Grammys 2017 Postmortem

This is a day late, sure, but look how much I wrote. My fingers hurt. Give me a break. And yeah, I know I haven’t written anything in six months. I’m a working man.

The Grammys have come and gone once again, the 59th edition of what the Academy likes to puff up as “Music’s Biggest Night.” What does that mean? Usually an Adele performance, old artists winning Best New Artist because the Grammys have stupid arbitrary rules for determining that category, and non-white artists being shoved into their own, neatly-segmented categories while white artists dominate the big categories. We got a couple of those again this year, but, as always, there was plenty that shined through the shit.

Some performance notes, then:

– Politically tepid, for the most part. Several presenters made bland platitudes about the importance of equality, without really touching on the most important reasons to emphasize equality in our current time. That was, of course, until A Tribe Called Quest, with Anderson.Paak, Consequence, and Busta Rhymes of all people, rolled up and tore down the wall of sanitary comments and excessive niceness. Q-Tip repeatedly declared Donald Trump to be “President Agent Orange,” as ATCQ barreled through a medley of several politically-charged songs from We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, which came out just a few months ago. They brought up a procession of immigrants to the stage to show the kind of people that Trump’s executive order was shutting out – people who deserve to be in America, the land of the free, because America’s borders shouldn’t be arbitrarily shut (though we know it’s not arbitrary). They even had a makeshift wall on stage to burst through. Powerful and important.

And Anderson.Paak was behind the kit for a couple minutes! That was rad.

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– Lukas Graham is a fine singer but his performance with Kelsea Ballerini was the perfect representation of the Grammys slapping two artists together because they’re kind of similar and they hope they can work out a good collaboration. This was pretty boring. There were a few other collaborative performances, like Alicia Keys and Maren Morris, which was fine, and Gark Clark, Jr. and William Bell performing “Born Under a Bad Sign” together, which was the usual Gary Clark, Jr. guitar showcase, but this time backing up a wonderful vocal performance from a music legend.

– I was very, very interested in Metallica/Gaga, and what I get for my troubles is a fucking trainwreck. Now, this isn’t necessarily the fault of Metallica and Gaga – I assume they’re responsible for the tasteless stage design, but that’s fine. No, the Grammys continue to demonstrate that, despite being the premier venue for multiple performances on several stages in the span of three hours, they are still able to fuck things up, as James Hetfield’s microphone was completely non-functional for the entire first verse and chorus of “Moth into Flame.” I was really looking forward to this, and Gaga’s vocals provided an interesting dimension to the song, but it was only half a song until Hetfield realized his mic was off, and he had to share Gaga’s mic instead until his came back online. Started off on the wrong foot and never really got going, a real miss for Metallica. At least they’ll have that bizarrely awesome Lang Lang collaboration from a couple years ago.

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– Ed Sheeran’s live looping to create his own beat was an impressive technical backdrop for his usual pop garbage. I feel pretty sure that the backing track eventually switched to a pre-recorded one, but if it didn’t, then wow, he really did something great here. Wish it had been for, you know, a good song.

– The Bee Gees should be offended by the “tribute” offered here. It was a smashed-together mess with a bunch of people no one cares about, that mashed together a bunch of songs in a way no one wanted to here. And they said it was also a Saturday Night Fever 40th anniversary tribute…? Try again. And never invite John Travolta back to the Grammys ever again.

– Speaking of Travolta – specifically, the performance he introduced after rambling about some nonsense for a couple minutes – the Grammys showed that country is both dead and not dead at the same time. Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban presented the latest assassination of a once-proud mainstream genre, performing a literal synthpop country disaster with the backdrop of going through the Time Vortex if you were also on acid. I understand that traditional country isn’t mainstream any more, and that the continuing forward march of pop into every other genre around it has morphed radio country into something entirely different. But this was just awful. You wouldn’t even know it was country if you weren’t being assaulted by Keith Urban’s awful accent. Carrie Underwood continues to just sort of exist to put out these asinine performances every year.

– But on the other end of the spectrum, Sturgill Simpson delivered a gorgeous rendition of “All Around You,” backed by the Dap-Kings, the powerful backing band of now-passed-on Sharon Jones. This wasn’t necessarily “traditional” country either, but Sturgill Simpson takes pride in the genre he represents, and as probably one of the least mainstream artists on the show (sorry Chance), he delivered a heartfelt, full-throated performance that would have made Sharon Jones, and Johnny Cash, proud.

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Kevin Winter/Getty

– The big tribute section this year was to Prince, himself a larger-than-life figure that always seemed willing to bring himself down to the level of the Grammys. He received a strong two-part tribute, with The Time and Bruno Mars performing separately and then together. The Time in particular were a huge treat to watch – Morris Day’s voice is electric, and his synchronized dance sequences with Jerome were a real spectacle. And then, of course, Bruno Mars rolls out, in full Prince regalia, with what I’d hope is a replica of a quintessential Prince guitar, and demonstrated that, in addition to the eight million talents he already has, shredding out a Prince solo is one of them too. It wasn’t a technical masterpiece – obviously Bruno isn’t Prince on the six-string – but it was clear that Bruno put a lot of effort into making it sound good and look great, and he delivered. He had another performance earlier in the show, which was exactly what you’d expect from Bruno Mars – retro pop and great dance moves. Another traditional Grammys setpiece, but a fun one.

– James Corden was great when he hosted the Tonys last year. The Grammys? Not so much. He’s at least capable of showing emotion, unlike LL Cool J, who appeared to be a robot created for the sole purpose of saying words between segments that no one was really listening to. But Corden at times appeared to try and emulate the sort of host that makes themselves too much a part of the show, from his fall down the stairs to open the show, to rapping his opening monologue, to the gross jokes about his parents having young people to fuck separately. He seemed out of his element, which isn’t a good look for any host, but especially not for James Corden, who’s still establishing himself in the States. Maybe next year he’ll be better – if LL Cool J’s eternal reign as Grammys host is any indication, he’ll have plenty of tries.

– Katy Perry premiered a new song featuring all of the anti-tech, anti-Internet baby boomer bullshit that absolutely should not be coming out of Katy Perry’s mouth. Who is the target audience here? Kids who are determined to deny their own identities in the interests of appeasing crusty old fucks who can’t be swayed? What was the point of this song? Who hurt you, Katy? Was it Left Shark? Have we misread him this entire time?

At least the white picket fence turned into a bunch of dancers. That was a cool gimmick for a shit song.

– The Weeknd performed with Daft Punk, whose primary contribution was to stand on top of a retro-futuristic glacier mountain and press buttons on some synths while The Weeknd turned in a typically great vocal performance. I’m sure this was a dream come true for him, as his profile continues to rise as a powerful pop musician. But the visual spectacle was lacking.

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– Pentatonix has achieved true mainstream penetration. We will see them perform at every music show imaginable for the rest of our lives, at least until it’s revealed that one of them has been perpetually on heroin for the past five years and it destroys them. One can hope.

– The In Memorium segment is always a sad one, but luckily, 2016’s whirlwind of destruction was split between last year’s Grammys and this year’s, lessening the blow when it came time to run the montage. Imagine Prince and Bowie being in the same one. My God.

I found it curious that Prince received neither first (that went to Leonard Cohen) nor last (George Martin, for some reason) billing in the montage. You could argue that Martin had a more substantial impact on music by way of the Beatles, but Prince’s contributions were far more direct, and I think he would’ve warranted first or last billing. Instead, he was second, which is close, but not enough. Perhaps they believed they’d paid the man his due with Bruno Mars earlier. They would be wrong.

This was John Legend’s annual contribution to the Grammys, by the way, doing a Beach Boys cover. “Hallelujah” would’ve been a bit much, I guess. But I will say that including Cynthia Erivo, from the current stage revival of The Color Purple, was a nice gesture to remind people (including the Grammys) that hey, musicals are music, too.

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And the big three:

– Adele’s voice is gorgeous. Once in a generation. The most successful artist of the digital era, and the only artist to have a diamond-selling record since 2004. Twice. Yes, Adele has to be at the Grammys, and yes (as we’ll cover shortly), she’ll sweep, so you should feature her a couple times.

But Adele standing in the dark belting out a track is boring. Especially when the song is over a year old. So when you open the show with the customary Adele performance, it’s not exactly the electric way to start a show that desperately needs electricity. Adele’s gimmick, to put it crassly (she’s certainly genuine about it) is that she’s a regular woman, a regular mother, who happens to be the best singer in decades. So when you stick her in the middle of a blank stage with nothing but a live video feed of her own damn face to perform with, it comes off a little bit robotic, like “hey, this is Adele, press the button and hear her sing!” Now, I’ll say right now that I don’t have any alternative ideas. But I’m not putting together the show, so I don’t have to. Bite me.

And by contrast, of course, Adele’s tribute to George Michael later in the show – a slow, orchestral rendition of “Fastlove” – demonstrated the human side of her. Adele is just like us – she loves good music, she’ll cry about it on national television if she wants, she’ll stop a performance and drop the f-bomb if she feels like it. Perhaps having war flashbacks to her last Grammys performance that sounded awful, Adele detected something wrong early in the song, cut it off, and pleaded forgiveness while instructing the backing orchestra to restart. She then delivered the powerful, heartfelt vocal performance that is the hallmark of a true Adele show. This was far, far better.

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– Concerns that the Grammys were simply riding the wave of Chance the Rapper’s mainstream success to puff out their chests and proclaim “We recognize indie talents now please keep watching!!!!” are certainly warranted. Chance has transcended his roots in a way that’s unimaginable, and it would be absurd of the Grammys to ignore that and bar Coloring Book from the recognition it and Chance himself deserves. But let’s set that aside for now and just bask in the glory that is Chance the Rapper delivering an unabridged, unchained show that showed the country what Chance is all about. This is exactly what I was hoping for – a medley of “How Great” and “All We Got” with parts of “No Problems” and “Blessings” sprinkled throughout, Chance’s cousin Nicole giving a full-throated rendition of the choral piece that opens “How Great,” Chance delivering a sermon at the mic, barely able to keep his emotions in check as he chokes his way through his verses, bursting into jubilance as the performance transitions to “All We Got” (no Kanye and no Jay Electronica, though; that’s fine). A true mic drop moment.

Chance has watched his notoriety grow exponentially in the past calendar year, starting with SNL alongside Kanye, through “Summer Friends” on the Today Show, and all the way to the Grammys to accept three awards and perform the songs that the Grammys wouldn’t have even recognized a year ago. Through all of these, it would be incredibly easy to be overwhelmed by the sizes of the stages, and Chance certainly performs as if he’s perpetually in awe of just how far he’s come. But he’s always in control, he’s always having fun, and he’s always pulling up whoever he can reach when he performs on these huge stages. Peter Cottontale is always right behind him. Nico Segal is around the corner. His performance this year opened not with him, but with his cousin Nicole. Chance knows who helped him get to this point, and he’s so, so determined not to leave anyone behind as the waters continue to raise him higher and higher. And he still hasn’t charged a dime for a single song he’s put out himself.

How great, indeed.

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– When Beyoncé announced her pregnancy in the most Beyoncé way possible, you knew you would be in for a treat if she performed at the Grammys. And why the fuck would she not perform at the Grammys after putting out yet another powerful, biting representation of feminism and femininity in Lemonade? But I don’t think anyone expected this – Beyoncé, appearing to be a golden goddess, stomach bare, exalting the power of motherhood, proudly displaying three generations of Knowles women, en route to a performance of Lemonade’s “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles,” two of the most-forgiving, open songs from the album.

I’ll admit that I was tripped out by the opening, a pre-filmed video that at times depicted Beyoncé as a multi-armed deity underneath a spoken-word introduction to her performance. I wasn’t sure where it was going, and I briefly thought that this pre-recorded bit might be it. But then she appeared, took her seat, and blew the house down. Once again, much as she did with the surprise release of Beyoncé in 2013, Beyoncé demonstrated that she is untouchable, the most prominent mix of art and success I’ve seen in music in a very long time. Nothing can stop her, and nothing will.

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Shortly, about who wasn’t there:

– Kanye West and Frank Ocean both publicly announced that they would not be participating in the Grammys. Kanye, fine. The Life of Pablo received some individual nominations and came home with none, and Kanye, emotional as he can be about Grammys, is still laying low and trying to recover from the strain of the cut-short Saint Pablo tour. I think it’s fine that he didn’t show up.

Frank, however, was not content to simply not show up. He didn’t submit Blonde (or Endless) for consideration at all, and noted that while the Grammys had “nostalgic value” to him, he had no interest in giving the Grammys the satisfaction of including him, when it was such a poor institution for representing diversity in music. Remember, this is the institution that actively had Macklemore & Ryan Lewis sweep the hip-hop categories in 2014, over, you know, Kendrick fucking Lamar.

So, apparently butthurt, the Grammy producers decided to engage in some public speculation about why Frank really wasn’t showing up, offering up the “unsatisfying” 2013 performance of “Forrest Gump” as evidence. They said that Frank hadn’t been satisfied with how the production of “Forrest Gump” had gone, and how the performance itself wasn’t necessarily up to snuff, that Frank’s ideas weren’t technically feasible and were hard to realize for the show, leaving Frank bitter about the experience and the Grammys in general.

This, frankly, is asinine and shockingly childish for producers of a major awards show. They really just said that Frank was being childish about his performance, and that’s why he was saying the things he was saying. This is mind-numbingly tone-deaf.

Frank, of course, wouldn’t let these people have the last word, and dropped a Tumblr post tearing into the producers, openly dismissing his performance at the show as “shit,” and saying it didn’t matter because he didn’t need the institution of the Grammys for validation. He noted Blonde being a million-seller without a label behind it, and said that he didn’t need the Grammys to validate his success. He also noted 1989’s win over To Pimp a Butterfly for Album of the Year in 2016, a move that was lambasted by hip-hop critics as being a clear indicator of the Grammys putting commercial success far above artistic integrity. He ended the post by lambasting the Grammys’s cultural bias and lack of ability to retain a young audience, a mic drop if I’ve ever seen one.

Frank makes good points in this post – the Grammys, despite their diverse performers and attempts to recognize hip-hop, R&B, and blues properly, are still more than willing to put a white artist above a black artist, even if the black artist’s work is more deserving of a given award. See: fun. winning Best New Artist over Frank in 2013. Yes, I’m still bitter about that, and no, I’ll never let it go. There are countless examples, and whether they’re rooted in cultural bias, as Frank suggests, or simple ignorance isn’t quite clear. But it’s been a problem for decades and it will continue to be a problem. You could argue that the best way for Frank to enact change would be to contribute and put on the best performance he can, to show what black artists are capable of, but I believe that abstaining is just as strong a message, so long as he’s loud about it.

– Semi-related: Macklemore was not at the show and didn’t submit This Unruly Mess I’ve Made for Grammy consideration this year. And you know it was his personal decision because he’s independent. Was he really that shaken by the backlash to his sweeping of the hip-hop categories last time, or did he know that he wouldn’t win anything this year with a mediocre follow-up? Who can say?

And a few notes about the actual awards:

– Twenty One Pilots dropped trout when they won the Grammy for Best Pop Duo/Group performance. Like, actually. They pulled their pants off, ran up on stage, and explained that they promised to do this several years ago, before they’d had any success, watching the Grammys on tv with their pants off. Full circle, I guess.

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I’m confident enough in myself to admit that I have both of Twenty One Pilots’s major label albums. I like to indulge in garbage sometimes. We all do. Don’t even pretend you haven’t spun “Guns for Hands” or “Holding Onto You” or any of the eight thousand singles from blurryface. This is what My Chemical Romance would’ve been if they formed in the 2010s. This is modern emo, folks. It’s what the emos love these days.

Do emos still exist? What about scene kids?

God damn I feel old.

– Bowie won Best Rock Song for “Blackstar”, which is a gross oversimplification of Bowie, but there it is. Up there with “Best Metal Performance” for Nine Inch Nails. Also, the Chainsmokers (kill me) just sort of held onto the Grammy because no one was there to represent Bowie, because why the fuck would anyone in his estate waste their time with this? But still, get your nasty fucking hands off his Grammy, Chainsmokers. Both of you are cunts and will be irrelevant by this time next year.

– Chance got his due here. Best Rap Album for Coloring Book, Best Rap Performance for “No Problems”, and Best New Artist for Chano himself. He was effusive and genuine in his speeches, shouting out Soundcloud and his Chicago roots, making sure the people he wanted to mention got their due. “You can play the music but I’mma keep talking.” Never stop, Chance. You deserve it.

I really hope this leads to the Grammys doing a better job of acknowledging the power and influence of the Internet in hip-hop. More than any other genre, some of the best artists in the field build themselves through the Internet. Artists as huge as Kanye West (with The Life of Pablo still not available in any physical format) and Frank Ocean (with the visual album Endless and the pop-up shops for Boys Don’t Cry, the magazine containing the only physical copies of Blonde that are readily available) use the Internet as their primary musical delivery service, and streaming is more essential to hip-hop consumption than any other genre. So opening up the awards to streaming-only albums is a great step, but only if they actually follow through with it and recognize the artists that deserve it. That’s hard to do when Chance is so far above any of his contemporaries in popularity and mainstream appeal, but they have to try.

– Beyoncé won Best Urban Contemporary Album, which, as we’ve previously established here at iTunes A to Z, is a code word for “Best Black Album.” It doesn’t mean anything, and of course Beyoncé won, because who the fuck else would win it this year? But still. She was also up for Album of the Year, which is suspiciously the same arrangement Frank Ocean had when he was robbed of several Grammys he deserved to win last year. But they couldn’t do Beyoncé dirty like that, right?

Right?

– Alas, Beyoncé fell victim to the Adele Whirlwind. It’s almost unfair. The rest of the music industry should be glad that Adele only drops an album once every three or four years, because if she did this annually, she would destroy any chance anyone else could have of winning. Beck wouldn’t stand a chance. Arcade Fire would get blown the fuck out. Beyoncé, musical juggernaut that she is, continues to hit the glass ceiling of two diamond records out of three. Adele’s mainstream appeal and genuine songwriting talent is unbeatable. Five Grammys in all this year, including a sweep of Record (“Hello”), Song (“Hello” again), and Album of the Year (25). She’s now swept the big three categories twice, first with 21, now with 25, and she’s the only artist to ever do that. And, as her album title explains, she’s still only in her 20s. The Adele Whirlwind will ravage the Grammys every few years for decades to come. She shows no signs of slowing down.

And it’s for this reason that the Grammys should do well not to fuck with Adele or anyone she might bring on stage. During her speech for Song of the Year, Adele brought her co-writer up to do his own speech, the first time he’d ever been on stage to do so. However, when she stepped away, the production team apparently thought she was done, and rudely cut to Solange introducing the next segment, just as Greg Kurstin was attempting to thank his parents after winning for “Hello.” The lights dimmed on him in the middle of his thank-yous and the Grammys were greeted by a rare unanimous wave of booing from a crowd clearly incensed that someone who barely ever got to be in the spotlight was swept aside so crudely. Adele herself was indignant when accepting Record of the Year at the end of the night, snapping that “you cut him off last time!” Kurstin got to say his thanks this time, but it serves as a reminder that Adele is a Grammy powerhouse, and likely a big reason for people to tune in, so the producers should give her whatever the fuck she wants, lest she decide to boycott the Grammys next year, too.

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Kevin Winter/Getty

And in one last bit of subversion of the Grammys, when Adele received Album of the Year, she promptly rejected and said Beyoncé should’ve won, once again stating that Lemonade had been a transformative influence on her, a major catalyst for her own music and identity. This was much more humble than I expected, but hammered home the point that Adele is just another regular person who happens to have extraordinary talent, and she can be starstruck by her heroes just like us, and indignant that they weren’t given their proper due just like us.

Now, I’ll say that Album of the Year was a layup if I’ve ever seen one. Is Lemonade a more powerful artistic statement? Sure. But it’s not like Adele just shits these albums out and rides fun hooks like Taylor Swift did with 1989. She puts time and effort, and a great deal of care and personal anguish, into her songs, and she just happens to be talented enough to make those songs have great mainstream appeal. That is a talent set more than worthy of winning over Beyoncé, as unfortunate as it is that two of Beyoncé’s best albums in a row were unable to secure Album of the Year.

The Adele Whirlwind is undefeated.

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