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What did JAY-Z think of the Grammys? Did he notice them? Nominated eight times for 4:44, the rap legend sat patiently through all 57 hours of the awards show. He won nothing, but he brought the family, so maybe this was a fun Sunday night on the town. Sure, he lost to Kendrick Lamar, but it’s hard to argue with that opening number. Sure, he and Kendrick Lamar both lost to Bruno Mars, but that’s not even on the top 20 list for weird Album of the Year victories.
To be as famous as JAY-Z is to be a willing punchline at events like this. So he sat listening while James Corden, the Leno for people who love Fallon, quoted “Empire State of Mind,” but now see the gag was that Corden said he wrote the lyrics, a joke from almost decade ago. And JAY-Z sat listening while Trevor Noah, your nephew’s James Corden, quoted something the President tweeted about JAY-Z. In one of his acceptance speeches, Lamar suggested that JAY-Z should be President. The great rapper looked amused at that, and then I have no idea what he was doing during the half-hour when Music’s Biggest Night became The Sting Show featuring Shaggy.
Sting and U2 were everywhere, weren’t they? In the subway, on a barge, presenting big awards. Bono and the Edge walked onstage during the opening Kendrick performance, and they walked onstage to hand out the final prize of the night. Bono had a few messages over the course of the night—racism, immigration, something about “Lincoln’s Ghost,” all meaningful if you wanted them to be, all vague enough not to ruffle the Blue Bloods crowd. His final purpose was to argue that the Grammys really matter. “You can swagger onto the stage like a proper ass,” Bono said. “But deep down, you… you know that Album of the Year is a very, very big deal.” The frontman needed some backup, so he turned to his eternal Huckleberry. “It’s a very, very big deal, Album of the Year. Is it not, The Edge?”
Counterargument, though: Isn’t it not, The Edge? You have to remember the 2009 Grammys, when JAY-Z performed with Kanye West, T.I., Lil Wayne, and a stupendously pregnant M.I.A. Literally, they swaggered onto the stage: The track was “Swagga Like Us,” less an actual single recognizable song than a compilation of cool. The performance was a magnificent shambles — Lil Wayne bopping in a Tom Baker scarf, T.I. taking off his jacket for emphasis, Kanye cool-walking around the stage after his early solo ended, M.I.A. boldly refusing to line up with her own lip-syncing.
It felt like a straightforward assertion of hip-hop’s obvious dominance. All four men had other memorable performances that night, T.I. and Timberlake, Jay and Coldplay, Kanye and Estelle, Lil Wayne doing a brilliant number about New Orleans with (whoa!) Robin Thicke. I still watch the “Swagger Like Us” performance when I want to remember why 2009 felt so bright. And that was also the evening when the Album of the Year prize went to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss for Raising Sand.
I don’t bring that up as a jab, necessarily. The old days yearned for their own old days; any awards show this vast will look both timely and archaic in the same running time. And whether you care about the awards or just watch for the performances, the Grammys obviously matter, to the extent that they unite the coolest people and the most famous formerly cool people into one big room for one endless night. And it feels purposeful, albeit maddening, how the show always becomes a paintcan explosion of crossover demographics. Country stars mangling Eric Clapton; Donnie Wahlberg and Hailee Steinfeld presenting Best Country Album; Camila Cabello introducing U2; now join us for a salute to Broadway; Sting and Shaggy 4ever.
It all made much more sense when LL Cool J was hosting. Modernity was invented somewhere in the space-time void between “Mama Said Knock You Out” and NCIS: Los Angeles. The future Lip Sync Battle host—almost always rocking an arty-dad beret—had the admirable ability to just simply belong with anyone onstage, whether he was introducing Daft Punk or Ringo Starr.
This year’s Grammys were Corden’s second time emceeing the Grammys, and let’s not try to make the third time the charm. The Late Late Show host fell back on the broadest comedy beats: Have you heard about how much Hamilton tickets cost? Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” segments earn their best laughs from the improv-feeling randomness — Quick, J.Lo, text Leo! — but the interminable “Subway Carpool Karaoke” sent Corden (and Shaggy and Sting!) down a heavily-scripted spiral, I say, but these New Yorkers are so surly, right??!! After Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Zuleyka Rivera performed “Despacito,” Corden said, “That is a catchy song! I have not heard that song before!” For you see, “Despacito” is a popular song, so saying “it’s not popular” is opposite true, laugh laugh! When all else failed, Corden trotted out some celebs to read from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. An appearance by Hillary Clinton couldn’t shake the feeling that we were watching the wackiest SNL sketch from two weeks ago.
Compare that tired spoofing to the real passion of the night’s two most indelible performances. Kendrick Lamar’s mesmerizing opening medley stopped the show right as it started, was practically a mini Grammys unto itself, complete with U2 and Dave Chappelle cameos, and a cavalcade of ruminative gunshots. Kesha sang “Praying,” a sensitive primal scream, irradiated with raw strength by the singer’s own long journey to releasing her new album. She was flanked by an all-star team of female singers. One of those women was Cabello, destined to return to the Grammys for at least the next decade and probably beyond. In the span of about 15 minutes, she participated in the “Praying” group hug, gave a triumphant speech about being an immigrant in a country built by and for Dreamers, and then her addictive single “Never Be the Same” was suddenly heard in a commercial about reviving dry hair.
Community, activism, no-shame capitalism: This is the confusing feedback loop of our modern moment. I don’t want to say that people who star in hair commercials can’t make serious political points. Cabello’s a fine musician, and what is politics now anyways, and nobody likes dry hair. But you felt how the lovely moments at the 2018 Grammys were running astride near parody. Logic ended the performance of “1-800-273-8255” with a laundry list of Big Issues, and I agree with everything he said, and I only learned about Logic two seconds ago. But there was a weird Biblical pose in his phrasing, “unto them” and “unto you” and “be not scared.” It was as subtle as a megaphone painted like the American flag, which oh holy hell, Bono wrapped up U2’s performance screaming through a megaphone painted like the American flag. IT’S A VERY BIG DEAL, IS IT NOT, THE EDGE?
I see your national megaphone and raise you one spiritual piano. Lady Gaga performed “Joanne” and “A Million Reasons” from inside a piano adorned with angel wings. At one point, crossing over between songs, she stage-whispered “Time’s Up.” It felt dangerously like a non-sequitur, a powerful phrase used as passionate punctuation. Compare that to how, later in the Grammys, Janelle Monaé used the words to make an explicit point: “We say Time’s Up for pay inequality, discrimination or harassment of any kind, and Time’s Up for the abuse of power.” Not all topicality is created equal; “relevance” without specificity is its own irrelevance.
Hours of this wore you down. Famous faces became familiar, grew tired before your eyes. Chappelle started the show talking about being an honest black man in America, then gave a shoutout to a Tribe Called Quest, but by the time he won an award, he didn’t have much to say beyond “See ya on Monday!” There was a lot of focus on the Best Comedy Album award, including an appearance by Jim Gaffigan, who affably admitted that even he hasn’t heard of himself. The “Tears in Heaven” number to honor the victims of the Route 99 Harvest Festival shooting in Las Vegas was marred by audio problems, and perhaps there was another way to go with the song choice.
I enjoyed the Elton John-Miley Cyrus “Tiny Dancer” duet, liked the somber cool of Childish Gambino, must admit that I will never tire of “Despacito,” admired how the high-energy “Finesse” duet between Cardi B and Bruno Mars did for the ’90s what Ready Player One wants to do for the ’80s. Everyone’s a critic, of course. “Too many ballads tonight!” declared Bruno Mars, who ruled the last hour with one bland victory speech after another.
There was too much something, that’s for sure. And not enough of everything else. JAY-Z sat through it all. So did Lorde, whose Melodrama was nominated for Album of the Year. 2018 was the year Sting performed once, the Edge performed twice, and Lorde stayed in her seat. Put as simple as that, it sure feels like the Grammys missed the boat. Probably because U2 sailed it into the Hudson.