The Grammys Discover Youth

The annual postgame bemoaning of the Grammys rarely fails to disappoint. Between its consistently fraught relationship with Black artists, its weighing down of the young with the old, and its stoic resistance to the ways in which pop music is evolving, the ceremony has become as powerful for its symbolic out-of-touchness as for its commemorations.

So it would be easy to look at the 63rd annual Grammy Awards, which aired Sunday night from Los Angeles, and underscore what was broken. Beyoncé won four trophies, giving her a total of 28 for her career, the most of any vocalist, tying her for second-most of all time. But these wins, like almost all of them, came in genre categories, not in the biggest, all-genre categories, despite her undeniable influence across the whole spectrum of pop. After sweeping the big four categories last year, Billie Eilish won record of the year for “Everything I Wanted” — a safe choice — and spent her speech repenting by uncomfortably fawning over Megan Thee Stallion.

In most years, those would have been the defining moments — well-intentioned acts gone awry. And yet. The Grammys this year were frisky, energetic, largely well-paced and sometimes surprising. They often met popular music where it actually has been over the past year, with performances by central stars of pop, hip-hop, rock and country. Women dominated all the major categories — in addition to Eilish’s victory, Taylor Swift won album of the year for “Folklore,” H.E.R. won song of the year for “I Can’t Breathe” and Megan Thee Stallion won best new artist.

But the most crucial aspect of the show was this: Almost all of the performers were under 40, and plenty were under 30. This may seem like an obvious move, but at the Grammys, youth and current relevance have often been treated as inconveniences to be navigated deftly, lest older generations — of artists and, presumably, viewers — feel left out. (This year, given the coronavirus pandemic, there was also likely an impetus to keep elders as far from harm’s way as possible.)

Most vividly, that meant several largely unvarnished performances by hip-hop stars, still a shock on the Grammys stage despite the genre’s role at the center of pop evolution for decades. Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B paired for a clever and buoyantly sexual performance of “WAP” that was more erotically direct than any Grammys moment in memory. (Think Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards, and then some.) Lil Baby’s protest anthem “The Bigger Picture” was rendered as full social justice theater, with a building in flames, a square-off between protesters and shield-bearing police officers, and spoken-word calls for policy improvements.

When these performances nodded to the Grammy tradition of melding the new with the old — typically an act of suffocation — it was done cheekily. During Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B’s performance, there was a brief tap dance routine acknowledging the pioneering Black tap dancers the Nicholas Brothers. And DaBaby delivered an intense and fantastically odd performance, in which he was backed by a choir of older women in church robes who appeared to have been given direction to look as comedically shocked as possible.

Early in the show, during a Jools Holland-like performance with several acts on adjacent stages, Eilish was theatrically morbid, and Harry Styles was lithe and sinuous. Later, Bad Bunny and Jhay Cortez performed wholly in Spanish, a rare acknowledgment of the power of contemporary Spanish-language music. BTS scaled a rooftop to deliver a dizzying rendition of its hit “Dynamite,” a hyperchoreographed taunt at any performer who opted to be bound to, you know, a stage. And Dua Lipa advertised herself as a nu-aerobics queen, with an impressive set of hi-test disco.

Through another lens, Lipa’s performance could be seen as a wink to the music of yesteryear — a classicist with a high-gloss veneer. Typically, those sorts of artists are Grammy stock in trade, and there were a handful of them this year, like Silk Sonic, the recently formed union of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, who played pointedly retro, shimmery luxury soul. And despite becoming less central to pop music in general, guitars were not in short supply. Black Pumas scuffed up their typically modest rock-soul ever so slightly. Haim played loose, lovely, harmony-rich rock, and Taylor Swift performed a medley of songs from her quarantine albums, reimagining the Grammy stage as a mystical forest haunt.

That said, consider it a victory that the Grammys largely opted in favor of youth, even when the mode of creation was old-fashioned. That reflects a dawning awareness that the show — the performances, at least, if not always the awards — has the power to be proscriptive, not simply hoary. Take, for example, its treatment of country music this year: None of the country performers were men, and given that almost every major star of country radio is a man, this was a meaningful gesture. It provided a huge showcase for Mickey Guyton, the first Black woman solo artist ever to receive a nomination in a country category — her rendition of “Black Like Me” was deeply invested and bracing. (Guyton still lost best country solo performance to Vince Gill, a Grammy perennial.) She was followed by sharp, but less pointed performances by Miranda Lambert and Maren Morris (who was inexplicably saddled with a John Mayer cameo).

For a sense of the confusingly evolving and ongoing conundrum the Grammys finds itself in, look no further than this year’s hip-hop awards. Best rap album was won by Nas, one of the defining rappers of the … 1990s. This was his first Grammy, won for a little-heralded late-career album — the sort of years-late-dollars-short gesture that is a frequent Grammy occurrence. But best rap song and best rap performance went to Megan Thee Stallion (with Beyoncé), who is in almost every way, besides popular acclaim, a rookie. That the Grammys have honored her so thoroughly so early in her career must feel baffling to the pioneering rappers of decades past. On the other hand, hip-hop has come far enough to have its elders pull out head-scratching wins, just like rock, country and pop old-timers have for generations.

The Grammys remain, at heart, a balancing act — a big tent that aims to satisfy everyone, fully pleasing no one. Even the distribution of this year’s major awards, after last year’s Eilish sweep, felt overly conspicuous. But Swift is 31, Megan Thee Stallion is 26, H.E.R. is 23, Eilish is 19. That no one is making them wait for their acclaim is its own sort of victory.

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