By Darren Franich
February 11, 2019 at 03:40 AM EST
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The Recording Academy has heard the criticism. They have taken action. 2018 brought a very dude-ish Grammys ceremony and a very dumb-ish comment by Academy president Neil Portnow about how female artists had to “step up.” This year, at the 61st annual Grammy Awards, there were women, nay, goddesses! Host Alicia Keys brought out her squad — Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Michelle Obama, and Jennifer Lopez. They spoke of music, the reason to dance, the global language. “We express our pain, our power, and our progress through music,” said Smith, “Whether we’re creating it or just appreciating it.” Let’s hear it for the music appreciators! Everyone was welcome at this awards show, and thank goodness, because in these divisive ti—

The night took some odd turns, though, even just for those grand women onstage. There were ups and downs. Gaga won the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance prize, and then she delivered a ravenous new version of “Shallow” sans Bradley Cooper. This was vintage Weird Gaga, akimbo dance moves like a puppet struck by lightning, staring contests with the camera, sparkly-starscape catsuit so goofy-glam that it was like 2013 never ended. There was one awful instant when the camera ricocheted away from Gaga right before her chorus-launching yawp (Iiiiiiii’m off the deeyeeeep ennd!) to zoom toward a noble drummer drumming. A weird production choice, in a night that had a few strange cuts and awkward momen—

Meanwhile, Lopez performed an excruciating tribute to Motown. It was a medley, which meant multiple songs butchered with Vegas-y choreography that would be too excessive for The Masked Singer. You spent the rest of the night wondering why they couldn’t find someone other than J.Lo for that tribute. Better candidates kept appearing. Fantasia shattered the sound barrier during an Aretha Franklin tribute with Yolanda Adams and Andra Day. Keys played two dueling pianos through a playful genre-mashup, so why was she relegated to a brief #Lotown cameo? Chloe X Halle gave a vastly more sensitive homage to history with their rendition of “Where Is the Love?” And Bob Newhart wouldn’t have done a better Motown tribute than Jennifer Lopez, except wait, would Bob Newhart have done a better Motown tribute than Jennifer Lopez? As the hours passed you started to ask yourself all kinds of crazy ques—

The production issues were vivid. No one working these Grammys ever heard of a commercial break. We’d return to see Keys staring blankly at us, giving genial shout-outs off mic, waiting for someone to cue her. Drake, Dua Lipa, and H.E.R. got cut off mid-speech. Poor lighting on poor hats meant Lopez and Keys gave a couple long talks hiding in gigantic brim shadows. Post Malone disappeared into orange fog during “Rockstar,” so it wasn’t all bad. And how lovely to see Diana Ross sing at her own rapturous 75th birthday celebration. But apparently, no one working on these Grammys ever heard of stairs before, nor imagined a woman wearing a tapestry-sized dress would require assistance descending and ascendi—

Certain absences spoke volumes. Childish Gambino won big for “This Is America,” but Donald Glover only appeared in a commercial, dancing with his Goomoji or whatever. And Ariana Grande wasn’t at the ceremony, but she was in a different tech lord commercial, singing through her Memoji as we all will in the Valley Beyond. Music’s biggest night still couldn’t quite get music’s biggest musicians. Good lord, Drake was actually there, about to say something really important, when suddenly they cut away from his spee—

This year was much better than the last few years. Camila Cabello’s energized multi-story “Havana” extravaganza got the night off to a rapturous start. H.E.R. showstopped with “Hard Place,” carrying a see-through guitar, wearing sunglasses at night, feeling just like a rock star. Dolly Parton led a raucous crop of singers through her own self-tribute. Cardi B was a peacock, precisely excess enough for The Masked Singer. And Brandi Carlile gave an old-fashioned tour de force performance, turning “The Joke” into a majestic ode to—

As hosts go, Alicia Keys was not James Corden, so there’s another improvement. Her piano spotlight was nifty, but her relentlessly positive tone trended bland. “I feel like we’re having the best night ever,” she said at one point, “Are we having the best night ever?” No, but look, certain major awards shows are literally incapable of even getting a host anymore. I liked Keys’ unfussy good cheer. She was chill, and we all need to be more chill if we want to survive the oncoming apoca—

Album of the Year winner Kacey Musgraves struck a defining note for the evening, proclaiming amazement at sharing a category with “such gigantic albums, really brilliant works of art.” Generous vibes were attempted. Portnow appeared for a farewell speech, speaking of diversity and inclusion. Very important things! Still, a few faces in the crowd looked skeptical of this attempt at narrative-reclaiming. Portnow took the stage after a montage of people wishing him well: Céline Dion, John Legend, Chloe X Halle, all very on-message. But he also took the stage after Dua Lipa won Best New Artist. She praised her fellow womenfolk, saying, “I guess this year we really stepped up” with sarcastic-serious precision. I’ve heard of Grammy moments, but this was just perf—

On a night that struggled mightily to fix the mistakes of the past, two performances pointed toward a brighter future. Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer number was a whole cyberpunk universe, droidal fembots and pink suits and glorious pink frill. Then came St. Vincent and Dua Lipa, sultry-swooning their way through a mash of “Masseduction” and “One Kiss” and even a little “Respect.” The world is fixed, we’re all lesbians now is what I hopefully marked in my dizzy notes. A bit of hyperbole, I know. You worried this year’s show was cutting its own self to pieces: Performers absent, speeches cut short, Travis Scott lyrics bleeped into incoherence. But I think we can all agree that the 61st Grammy Awards ceremony was a step in the right dire—

GRADE: B-

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