The 2021 (COVID-safe) Grammys were surprisingly great
The 63rd Annual Grammys were unlike any in history — no crowd, no riot-inducing snubs, no (thankfully) former producer Ken Ehrlich or ex-Academy president Neil Portnow weighing down the proceedings. What we got instead was one of the strangest — and strangely delightful ceremonies — in recent memory. Ahead, EW critic-at-large Leah Greenblatt and Senior Editor, Music Alex Suskind debate the highs and lows of this year's telecast — and, of course, what could be done differently for the 64th.
ALEX SUSKIND: We've been treated to our fair share of awful COVID-era awards shows — the shoddy Emmys, the "for the love of god, why are they unmasked inside?" CMAs. On Sunday, it was the Grammys' turn to attempt the improbable. But, surprise — they managed to pull off one hell of a ceremony, sans audience and roof. Goodbye, awkward Zoom acceptance speeches (the Grammys' pre-telecast notwithstanding), hello Jools Holland-inspired in-the-round — and in-person — live performances. The Academy even managed to (mostly) avoid their usual out-of-touch Grammy picks, with everyone from Megan Thee Stallion (Best New Artist) to Taylor Swift (Album of the Year) to Dua Lipa (Best Pop Vocal Album) bringing home gold. Add in an especially tear-jerking In Memoriam segment, and the 2021 show made for an all-around enjoyable — albeit, extremely long — experience. At least, that's my sky-high take on the proceedings.
Leah, what were you feeling (or not feeling) about this year's show?
LEAH GREENBLATT: To be honest, the first 20 minutes or so did not fill my heart with promise; Harry Styles' black leather said sex and danger, but the oddly subdued vibe of that opening roundelay was more "Please enjoy the crudité, and remember there's a two-drink minimum." And Megan having her Best New Artist moment highjacked by what sounded like a passing catering truck was not ideal.
But you could feel the energy shift into a higher gear with DaBaby's performance, and I would very much like one of those eyeball Gravitron things Bad Bunny was singing from for my living room. Dua Lipa also gave us the first sort of pure pop moment, and not at all the last. (She may not do advanced choreo, but the girl can body roll.)
I loved that as it went on the ceremony only felt more and more about the artists and the unseen players of the industry, and not just the usual self-congratulatory pomp and filler. The mix of celebrity presenters (Ringo! Lizzo! All the o-o's!) with workers from shuttered music venues across the country wasn't just a nice gesture, it was genuinely moving. (Special shout out to the Apollo's Billy Mitchell, a sunbeam in human form.) I did not love that almost no one seemed to be singing live.
Alex, did you have a best and worst performance?
AS: I agree on DaBaby — who apparently recruited some California state circuit judges for his choir — as well Harry's weirdly downcast take on "Watermelon Sugar" — even though it was delightful seeing Dev Hynes' pop up on bass. Speaking of cameos, I could have done without John Mayer during Maren Morris' otherwise terrific "The Bones." Other performances that stood out: Killer Mike rapping an RTJ4 verse during Lil Baby's "The Bigger Picture," as well as Megan Thee Stallion, who predictably tore up the stage during both her solo set and Cardi B collab (though that Post Malone reaction shot during "WAP" felt like a personal attack). I also loved Mickey Guyton's thunderous take on her 2020 single "Black Like Me," which continues to act as a necessary course-correction for a genre that has ignored her talents (and Black performers) for years.
While we're here, we should probably mention Taylor Swift's three-song Folklore/Evermore medley, which had a few magical moments — that take on "Willow," the first time she's played it live; the wonderfully lush Fern Gully set — but felt bogged down by trying to do too much of everything. (Give "August" the full song treatment it deserves!)
Speaking of Swift, this was the year of Tay's Grammy comeback, with Folklore winning Album of the Year. It's a great record and an unsurprising win for a project that rightfully sucked up much of the industry's oxygen last year. And yet, I can't help but think there were more deserving nominees, including Dua Lipa's Future Nostalgia and Haim's Women in Music Pt III.
LG: I was not at all mad at Taylor's Midsummer Night's Dream on the Shire; couldn't we all use a little chlorophyll and wood-sprite poetry right now? But I agree that certain prizes tonight had the whiff of historical corrections. Does it feel good that Beyoncé is now the winning-est woman of all time? Absolutely. Is it cool that a bunch of those awards were actually for niche categories like Best Surround Sound Album (2015's Beyoncé) or Female R&B Vocal Performance ("Single Ladies," 2010) and not a one for Album of the Year? Nope!
The In Memoriam section was lovely and heartfelt (though a weird juxtaposition to see Brittany Howard deliver her burn-it-down version of "You'll Never Walk Alone," then reprise it moments later for a Johnnie Walker ad). BTS were a candy-corn-colored joy, and whether DaBaby was going for some kind of RBG tribute or just has a lot of unresolved feelings about Judging Amy, that was a truly enjoyable and unexpected addition to the history of Random Grammy Theme Generators. Miranda Lambert was so casually comfortable onstage I thought she might step down to grab her cocktail mid-song. And Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak are clearly doing nothing new — but in a so-far still vaguely terrifying 2021, they captured that elusive thing that per our own Dula Peep can probably best be described as just: "Happiness."
Alex, what lessons from this year do you hope the Grammys take from tonight in the "normal" times to come, whatever that means?
AS: The Recording Academy has never been one to learn lessons or greatly improve on its past mistakes, but, if anything, I hope for what I hoped for before this year's ceremony: More performances from younger artists, less esoteric nostalgia, more respect for not just Beyoncé but women of color in the larger categories (and I mean wins not nominations). Additionally, to the artists: if you're going to profusely apologize for winning an award over someone you thought was more deserving, at least have the decency to follow through and hand it over.
Lastly, I would also like to see a bigger premium placed on hip-hop as a whole (he's said every year since 1987; okay, fine I was only 2 then, but still). It's unfathomable to me that the Grammys seem intent on giving short shrift to the biggest genre on the planet. They made strides this year with performances from Roddy Ricch, DaBaby, Lil Baby, Meg, and Cardi, but there is a lot more room for improvement. Did anyone need a Best Rap Album win for Nas — for the undercooked King's Disease — in 2021? And why wasn't the latter televised when Best Pop Vocal album was? Couldn't they have committed to at least one live In Memoriam performance for one of the talented rappers who passed away last year? I know it sounds like I'm splitting hairs, but this has always been called music's biggest night; now they need to follow through.
What do you think, Leah?
LG: Co-sign! And please next time, somebody sit with Chris Martin.