If you were hoping to see a serious political statement at Sunday night’s Grammy Awards, you had to wait a long time. Literally hours.
You had to wait through Adele’s show-staring performance of “Hello,” a predictably excellent execution of a song that the Grammy voters love more than all the other songs from last year, it turns out. You had to wait through James Corden’s opening monologue, a deeply unfunny bit that started with a fake technical failure and ended with Corden wearing only one shoe, not really rapping so much as awkwardly spoken-word-poetry-slamming a mess of sentiment that ends with the radical notion that “we can survive by sticking together.” You had to wait through Jennifer Lopez, miraculously not dead from second-hand embarrassment, giving out the award for Best New Artist to Chance the Rapper, joy incarnate.
Sure, Lopez quoted Toni Morrison and reminded the room that “at this particular point in history, our voices are needed more than ever.” And shortly after that, Paris Jackson gave a check-Twitter-and-you-miss-it shoutout to the Dakota Access Pipeline. But then it was back to bland city, for hours.
Some lowlights from this interminable stretch of the show: John Travolta was incapable of reading the teleprompter. Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood sang “The Fighter,” a “country” song that is actually a pop-disco track as performed by two people with southern accents. Twenty One Pilots took off their pants to accept a Best Pop Duo trophy for their song, “Stressed Out,” explaining that the convoluted story behind this charming trick “starts in Columbus, Ohio.” What a time to be Ohio. Ed Sheeran, looking, as always, like a hungover Weasley whose method of getting dressed consists of picking up whatever clothes were on the ground closest to his bed, sang “Shape of You.” Lukas Graham, who is 28 years old, sang about aging and the rapid passage of time. I wondered: What does it feel like, for time to move quickly? I have been watching this awards show for ten thousand years.
The Chainsmokers accepted an award on behalf of David Bowie. I repeat: The Chainsmokers, responsible for the whiny nursery-rhyme-y nightmare anthem about hooking up with an ex you think is too broke to have sex with you but you’ll sleep with her anyway because we ain’t never getting older, accepted an award on behalf of David Bowie. The night was full of such shudder-inducing “Grammy Moments.”
But then, just when we needed her the most: Tina Knowles.
By the time Tina took the stage, both of her daughters were already Grammy winners. Before the telecast, Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky” took home Best R&B Performance and Beyoncé’s “Formation” won Best Music Video. Tina was on hand to introduce her elder daughter, who recently told the world that she was pregnant with twins and thus sparked a wave of “but will she still perform at the Grammys?!” panic attacks.
Beyoncé’s performance, a combination of “Sandcastles” and “Love Drought,” opened with the lines written by Somali-British poet Warsan Shire, featured on Lemonade: “Do you remember being born? Are you thankful for the hips that cracked, the deep velvet of your mother, and her mother, and her mother?” Screens behind Beyoncé flashed images of the links on that chain — Tina on one side, Blue Ivy on the other — and, at times, made it seem like Beyoncé was flanked by endless rows of women. Her visibly pregnant belly, her massive golden crown, Botticelli curls down past her waist; as some on Twitter pointed out, her wardrobe evoked the goddess Oshun.
— samara (@vminlani) February 13, 2017
Her performance was a celebration of womanliness, of femininity and fertility as signs of strength, worthy of worship. Which is powerful in any context, but especially in a climate that is increasingly hostile toward women and aggressively, dangerously cavalier about childbearing, what it takes and means to become a mother.
When she won Best Urban Contemporary Album, she read a prepared speech about the importance of showing children “of every race” that “they are beautiful, intelligent, and capable”:
We all experience pain and loss and often we become inaudible. My intention for the film and album was to create a body of work that would give a voice to our pain, our struggles, our darkness and our history. To confront issues that make us uncomfortable. It’s important to me to show images to my children that reflect their beauty, so they can grow up in a world where they look in the mirror — first to their own families as well as the news, the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the White House and the Grammys — and see themselves. And have no doubt that they are beautiful, intelligent, and capable. This is something I want for every child of every race. And I feel it’s vital that we learn from the past and recognize our tendencies to repeat our mistakes.
Later in the night came the boldest, most politically-charged performance of them all: A Tribe Called Quest’s rendition of “We the People.” (They were introduced by Solange, lest you worry that any highlight of the night did not include at least one of the Knowles women.)
Q-Tip kicked it off by saying, “We’d like to say to all those people around the world, all those people who are pushing people in power to represent them: Tonight, we represent you.” (He also dedicated the number “to our brother who’s not here, Phife Dawg.”) And then Busta Rhymes gave Trump something to tweet about, calling out, “I just want to thank President Agent Orange for perpetuating all of the evil that you’ve been perpetuating throughout the United States,” he said. “I want to thank President Agent Orange for your unsuccessful attempt of the Muslim ban. When we come together, we the people, we the people…”
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) February 13, 2017
In contrast, Katy Perry’s you-go-girl feminism, on display as she sang her new single, “Chained to the Rhythm,” felt awfully J.V. She wore an armband that read “PERSIST” in pink, glittery letters, a white pantsuit (a la Hillary and the suffragettes) with a Planned Parenthood pin on the lapel, and had the preamble to the Constitution projected on the screen behind her as her set came to an end.
In a way, the night was a reminder that, with a few notable exceptions — like Lemonade and Coloring Book, like Rihanna’s Anti and Maren Morris’ Hero — much of 2016’s popular music, like much of 2016, was borderline unlistenable. In other words: It was a banner year for Pentatonix. We lost legends in 2016, and in the admirable-but-still-wanting efforts to pay tribute to those icons (pro tip: don’t cosplay as Prince when you’re honoring Prince), it was clear that we have a ways to go before we get close to filling those voids.
Adele, selected to honor George Michael, was at her most charming, insisting she restart her tricky arrangement of “Fastlove” from the top because “I can’t mess this up for him.” And it’s probably for the best that she racked up all that audience goodwill early, because she needed it by the end of the night, when she won the two biggest awards of the evening — Song of the Year and Album of the Year — and, in doing so, beat Beyoncé twice in a row.
She handled the upsets about as graciously as could be expected, all but handing over her Grammy for Album of the Year to Beyoncé: “My artist of my life is Beyoncé. And this album for me, the Lemonade album is just so monumental, Beyoncé. It was so monumental and so well thought out and so beautiful and soul-bearing and we all got to see another side of you that you don’t always let us see and we appreciate that… You are our light.”
Beyoncé, for everyone keeping track, has now lost Album of the Year three times: To Adele, to Beck, and to Taylor Swift. Maybe Frank Ocean is onto something.