At three hours and 40 minutes, this year’s Grammy Awards ceremony on CBS had plenty of space for any number of running themes. But the two that particularly stood out were the two that also dominated the year the awards commemorated: politics and death.
The former came in early, with host James Corden’s shtick-heavy opening number, in which the feckless late-night host rapped (har har!) his opening number, featuring the line, “And with President Trump we don’t know what comes next.” Jennifer Lopez quoted Toni Morrison’s call for artists not to remain silent in times of fear. Then, introducing the Weeknd with Daft Punk, Paris Jackson (Michael’s daughter), noted, “We could use this kind of energy at a pipeline protest — hashtag N-O-D-A-P-L.”
For a while afterward it looked like the evening might be more apolitical, but that shifted abruptly thanks to — of all people — Katy Perry. Now blond and wearing a suit with a “Persist” armband, she sang a new song called “Chained to the Rhythm,” featuring guest MC Skip Marley (yes, he’s related to Bob). Their performance concluded against a backdrop of the Constitution and with a bellow of “No hate!”
There was much more, from Corden’s bit about negative tweets being fake (shades of the Trump administration’s insistence that protests against him are made up of “paid protesters”), to Laverne Cox urging viewers to “please Google Gavin Grimm” (the transgender Virginia teen whose battle to use the boys’ bathroom at his school is heading to the Supreme Court), to Recording Academy President Neil Portnow declaring, “We must be unwavering in our support of music and those who create it” and making a “call on the President and Congress to… update music laws.”
Then there was Beyoncé — a line that applies to every television event she’s on, really. Her diaphanous, ethereal performance, heavy on visual effects and featuring the singer in an intricate, eye-popping all-gold dress and crown, was a showstopper, closer to avant-garde theater than pop spectacle, though it was certainly that, too.
Beyoncé topped even her memorable stage presentation with a speech while accepting her award for Best Urban Contemporary Album for Lemonade: “We all experience pain and loss, and often we become inaudible,” she said. “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.” It was a powerful, unflinching statement, fully of the moment but also measured and sharp.
Where Beyoncé offered gauzy beauty, A Tribe Called Quest and Anderson .Paak — joined by Consequence and Busta Rhymes — put their anger up front. Playing a quartet of songs including the classics “Award Tour” and “Can I Kick It,” as well as the new “Movin’ Backwards” and “We the People,” the Queens hip-hop group pointedly brought up a number folks onstage with them: hijab-wearing Muslims, Mexicans, and other people being targeted by the new administration’s flurry of executive orders. “We dedicate this to people who are pushing against people in power to represent you,” Q-Tip announced; Busta, for his part, railed against “President Agent Orange” and the “Muslim ban.” They finished with a few simple words: “Resist! Resist!”
Tribe and company’s propulsion made musical joy out of political rage — surprising for the oft-apolitical Grammys, which more often honor musical legacies. Sometimes this comes via the prizes themselves; many times big Grammy winners are telegraphed by an artist’s history — think of Ray Charles’ “Genius Loves Company” winning Album of the Year in 2005, or Herbie Hancock’s “River: The Joni Letters” in 2008. More often it manifests in tribute performances to the recently deceased — something that’s only increased with the aging of the baby boomers who reconfigured rock and pop from the ’60s forward, though hardly limited to that generation. Tribe, in fact, is Exhibit A: Phife Dawg, a key member, died last March of complications from diabetes at age 45.
On paper, it makes perfect sense for the Grammys to tap Adele for a George Michael tribute — both are British soul singers with massive American audiences. But Adele chose to interpret Michael’s “Fastlove” as a piano ballad, a puzzling choice that seemed like a warm-up for something more robust. The oddest part of the performance wasn’t that Adele stopped it to start over again (clearly she didn’t want a repeat of last year, when equipment failure threw her off pitch), but that while she was turning Michael’s grooving ode to carefree sex into a mannered torch song, behind her on the screen we saw endless shots of Michael dancing, wagging his butt, and grinning like crazy — a serious form/content mismatch. Maybe she was trying to be like the rest of pop and turn every good time into a slog. (Sturgill Simpson, who played a song shortly thereafter, wore a Caesar haircut that paid apter tribute to Michael.)
Prince was never a heavy Grammy favorite — his best shot at dominating the awards came in 1985, when Lionel Richie’s “Can’t Slow Down” beat “Purple Rain” out for Album of the Year and Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It” won Record and Song of the Year — for which “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy” weren’t even nominated. But his enormous musical legacy, and his passing last April, demanded tribute.
In this case, that meant his old protégés the Time doing “Jungle Love” and “The Bird” exactly the way they’ve been doing it for decades onstage, crisp and precise. Then came Bruno Mars, who’d already played “That’s What I Like,” which, like everything Mars does is a letter-perfect, not all that inspired rendition of an older musical style, in this case mid-90s R&B a la Jodeci. This time, he appeared in full Purple Rain regalia, up to and including a replica of the “cloud” guitar Prince plays in the movie’s climactic stage sequence, and performed “Let’s Go Crazy.” It felt less like a tribute than a simple imitation — plainly inapt, given Prince’s career of reinvention and boundary-pushing.
Still, if longstanding Grammy tradition involves basking in familiar comforts, maybe we’re seeing a shift. The 2016 edition was dominated by Kendrick Lamar’s performance, which began with him walking out in chains and climaxed with a massive bonfire. Between its pointed speeches and defiant performances, this year’s Grammys seemed far more politically engaged and motivated. The Grammy Awards are often derided as mere showbiz, and that was hard to argue with Sunday night as well. But the moments that resonated felt, even as they entertained, like anything but.