Rants and Raves
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Rants and Raves

The Grammys “Step Up” By Spotlighting Brilliant Women

Tonight, the 61st Grammy Awards aired live from Los Angeles. It was an uneven night that narrowly averted disaster with a few bright spots, mainly those that highlighted brilliant female musicians from the past half century.

Grammy Host Alicia Keys (center) was joined by Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Michelle Obama, and Jennifer Lopez at the start of the show

In contrast to the Oscars and the Emmys, which hook me in every year, my interest in the Grammys varies immensely from year to year. In part, my fluctuating interest in “Music’s Biggest Night” is because I am not nearly as likely to go outside of my comfort zone with music as I am with films and television. Add that to the Recording Academy’s long history of making head-scratching and disappointing choices in key categories and the result is that more often than not I find myself not caring about the winners.

This was a year of particularly low interest for me. I had only heard a handful of the nominated songs and albums and honestly had never heard of several the artists nominated in key categories. Nevertheless, I decided to tune in anyway. I expected this to be the year that the Grammys finally lost my interest once and for all. But — although it was far from a perfect show — there were enough bright spots to keep me engaged. Most of these bright spots came from a very overt decision on behalf of the producers to honor brilliant female musicians. The spotlight on women was motivated at least in part by Recording Academy President Neil Portnow’s controversial comments last year that women need to “step up” to be included after being shut out in a male-dominated year. But even if the woman-centered show was a contrived mea culpa it nevertheless led to some important moments.

Below is a list of scattered thoughts about the show, the performers, and the winners, along with my ranking of the night’s 18(!) performances from worst to best.

7 Things To Know About the 61st Annual Grammy Awards

1.) They had an actual musical superstar as host. In the first sign that the Recording Academy was interested in shining a spotlight on women, fifteen-time Grammy winner Alicia Keys was tapped as host after years of the duties being given to LL Cool J and James Corden. Her hosting gig was solid but unspectacular. She very wisely resisted the urge to try out comedy (one cringe-inducing bit with John Mayer aside). Rather, she focused on her famous friends (she brought out the bizarre quartet of Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Jennifer Lopez, and Michelle Obama during the opening), her musical virtuosity (she performed a mid-show medley that was exceedingly random but undeniably impressive), and her genuine passion and respect for her fellow musicians.

2.) There were two show-stopping performances. The overall quality of the performances was middling. There were a handful of significant misfires and only two true standout moments. Early on in the show, R&B provocateur Janelle Monae lit the stage afire with her passionate rendition of “Make Me Feel,” which called to mind Prince and Beyonce in the best of ways. And toward the end of the show, singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile gave by far the night’s best vocal performance with her raw rendition of her brilliant song “The Joke.”

Janelle Monae takes the Grammy stage

3.) There were lots of tributes to music legends, with varying success. It’s not easy to put together a satisfying tribute to a musical legend in the span of 5–10 minutes, let alone in the midst of a live awards ceremony. Nevertheless, the producers attempted no less than five throughout the evening. Well, one barely counted. Chloe x Halle’s bold re-arrangement of Donny Hathaway’s “Where is the Love?” was so brief and deviated so far from the original that it hardly registered as a tribute. Also brief, but far more successful, was Fantasia, Andra Day, and Yolanda Adams’ rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” in honor of the late Aretha Franklin. (The Queen of Soul has a full-length Grammy tribute coming up, hence the short shrift she was given on tonight’s telecast.) That trio of soulful vocalists was the perfect choice for a tribute to Aretha, which is in sharp contrast to the producers’ selection of Puerto Rican actress-singer Jennifer Lopez to pay tribute to Motown. The songs were well-selected, J-Lo was in better vocal form than usual, the production was impressive, and the appearances by Smokey Robinson and Ne-Yo were welcome, but the bizarre choice of J-Lo to pay tribute to Motown was hugely distracting throughout. The final two tributes actually featured the honorees themselves. Less successful was Diana Ross’s performance. Although she looks and sounds fabulous for 75 — and the fact that she has yet to win competitive Grammy despite 6 decades of work and 18 #1 hits is ludicrous — she chose two of the lesser songs in her catalogue and her enthusiastic exclamations of “Happy birthday to me!” were cringe-inducing. Much more successful was the tribute to Dolly Parton, who was joined on stage by a striking array of talented women to run through five of the legendary singer-songwriter’s best songs. Not only was it the best tribute of the night, it was one of the very best performances. (Although, as catty as it may sound, Katy Perry is just not a good live vocalist.)

Tributes to Dolly Parton and Diana Ross were two of the evening’s biggest moments.

4.) Lady Gaga reminded anyone that forgot that she is delightfully weird. With Bradley Cooper at the British Academy of Film and Television Awards in the UK, Lady Gaga had to go solo for her rendition of the smash hit song “Shallow” from A Star is Born. Presumably eager to make it distinct from the rendition that will occur on the Oscars in two weeks (the film has 8 nominations there), she amped up the rock and turned in a surprisingly aggressive and decidedly weird performance. Somehow it worked, as almost everything Gaga attempts does, but it served as a reminder to audiences that she is still the weird performance artist that came onto the scene 10 years ago no matter how many Tony Bennett duets, humanizing documentaries, and Oscar nominations that followed.

Lady Gaga wins one of her 3 Grammys this year (she now has 9 total)

5.) Many genres were represented. The producers’ desire to look beyond the most commercially successful artists who are good for ratings was noble. Nowhere was this more obvious than their decision to showcase Latin music for the coveted opening number, which was headlined by Camila Cabello. Sure, the set was garish and the performance was a bit bombastic, but it was a high energy kick-off to the show and an important validation of the contribution of Latin artists to the music industry.

6.) The presenters were even more of a spectacularly random hodgepodge than usual. Perhaps nowhere did the Grammys stumble more than in the staggeringly uninteresting selection of presenters. In fact, throughout the whole night there was only a single presenter selection that was interesting and made sense. That would be the amusing combination of Bob Newhart and Alessia Cara, the Best New Artist at the 3rd and 60th Grammy Awards, respectively, who joined forces to present (what else?) Best New Artist.

7.) The big winners underwhelmed. The winners of only a tiny fraction of the staggering 84 Grammy categories were presented on the telecast and there were few that made for big television moments. Childish Gambino (the musical persona of actor Donald Glover) picked up Record and Song of the Year for “This is America,” but he didn’t show up to the ceremony. Kacey Musgraves and Dua Lipa gave touching speeches in response to their wins for Album of the Year and Best New Artist, respectively, but neither was a particular surprise. The most notable moments came from the raw emotions on display from Lady Gaga and Cardi B and the unexpected appearance of Drake, who has sat out this awards show in protest more than once.

Kacey Musgraves wins the Grammy for Album of the Year

Ultimately, it was far from a perfect night, but I am just not ready to give up on the Grammys yet.

Click here for the full list of winners can be found here.

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The Night’s Performances Ranked from Worst to Best:

18.) Post Malone and Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Stay,” “Rockstar,” and “Dark Necessities”: C

17.) Travis Scott, James Blake, and Philip Bailey, “Stop Trying to Be God” and “No Bystanders”: C+

16.) St. Vincent and Dua Lipa, “Masseducation” and “One Kiss”: C+

15.) Cardi B, “Money”: C+

14.) Camila Cabello, J Balvin, Young Thug, Arturo Sandoval, & Ricky Martin, “Havana,” “Jaleo,” and “Mi Gente”: B

13.) Jennifer Lopez, Smokey Robinson, and Ne-Yo, Motown Medley (“Dancing in the Street,” “Please Mr. Postman,” “Money,” “Do You Love Me,” “ABC,” “My Girl,” “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” “War,” “Square Biz,” and “Another Star”): B

12.) Chloe x Halle, “Where is the Love?”: B

11.) Diana Ross, “The Best Years of My Life” and “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”: B

10.) Dan + Shay, “Tequila”: B

9.) Kacey Musgraves, “Rainbow”: B

8.) Alicia Keys, Medley (“Maple Leaf Rag,” “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” “Unforgettable,” “Clocks,” “Use Somebody,” “Boo’d Up,” “In My Feelings, “Doo Wop (That Thing),” “Empire State of Mind”): B+

7.) H.E.R., “Hard Place”: B+

6.) Shawn Mendes & Miley Cyrus, “In My Blood”: B+

Shawn Mendes and Miley Cyrus perform his hit “In My Blood”

5.) Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Andrew Wyatt, and Anthony Rossomando, “Shallow”: B+

4.) Fantasia, Andra Day, and Yolanda Adams “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”: A-

3.) Dolly Parton, Little Big Town, Maren Morris, Kacey Musgraves, Katy Perry, and Miley Cyrus, Dolly Parton Medley (“Here You Come Again,” “Jolene,” “After the Gold Rush,” “Red Shoes,” “9 to 5”): A-

2.) Janelle Monae, “Make Me Feel” (with snippets of “Django Chained” and “Pynk”: A-

1.) Brandi Carlile, “The Joke”: A

Read recent articles by this writer about other musicians:

Mariah Carey

Aretha Franklin

Lady Gaga

Elton John

Madonna

Taylor Swift

Florence Welch

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Richard

Richard

Passionate cinephile. Music lover. Classic TV junkie. Awards season blogger. History buff. Avid traveler. Mental health and social justice advocate.