time, musically or culturally, which makes it extremely strange that he got a lot of Grammy airtime, as opposed to, say, Lorde, who apparently wasn’t even offered her own solo performance slot.

I’m well aware that the Grammys aren’t especially known for having their finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist, and that the annual ceremony is more a test of endurance. That’s partly because the event has to accommodate the demands of a very diverse array of music industry constituencies; given all the factions that must be catered to, there are always going to be some awkward selections and strange collisions. (One Broadway song was probably enough, but two seemed a bit like overkill –though I’m sure fans of musicals wouldn’t agree.)

All the more reason to celebrate the well-chosen trio of Logic, Khalid and Alessia Cara, who performed the anti-suicide song “1-800-273-8255” with eloquent urgency. After the song was over, in an homage to immigrants to this country and the “beautiful” nations they come from, Logic declared that those countries and their citizens were “not s—holes.”

That comment was bleeped for broadcast. It was somehow ironic and perfectly on brand that one of the most memorable moments of the Grammys wasn’t even heard by viewers at home.