Sunday night’s Grammys are still all the buzz among music fans and the industry — something you wouldn’t guess from a glance at the (predictably) dismal overnight ratings, but the people who cared about the show really cared about the show. And what’s not to care about when you’ve got Harry not only unmasked but unshirted; a live (or semi-live) reenactment of a police shooting as part of a production number; music’s top female hip-hop stars pretending at scissoring on a giant bed; actual live guitar solos; and Beyonce actually showing up at a Grammys and seeming to be happy about it?
With no real sweeps to speak of among the official winners — Megan Thee Stallion, with three awards, came closer than anybody — here’s a final lingering assessment of some of the individual winners and losers we’re still bzzzzzz-ing about.
Winner: The reviews
Bagging on the Grammys is a time-honored annual tradition, regardless, usually, of whether the show is any good or not. Yet this year’s telecast managed to largely escape the standard withering comments, garnering critical notices and consensus remarks in the twitterverse that ranged from mixed-to-positive (like Variety’s review) to flat-out enthusiastic. While everyone naturally had a complaint or three — whether it was that Trevor Noah wasn’t edgy enough to “WAP” being too edgy — new exec-producer Ben Winston clearly surpassed most expectations for what he could pull off in a first year and/or a pandemic.
Loser: The ratings
To like the show, you had to have watched it, and that turned out to be a problem. All awards shows are down dramatically, but not every one is down by more than 50% from 2019, when the awards industry’s slippage was already showing. Explanation are all over the place: Potential viewers wrongly expected a Zoom show; the near-total emphasis on fresher young acts didn’t give the older CBS demographic enough familiar faces to latch onto; or, the whole format is just doomed no matter what anybody does. You can accept any of those rationales, but it’s really a puzzle: With this strong a lineup, and with recorded music having been on a rebound during the pandemic, you’d think fans would want to see some of those beloved stars in the flesh. But it could just be that Roddy Ricch’s tens of millions of devotees have just never heard of this strange device called a TV.
Winner: Artists who seemed to have stepped out of the 1970s
Harry Styles started it straight off, with that glam-rock feather boa, groovy bell bottoms and golden-god leather. But the night was really about lapels. Finneas’ tuxedo jackets’ collar should have had its own “caution: wide load” warning attached. And then came Bruno Mars’ and Anderson .Paak’s new supergroup, Silk Sonic, which apparently intends to devote an entire album cycle saluting not just the Gamble & Huff soul records of the early ‘70s but the leisure suits that came with them.
Loser: Artists who were actually alive in the 1970s
The Grammys used to reliably bring out veterans to perform with the more au courant stars, but in this year’s lineup, 31-year-old Taylor Swift almost counted as a grande old dame. Bringing in John Mayer as a guest guitar soloist during Maren Morris’ segment was this very youthful edition’s equivalent of having AC/DC on, or Tony Bennett.
Winner: The dead
If you’re an older performer who is not Lionel Richie, the Grammys didn’t have much use for you this year. But if you were/are dead, they did you right. At least, there was a generally positive reaction to an In Memoriam segment that bundled together the traditional scrolling of the deceased with several live tributes that in the past would have been scattered across different parts of the show. Brandi Carlile’s cover of John Prine’s “I Remember Everything” provided one of the telecast’s few emotional moments, Richie was the right man to eulogize Kenny Rogers, Bruno Mars got even more likes for becoming Little Richard than he did for becoming a ’70s soul man, the spotlight on a guitar for Eddie Van Halen worked (even if Wolfgang Van Halen disagreed), and Brittany Howard’s rendition (with Chris Martin) of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was received as a knockout… even if it was strange that she was saluting Gerry & the Pacemakers’ version, a recording that never even charted in America. The producers were also wise to make as big as possible a point of directing viewers to an online list of 700-plus decedents that didn’t fit on the telecast… though that would never completely stop the outrage over those not put on the air, which is everyone’s favorite aggrieved after-party following almost any awards show.
Winner: Oral sex
Between Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” and Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B’s unexpectedly ready-for-prime-time “WAP,” it was clear that the ratings were far from the only thing going down at this year’s Grammys.
Maybe the Grammys should have had someone licking envelopes, instead of putting such durable stickers on them, because everyone from that guy at the Apollo Theatre to Ringo Starr seemed to be having trouble with the hermetic sealing. It only seemed like these epic moments of suspense were responsible for the show going 13 minutes over.
Winner: The Azoffs
It was a big night for Jeffrey Azoff and the family patriarch, Irving, as clients Styles, Ricch,.Paak, Haim, Lizzo and Mayer all had high profiles on the telecast as performers and presenters.
It was not a man’s, man’s, man’s, man’s world at this year’s Grammys. Styles’ surprise win for pop solo performance was the rare example of a guy winning when it could have gone to a woman. If there’s a gender-based ceiling when it comes to current Grammy winners, it’s muttonchops pressed up against the glass.
Winner: The return of Taylor Swift’s shocked face, and the introduction of Megan’s
When Swift seemed surprised to have won the penultimate prize for album of the year, there was no doubt it was genuine. She’d lost all the less prestigious awards she was up for over the course of the afternoon and evening, so as the telecast approached its final minutes, surely she was thinking: Nevermore. But it was that kind of a WTF winners list, where front-runners Swift and Lipa got one award each and only Beyonce and Megan got more than a couple. Speaking of: Seeing Megan at a loss for words on more than one occasion was one of those moments people cherish in an awards show, when you’re reminded that the person you already think of as a boss is still, on some level, a grateful and surprised debutante.
Loser: Getting to see the lower half of losers’ chagrined faces
With everyone in the tiny audience of nominees wearing masks, we were denied the full expressions of everyone who had to pretend they were really happy it went to someone else. Or maybe that was a win? It’s always awkward when the cameras stay on runner-ups’ faces as they have to put on a whole performance for those extended seconds of disappointment — never more so than at the recent Golden Globes, where the entire Zoom call of losers stayed on screen as winners gave their speeches.
Winner: Masking up
The Grammys were able to take a lesson from November’s CMA Awards, which were roundly criticized for letting the tiny audience of nominees go unmasked during the ceremony. It didn’t matter that everyone present had been repeatedly COVID-tested, was sitting at socially distanced tables and was supposedly wearing masks to get up and walk around; letting the “crowd” go unmasked was still seen as sending the wrong message to the nation (especially after one participant, Charley Pride, went on to die from the virus). The Grammys may have sent mixed messages about how close we are to the light at the end of the tunnel, but seeing the biggest stars in the biz masked up at least sent the right signal to the nation about how to get there.
Loser: COVID solemnity
Aside from having the tiny audience of nominees out on that veranda mask up, there wasn’t much attention paid on the telecast to acknowledging how the nation has just been through a year of virtual warfare against a deadly enemy. Noah signaled in his opening remarks that the show would be about looking forward in hope, and the In Memoriam implicitly paid tribute to the enormous loss the country has suffered (see next item). Still, it would have been nice to have someone — as Fantastic Negrito did in the untelevised pre-ceremony — call for a moment of silence amid the party restarting.
Winner: The showgirl aesthetic
Whether it was Megan Thee Stallion and her dancers first appearing in feather headdresses on what looked like a 1950s bandstand, or Dua Lipa doing a costume change (or drop) to reveal a leggy outfit that made Cyd Charisse look like a shorty, there were moments in the show that felt distinctly like old-school Vegas… even as choreography kicked in that made it clear these women were accomplished headliners, not just part of a chorus line.
The announcement during the telecast that songwriters and composers would get their own wing in the Recording Academy, a la the long-standing Producers & Engineers wing, was a happy sign that the org does mean to look out for the creatives that stand to lose the most — and have already lost a huge amount — in the streaming revolution. Is a Songwriter of the Year award next? Let’s hope the Academy writes them an even happier ending.
Loser: The “All lives matter” contingent of viewers
The complete lack of topical humor in Trevor Noah’s opening gags didn’t bode well for the Grammys finding any edge as the show went on. Certainly the Grammys have been burned before by courting social consciousness: There was anecdotal evidence of mass tune-out a few years ago when Kendrick Lamar opened the show with a racially and politically provocative number. As it turned out, this year’s Grammys were biding their time a little more before putting up Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture,” filmed on a blocked-off street somewhere outside the L.A. Convention Center, where the dramatization of a police shooting was followed by protest scenes that blurred the line between reenactment and reality. Wins for Beyonce’s “Black Parade” and H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe” brought the theme further home. These were moments that disturbed the Fox/OAN demographic, though they had to pretend to be more upset by “WAP.”
Winners: Mickey Guyton and Haim
The Grammys did not make a whole lot of room for performers that have not had No. 1 records, or even that fall short of household name status, but exceptions were made for these two artists, who made the most of their time in the spotlight. Haim’s earworm “Don’t Wanna” benefitted from having just enough pauses in the instrumentation that sisters Danielle and Alana were able to switch off on guitar and drums, and then switch back again. Why teach young women that you can join the rock boys’ club by picking up an instrument when you can teach them that you can master several? Meanwhile, Guyton’s “Black Like Me” finally got the mass exposure it needed to further push her into a limelight that may be little affected in years to come by country radio’s embrace or the lack of it.
Loser: Post Malone
The show didn’t have any disastrous performances. The closest it came was an indifference-engendering one by Malone, who wasn’t really given — or maybe wouldn’t accept? — anything to do except be surrounded by sinister berobed people, in a wan reenactment of the orgy scene from “Eyes Wide Shut” minus the orgy.
Winner: The Weeknd
Has anyone ever been celebrated so much for not being celebrated? Although the MIA star went unmentioned, his spirit hovered over the telecast… and seemed to nearly take shape in the silhouette of the host’s Abel-like hair.
Loser: Bill Barr
At least he was only invited in to shit all over the pre-telecast “premiere ceremony” and not shit all over the prime-time awards.
Winner: Floral patterns
From the flowery stalagmites of the main performance set to Swift’s face mask, everything seemed to be blossoming at the Grammys, at least when our attention wasn’t trained on giant-sized stilettos. Maybe it’s a big bouquet awaiting us at the end of the tunnel.
Winner: Pre-recordings, backing tracks and miming
The Grammys can certainly get a one-year pass on doing everything live in a still-pandemic-ridden year, but it’s always been the one show that had a nearly-total restriction on entire numbers being in the can, and a generally enforced prohibition against lip-synching. Pulling it off live only feels thrilling if everyone is pulling it off live; otherwise, cannier viewers are putting too much psychic energy into trying to figure out what’s being done or sung on the spot and what isn’t. For whatever may have permanently changed with the Grammys with a new regime, let’s hope that audiences haven’t just fully accepted that there can be as many small or large cheats at the Grammys as there would be at the AMAs or BBMAs, and that the protocol shifts back toward fully live as conditions allow in 2022.
Winner: BTS… delivered via Dropbox, and fabulous
The K-pop stars started out under that same upside-down floral arrangement, danced past a cabinet full of Grammy trophies in the L.A. Convention Center, made their way up to the roof, and… came out somewhere on another side of the world. So what we were just saying about the show needing to be fully live and on-site to work? Here’s where the hypocrisy comes in, because any performance of “Dynamite” is just likely to be a blast, whatever rockist rules we might come up with about keeping things live and authentic.
Uncertain: Harvey Mason Jr.’s “We’ll do better” speech
There’s certainly never been a more defensive speech presented on the Grammys, or one delivered in warmer and more reassuring tones, than the one given by the Recording Academy’s chairman, Harvey Mason Jr., late in the telecast. It was certainly more strangely riveting than anything Neil Portnow or Mike Greene ever did in that role on the show, as Mason addressed the many, many criticisms that have been leveled at the Grammys and the Academy these past few years, albeit dancing around them just enough that it must have baffled anyone joining this brouhaha already in progress. He asked “the entire music community to join in working with us, not against us, as we build a new Recording Academy that we can all be proud of… We might not get it right 100% of the time, and we certainly won’t be able to make everyone happy,” he cautioned, while promising to meet “demands for transparency” with “greater diversity and more equal representation.” At least it felt heartfelt, which is more than anyone said about the Golden Globes’ leaders’ comically short remarks along the same lines on their show two weeks earlier.
Winner: The second Grammy coming of Beyonce
The big question ahead of time was whether Beyonce might perform. That was an easy one to answer, for half of the power couple that famously said on record a few years ago, ““Tell the Grammys fuck that 0-for-8 shit / Have you ever seen the crowd going apeshit?” But no one thought to ask whether it was a sure thing that she wouldn’t at least attend… and when she and Jay-Z did, their first appearance in an establishing shot weirdly felt more seismic than any performance on the show. Who knows if they would have showed if they didn’t have a collaborator, Megan, to support? But that they did, for whatever reason, and that she was there to acknowledge the honor of being the most awarded female artist of all time, made it feel, more than anything that could have been said about the pandemic, that maybe we really are in an era of new beginnings.