For the past 30 or so years, I’ve been irritated, disappointed, infuriated, and occasionally thrilled by the Grammy Awards. They’ve gone with the safe and conservative rather than the groundbreaking and deserving choice far too many times; they’ve had controversies in how they pick their nominees and winners; and, most of all, because so many great artists and bands out there are far better than the ones that get the awards, but will never have a chance in hell of winning a Grammy—unit shifters win over critics’ darlings almost every time.
That said, I promised myself I’d keep an open mind, even though I’m an old rocker, which in the pop music world these days is synonymous with irrelevant dinosaur. On the other hand, since I didn’t know what most of the music was going to sound like, I wouldn’t have many preconceived notions about it. An advantage: My 20-something daughter was on hand to prompt her clueless dad. I watched the CBS broadcast; I couldn’t be bothered with the various online add-on viewing options. Maybe I am a dinosaur.
It was surreal yet symbolic to see host Trevor Noah opening the show on a deserted outdoor stage with the Los Angeles Staples Center (stadium-sized product placement!) in the background. Clearly, the pandemic-era Grammys was going to be something different. Somehow this stark setting was simultaneously unnerving and uplifting—yes, we are living in a different, virus-ravaged world but, no, the human spirit will not be defeated. I found this much preferable to the usual Hollywood over-the-top schlock production. (The glitz and glamor would come later, with the artists spread out inside the Staples Center, waiting for the sun to go down.)
The Grammys always opens with star power and this time out, Harry Styles had the honors, performing “Watermelon Sugar” resplendent in a black leather suit and enviable pecs. Jeez, the guy can sing and the band was tight, but the lightweight song isn’t my kind of ear candy. This scaled-down Grammy Awards set made the awards feel more intimate and relevant. Billie Eilish immediately followed, performing “Everything I Wanted” in a post-apocalyptic glamor-twisted-inside-out outfit. I like her and her voice, but standing there with an Intense Look with four chords droning over and over again ain’t exactly Michael Jackson moonwalk-level excitement.
Haim was the third act, and as it turned out, the only band of the night that remotely resembled rock music, though “The Steps” was more of a pop song. In fact, while other music genres have been marginalized throughout the Grammys’ history, in 2021 it was rock’s turn—other than Haim, there were no rock performers. None! None! None!
But nice, friendly intimacy and Styles and Eilish and all, where was the star power? I didn’t have to wait long. Presenter Lizzo got up and gave Megan Thee Stallion her award for Best New Artist, and even though she was yet to perform, it was obvious that Stallion had that it, that indefinable something (besides looking absolutely great). Still, the show’s energy level wasn’t there yet, although Black Pumas hit some heights.
With Black Pumas and the emergence of rapper Dababy, who I confess I’d never heard of, the energy started kicking up and the show shifted into Full Production Mode with “Rockstar” featuring Roddy Ricch. A young black guy dressed in white with a group of older white women, “The Baby Boomers,” dressed in black; machine-gun rapid-fire rapping against an angelic choir—it made a statement. Then came the first act that really grabbed me—Bad Bunny, the most-streamed artist of 2020 (jeez, I really gotta get with the program) performing “Dakiti” with Jhay Cortez on a striking purple-and-white set that looked like a giant eye. Great rhythm, singing, irresistible futuro-Latin beat—now we’re talking!
At 45 minutes in, the Grammys finally kicked into high gear with the emergence of Dua Lipa. She looked fantastic and sounded terrific performing “Levitating” and “Don’t Stop Now,” joined by Dababy on a laser-beam set that was literally dazzling with beautiful pink lasers beaming through clouds, an all-out singing, dancing, costume-changing production number. Good songs, too. Not that I’m any great seer, but this woman has got it. The absolute standout of the night. Megastar is written all over her.
Some tough competition immediately followed: Performing as Silk Sonic, Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak simply killed it with their new single, “Leave the Door Open,” a retro-soul song complete with matching big-collar ’70s outfits with heart-shaped glasses, smooth harmonies, and soaring vocals. Man was Mars good. Is it just me or are these kinds of interesting melodies, harmonies, and songcraft what’s missing in so much of today’s pop music? Well, when you consider bands like the Spinners, the Temptations, the Chi-Lites, Hall and Oates . . . um, it ain’t just me. Stupendous. (Their later Little Richard medley was
far less successful. Even talents like Mars and Paak can’t compete with a titanic talent like Richard. Then again, who can?)
If rock music was nonexistent during the 2021 Grammys, country music wasn’t far behind. If you were an alien visiting Earth for the first time and tuned in you’d think the entirety of country music consisted of Miranda Lambert. She won the Best Country Album award for Wildcard, and performed the song “Bluebird.” But, aside from Brandi Carlisle doing a heartfelt solo rendition of John Prine’s “I Remember Everything” and Mickey Guyton (the first black woman to be nominated for a country-category Grammy) performing the decidedly un-country-sounding “Black Like Me,” that was it for this once-dominant music genre. Not sure what to make of that. Yeah, Taylor Swift did a song, but it sounded more pop than country to me.
I am sure what the main takeaway of the 2021 Grammys was, though—the ascendance of women in pop music, Particularly black women. The show was absolutely dominated by women and to a lesser extent black male hip-hop, R&B,
soul, and other performers. (And do these categories even matter anymore? Sure, it’s a way to package and present music in consumer-understandable genres, but wouldn’t it be less marginalizing to just call it music and do away with ethnic and racial pigeonholing?)
Additional highlights included the magnificent singer Brittany Howard doing an utterly soaring version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” with pianist Chris Martin and band during “the artists who passed away in 2020” tribute segment; Maren Morris bringing it to Hozier’s song “The Bones” complete with scene-stealer John Mayer on guitar; and Lil Baby making some very heavy social commentary in his song “The Bigger Picture.” Megan Thee Stallion’s “Body”/”Savage” combined old-school Grammy retro visual glamor with a strange musical combination of sensational state-of-the-beyond orchestration mated with songs this aging rocker didn’t like. Couldn’t listen, couldn’t take my eyes off it. Doja Cat put on a striking future-world lasers and costume show for her song “Say So”—the lighting designer should get an award for this one.
Another showstopper, unsurprisingly, came late in the (too long) night: Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion doing “WAP” (check the official video, and the acronym will become clear) to the tune of more future-world metal-woman wardrobes (it was a popular look for Grammys 2021), absolutely insane over-the-top visual effects and animation, a bigger-than-life bed and a lot of booty shaking (another popular trend for the night and again, I’ll leave it to others to discuss the social ramifications—it felt like empowerment to me). Weird, different, creative, nasty, crazy.
Beyoncé made Grammy history by winning her 28th, for Best R&B Performance for “Black Parade.” She now holds the record for most-awarded female artist. Taylor Swift also made history by winning Album of the Year for the third time, this time for Folklore. (Though deserving, the Grammy’s musical conservatism rears its head here once again.)
Lowlights for me? Post Malone’s “Hollywood’s Bleeding”—this was a Record of the Year nominee? BTS’s “Dynamite”—this kind of fluff might be someone’s thing but not mine. And the general lack of, I’m sorry, songcraft. Where are today’s Bob Dylan, Prince, Smokey Robinson, Joni Mitchell? I want to hear “songs,” not “tracks.”
To wrap up the night, Billie Eilish won Record of the Year for “Everything I Wanted.” Maybe the Grammys are getting hipper after all. Certainly the 2021 edition had less artifice and more heart, and that’s a trend I’d like to see continue.