If you missed the first hour and a half of the Grammys, you didn’t miss anything at all.
We got a solid 90 minutes of lite-FM-in-the-waiting-room-at-the-dentist’s-office, ballads that sounded like they were trying not to wake the kids, tepid, forgettable, stuff. Taylor Swift opened the show in head-to-toe glitter, strutting and striking poses through a competent but otherwise unremarkable rendition of “Out of the Woods.” (She arguably demonstrated more enthusiasm a bit later on, playing her role as designated So Happy For You friend when her “Blank Space” lost Song of the Year to “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran, that disheveled millennial who looks like a perpetually-hungover Weasley.)
The Weeknd was supposed to perform with Lauryn Hill, but she backed out at the last minute, which is as decent an excuse as any for his fine but forgettable moves through “Can’t Feel My Face” and “In the Night.” Stevie Wonder, real master of ceremonies, teased the nominees for Song of the Year by waving the envelope in their faces (it was in Braille) before making a serious statement: “We need to make every single thing accessible for every person with a disability.”
For the most part, though, it was all dull and L.L. Cool J.-safe and “why didn’t we DVR this again?” for an hour and change. Until Kendrick Lamar.
Lamar, who at the time had just won his fifth Grammy of the night, appeared onstage in shackles, chains clanging all the way down the microphone stand, linked to a fleet of dancers in prison blues. The band was behind bars. Interesting editing choices aside — the camera cuts on top of the strobe light was a little/lot much — his was the first moment, in a night that never stopped promising Grammy Moments (TM), that felt vital, urgent, alive. The dancing exploded as a bonfire bloomed behind Lamar’s head; he shed the handcuffs and transitioned from “The Blacker The Berry” to “Alright,” leaning into that we gon’ be alright hook like it was more than an affirmation. When he was done, an image of Africa with an all-caps COMPTON stamped across the center loomed in the background.
CBS censored Lamar’s lyrics about hating the police who “want us dead in the street,” but to little effect: Lamar followed up “Alright” with a new verse that called out “modern slavery” and paid tribute to Trayvon Martin: “On February 26, I lost my life too.”
In the midst of an awards show that has made more than its share of disappointing, if unsurprising, choices (congratulations, Meghan Trainor); that can’t stop itself from shoving thematically and/or generationally disconnected artists onto the stage together to perform meh-medleys; that has a particularly ungenerous history with rap; Lamar’s presence, his insistence on fusing his musical prowess with his political fury, was a gift.
Because for about 10 minutes there, all our cups runneth-ed over, Lamar’s set was followed by the opening number from Hamilton, via live feed from the Richard Rodgers Theatre. And then, of course, Hamilton won the Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album. Back at the Richard Rodgers, Lin-Manuel Miranda rapped his acceptance speech while Anthony Ramos waved the Puerto Rican flag, a gift coming full circle:
So I gave @Anthony_Ramos1 a flag y'all gave me and he used it right.
— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) February 16, 2016
The Oscars do not need any help looking out of touch. But just in case they did, there it was, courtesy of the Grammys.
Grammys boss Neil Portnow subtweeted Spotify, propping up child piano prodigy Joey Alexander before asking the audience, “Isn’t a song worth more than a penny?” and breaking down the unattractive economics of music streaming services. “We have to make sure that creators and artists, like Joey over there, grow up in a world where making music is a viable career.” Common, standing at Portnow’s side, thanked fans for the ways they can contribute, including “going to a concert, subscribing to a music service, collecting vinyl.” This PSA, tastefully enough, was followed by the In Memoriam segment.
A handful of highlights: Alabama Shakes performed “Don’t Wanna Fight,” worth it if only for the magic high-pitched power-rock-yawp from vocalist Brittany Howard that started the song. Lady Gaga raced through a manic, technicolor, brought-to-you-by-Intel tribute to David Bowie. Adele looked regal but, betrayed by her piano mic, sounded pitchier than ever.
There’s plenty to debate about the winner of Album of the Year, a stacked category loaded with favorites from multiple genres: Alabama Shakes’ Sound and Color, Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Chris Stapleton’s Traveller, The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness, and the one that snagged the trophy, Taylor Swift’s 1989. But if there is such a thing as the winner of acceptance speeches, Swift took the title with her pointed, righteous words. She wrapped her punch back at Kanye West’s just-released “Famous” (in which he posits that he and Swift “might still have sex / Why, I made that bitch famous”) in female-empowerment packaging:
As the first woman to win Album of the Year at the Grammys twice, I want to say to all the young women out there: There are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success, or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame, but if you just focus on the work and you don’t let those people sidetrack you, someday when you get where you’re going, you’ll look around and you will know that it was you and the people who love you who put you there, and that will be the greatest feeling in the world.
Beyoncé, Super Bowl 50 champion, arrived with just minutes left in the show to give out the last award of the night, Record of the Year. She graced the winners — Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars for “Uptown Funk” — and the audience with her presence. Then, as suddenly as she appeared, she vanished, to and from who knows where. One assumes this is her preferred mode of transportation. The rest of us were left, alas, to end the nearly four-hour show with Pitbull. The Grammys powers-that-be let the credits roll right over Mr. Worldwide’s face.