Reading interviews with the Grammys’ producers ahead of the 2021 telecast, you might have had trouble getting a handle on what, exactly, the show would be like. There was a reason for that: It was a little bit of everything — more so than a typical Grammys telecast, which would normally have the advantage or drawback of being limited to performances that could and would be put on in real time in front of an arena-sized crowd. This year’s Grammys were presented with a panoply of possible alternatives to that approach… and kinda took all the approaches, one at a time.
Would you like your Grammys performances to feel a lot like late-night TV, all cozy and fairly basis, with an intimacy a bigger-scaled show can’t afford? Well, that was the opening set, which had Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, Haim and (after the first commercial break) and Black Pumas all performing to one another from across an uncrowded room inside the L.A. Convention Center.
But wait! Maybe that was a little too “Late Late Show” for you — to reference the show new producer Ben Winston is most famous for — and you’d prefer the kind of huge, choreographed dance spectacle — with no instruments visible on stage and pre-recorded backing tracks, if not canned vocals, galore — more common to the American Music Awards, Billboard Awards or MTV Awards. It’s not as if we’ve never seen big production numbers on the Grammys before, of the sort that had Taylor Swift singing a “Folklore” medley from on top of and inside an A-frame cabin in a magical forest, or Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion exploring their “WAP”-ness atop a giant bed next to a giant stiletto heel. But after those opening few numbers, which felt like an underattended high school battle of the bands, it was quite a switch to go big and go (probably, in most cases) pre-recorded… kind of like watching one of those old musicals set in a Broadway theater that’s suddenly revealed to be a 300-foot Hollywood soundstage.
But hold on. Do you miss the kind of “Grammy moments” that the show’s former producer, Ken Ehrlich, was famous for creating? There were some of those, too, though they were held to a minimum. Winston made it very clear, with a talent lineup that consisted almost entirely of today’s hitmakers, that he was not going to go in for those kind of collaborations the show once stood on between freshmen performers and elder veterans. But you did get a taste of that when John Mayer joined Maren Morris to play a guitar solo on “The Bones” (yes, John Mayer counts as a wizened old man now), or when Chris Martin sat in as a humble pianist to accompany Brittany Howard.
That last collab was part of an elongated 10-minute In Memoriam segment that felt by far like the most Ehrlich-ian part of the show. Winston provided a new wrinkle on this by combining what would have once been a separate In Memoriam montage (accompanied by one artist) and separate performance tributes to the most famous dearly departed into one longer musical obituary, instead of spacing those bits out throughout the show. So Bruno Mars and his new Silk Sonic combo paying homage to Little Richard was quickly succeeded by Lionel Richie’s Kenny Rogers salute and Brandi Carlile doing a solo cover of the late John Prine’s final Grammy-nominated number, interspersed with video banks of still more music industry souls that have gone into the great beyond.
That’s a lot of styles for one show to settle into, which is not unique to the Winston Years, as we will henceforth come to know them. Perhaps it was just more noticeable because it had already been remarked upon that some of the performances would go out live and some were being pre-taped during the week, which inevitably led to a “guess which is which” game as the telecast wore on. When Dua Lipa led an entire team of hoofers into “Don’t Stop Now,” for example, the trickiness of the routine inevitably led us to suppose that it was among the segments that’d been laid down on film days earlier — or had it? You’d hate to assume that anything that involved extra levels of planning and blocking was on Memorex if they’d actually managed to pull it off as it was going out over the air. The thrill of going out fully live will always beat a mixture for audience engagement, even though this year’s edition couldn’t much be faulted for hedging bets by putting some sure things in the can early.
But if the show was kind of all over the place in its styles and tones, that sort of fit what happened with the awards themselves, which were… also, yes, a little bit of everything. In a year where only one major performer got more than two awards — meaning Megan Thee Stallion — and none of those awards was record, album or song of the year, there appeared to have been just an insane amount of close votes deciding the victors. Either that, or Recording Academy members secretly convened to decide that, this year, almost everybody should get a prize.
The best part of the show, honestly, despite anything Winston had planned — and no offense to him — was how each new award on the telecast seemed to be its own WTF moment. Like how Swift’s chances of winning anything at all seemed to be dead for the night… until she won album of the year for “Folklore,” as widely predicted before the show, and then as widely un-predicted as the afternoon and evening wore on with her losing in five out of six categories. In what world does Lipa beat Swift for best pop vocal album, then lose to her in the more prestigious album of the year category? Apparently it’s in the same universe does Eilish loses the down-ballot best pop solo performance to Harry Styles, then goes on to beat all odds to pull out a surprise win for record of the year.
The unpredictability of the winners most years (sweep years like Eilish’s in 2020 excepted) is part of what makes them more watchable than, say, the Oscars, where bloggers are able to forecast the results with such accuracy that it’ll be a snooze by the time “Nomadland” wins best picture. If any bookies and bettors laid and took real bets on the Grammys, it’d result in a bloodbath that would make “Uncut Gems” look like child’s play. And that’s why we begrudgingly love the Grammys, even when the upsets seem bizarrely random. Those same upsets can seem appropriate, too — like, why didn’t we see H.E.R.’s best song win for “I Can’t Breathe” coming? Maybe because if we had, then we’d have been wrongly led to expect Beyonce’s “Black Parade” might win record of the year. Just sigh and be happy for an awards show that actually generates constant surprises, even happy one sometimes.
A quick rundown of a few of the things that worked:
Styles’ sweet-tooth opening number. Winston didn’t seem to mind if “Watermelon Sugar” got shafted by the Academy in top categories if we didn’t and Harry didn’t. The song felt both breezier and funkier in this new, horn-propelled arrangement.
Megan Thee Stallion’s Las Vegas savagery… and her acceptance-speech shock. It’s not wholly original to take a hip-hop anthem and reposition it as a ‘50s or ‘60s Vegas number — Cardi B actually pulled off a similar gambit a few years back — but with the right performer and choreo, it just works. And for someone who emanates such a sense of complete control, she has a way of seeming genuine when she’s either flustered into hyperdrive, as she was when she first won on the pre-telecast, or stunned into counting-the-seconds silence, as on the prime-time show.
Brandi Carlile remembering the great rememberer. “I Remember Everything,” Prine’s final original song, which wasn’t released until after his death last year, has been aching for a cover version from an even lovelier voice. The only performer of the three and a half hours to play solo acoustic, Carlile delivered it.
This is the last song our beloved @johnprinemusic ever wrote. It was an unspeakable honor to sing it tonight. Thank you to the Grammys for lifting our hero. Merry Christmas John 🎄
My rendition of “I Remember Everything” is out now. https://t.co/wKdS7SASvH
— Brandi Carlile (@brandicarlile) March 15, 2021
The country medley. Singing “Black Like Me,” Mickey Guyton further proved her stardom (CBS is banking on it, as they just hired her to cohost the ACM Awards in April). Miranda Lambert, one of the few artists to have her full band go completely live on the last ACMs, was among the few who you could be absolutely certain had no one miming a lick here, to great effect. And Morris and Mayer gave “The Bones” a swell sendoff to — maybe? — help close out the pandemic that this song still feels like a hopeful anthem for.
The gazebo setting for the awards-giving. Somehow it worked, although you might’ve had your suspicions, when some of the first sights of the tiny audience for the actual kudos included people sitting alone in chairs, masks on and forearms folded like Bernie Sanders caricatures. In the end, it felt as intimate as the Golden Globes are supposed to be, weeded down to the most essential worker-nominees, all masked up for our protection (unlike the similarly spaced out audience at November’s CMA Awards) and without having to pretend like everyone is getting blitzed (a la the HFPA’s annual awards). It felt strangely… dignified.
BTS’s big fake-out. The K-pop group began its performance of “Dynamite” in a ballroom under a veritable garden of psychedelic, floral stalagmites, even though the BTS ARMY has made it clear to anyone who might think otherwise that the boys would never be so foolish as to leave South Korea during a pandemic. But then, after a series of cuts that repositioned them in stairwells, emerged on a rooftop that was clearly in Seoul after all. “They wanted to be here, so they rebuilt here over there,” Trevor Noah explained later. This might seem contrary to what we said earlier about it being preferable for the entire show to be live, but the effortless charm they bring to their effort-ful choreography, combined with a song that should have been up for record of the year, produces results that make you want to rethink the rules.
H.E.R. and Beyonce bringing the primary cultural theme of the last year back into focus. H.E.R.’s song of the year win and Beyonce’s R&B win on the telecast allowed for acceptance speeches that carried the consciousness of 2020 into 2021, with pride that felt legitimately extended to large parts of the audience that would have a right to feel left out if the show succumbed to pure escapism.
Something that didn’t work so well: the extremely tight leash that Noah was kept on as host. He was an amiable enough presence that you’d hope he will be invited back… with better material. This is the rare awards show where the white stuff going up people’s noses is cotton swabs…. There’s more tension than a family reunion at Buckingham Palace…” These are not the punchlines that would lead anyone to suspect the guy uttering them hosts a show full of trenchant topical comedy on a regular basis. Producers are no doubt scared to death of the Trump votership taking any excuse to tune out, but toothlessness that extreme is a reason to disengage, too. Here’s to a 2022 show, then, in which weak COVID gags won’t even be an option.
There are plenty of things to find about the 2021 edition to criticize, and not just the edgelessness of the comedy. You could knock it for how close the show sometimes felt, during some of those larger-scale numbers, to a Dick Clark Production — which, like it or not, is just a different brand from the Grammys. You could wish we didn’t have to spend even a moment wondering what was in the can and what was on the spot. You could be dismayed that Phoebe Bridgers got neither an award (which the producers couldn’t control) or an appearance (which they could’ve; it wouldn’t have been such a terrible sop to indie rockers or singer-songwriters to throw them a bone). You could suppose that you don’t really need to give Post Malone a performance slot, no matter how popular he is, if no one has figured out anything for him to do.
You could also argue that the show seemed too eager to imagine that we are already at the light of the end of the COVID tunnel, at the expense of a bit more sobriety about the year we just went through. And you could have hoped Doja Cat would win something, just so there’d be some suspense over whether she’d suffer a wardrobe malfunction on the way from her seat to the stage.
But, compared to the relative fiasco that was the Globes, this felt like the “Citizen Kane” of pandemic-era awards shows. In the short term, that may be what matters most. The Grammys may have been hasty in making you think the pandemic was pretty much over, but watching that last big awards show, you’d have thought we were just starting to edge into it. Oscars, consider the ante upped for how to at least get some of the nominees into a room, out of their Zoom and far away from a mute key. You’re probably gonna need an expanded best-song field and a bigger gazebo, though.