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The 2019 Grammys Were an Endurance Test With Bad Optics—but Also Some Great TV

Drake did show up, and he essentially kissed off the awards show with his speech. Lady Gaga turned a relatively tender song into a glam-rock performance. And for once, some cool and deserving people won.

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Childish Gambino won Song of the Year and Record of the Year but didn’t bother showing up. Drake won Best Rap Song and did show up, only to get cut off when his acceptance speech got a little too sassy (subtle thesis: Fuck the Grammys). Alicia Keys hosted, for some reason, and played “The Entertainer” on two pianos at the same time. Lady Gaga did “Shallow” as a Marilyn Manson song. A wildly overzealous Katy Perry nearly wrecked a gala Dolly Parton tribute by forgetting that you’re supposed to try to sound like Dolly Parton, not try to sound like Dolly Parton looks. A ton of extremely cool and surprising people won awards (Cardi B for Best Rap Album! Dua Lipa for Best New Artist! H.E.R. for Best R&B Album!), but because Sunday night’s 61st annual Grammy Awards dragged on for what felt like 12 hours, almost all of them had their acceptance speeches cut short. Up to and including your Album of the Year victor, Kacey Musgraves, who only 15 minutes earlier had been making this face of pure dismay while outgoing Recording Academy president and Grammys supervillain Neil Portnow droned on for six hours all on his own.

Whether you love to hate the Grammys or hate to love them, everyone went home happy Sunday night—crawled home, maybe. Music’s Biggest Night was also its longest, and most punishing and confounding, albeit spiked with bracing jolts of pure surrealist delight. After a mostly disastrous 2018 ceremony—in which only one woman won a televised solo award, the sole female Album of the Year nominee (poor Lorde) skipped the ceremony in protest, and Portnow mused afterward that music-biz sexism could only be conquered if women learned to “step up”—this year’s Grammys were meant to be an explicit course correction, an apology tour, a miniseries-length do-over. It didn’t go perfectly; it arguably didn’t go particularly well. Nonetheless, the visible, flop-sweating, teeth-gritting effort, even at its most hapless, made for some lousy optics but some great television.

Let’s put it this way. When last year’s ceremony aired, on January 28, 2018, Camila Cabello had both the no. 1 album (Camila) and the no. 1 song (“Havana”) in the country. She was lucky the producers even let her in the building; they wouldn’t let her do anything but introduce a performance by U2. It counts as progress that Sunday night, Cabello got to open the show with a luxe, ersatz-Broadway staging of “Havana,” a song that now feels ancient to pop obsessives—the Grammys are, if nothing else, the Redbox of music, celebrating the tunes we all adored nine months ago—but is nonetheless far preferable to watching Sting duet with anybody. You could tell the Recording Academy was trying even when it was failing.

The failing started, in fact, well before the broadcast: It was Ariana Grande’s turn this year to boycott the ceremony, after an ugly public spat with Grammy producers who she says sought to dissuade her from performing, yes, the current no. 1 song in the country. But from the moment the actual show started, with Cabello giving way to Keys (a fine choice for host, warm and aspirational and beatifically bland, like a steaming bowl of lentil soup in human form) giving way to a rapturously received Michelle Obama, the Grammys were hell-bent on tamping down both its macho and its geriatric impulses. Post Malone did indeed rock out with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but all those craggy fellas evaporated on contact, wanly rocking out to a two-year-old RHCP song absolutely no one remembers. Travis Scott’s cage-match ferocity made more of an impact, likely terrifying everyone in L.A.’s Staples Center old enough to rent a car with his “No Bystanders,” an extremely censored interpolation of Three 6 Mafia’s “Tear Da Club Up.” But the most memorable dude onstage Sunday night was Offset, sheepishly holding a stunned Cardi B’s hand as she delivered her truncated Best Rap Album acceptance speech, trying his best not to Jackson Maine it and mercifully succeeding.

The most aggro performance of the night, incredibly, was delivered by Lady Gaga, who turned the iconic and relatively tender A Star Is Born mega-jam “Shallow” into a one-woman Royal Rumble, thrashing about in a thoroughly disquieting and polarizing spectacle that managed at least to keep everyone awake through the usual montage-and-tribute Grammy nonsense. Suffice it to say that J.Lo did a full Motown medley, which is every bit as ridiculous as it sounds; I am not at all convinced that was her voice, but those were definitely her feet. (Smokey Robinson, on the instant Twitter backlash: “Anyone who is upset is stupid.”) Diana Ross did a fantastic and quite lengthy tour through her own catalog that ended with her declaring “Happy birthday to me!” even though her birthday’s in late March; the Dolly Parton tribute peaked with Parton herself belting out Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” alongside Miley Cyrus and Maren Morris. The Grammys, as always, get better, or at least more memorable, the less sense they make.

That mantra applies to the awards, too. The Grammys have spent the past few years antagonizing many of the biggest names in rap, pop, and R&B, from Justin Bieber to Frank Ocean to Jay-Z; on Thursday, The New York Times reported that Drake, Childish Gambino, and Kendrick Lamar had all turned down offers to perform on the show. It was thus genuinely shocking when Drake actually emerged from backstage to accept his award for Best Rap Song (for “God’s Plan”), but his acceptance speech was curt and barbed and cut off in mid-sentence. (He started off by noting that this was “the first time in Grammy history where I actually am who I thought I was for a second,” a reference to his very public bemusement that “Hotline Bling” once won a Best Rap Song Grammy despite not being a rap song.) Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” was an odd choice to take both Song of the Year (for songwriting) and Record of the Year (for the recording), given that the track barely works without its video. But the most striking aspect of both those wins is that Donald Glover didn’t care enough to show up and revel in them. The Grammys are in real trouble if even the winners won’t take them seriously.

Sunday night’s best moments overall involved people much happier to be there: Janelle Monáe’s Prince–meets–Robert Palmer robo-funk deserves the biggest possible stage, as does H.E.R.’s maximalist R&B triumphalism, as does Brandi Carlile and her searing Americana torch song “The Joke,” a surprise major-category nominee who settled for delivering the single best performance of the night. Dua Lipa and St. Vincent collaborated on a genuinely strange and thrilling erotic duet that spilled directly into an interminable video package and accompanying speech by Portnow, a longtime Grammys blight who is finally stepping down this year, but not before overseeing a tribute to himself that lasted longer than a subsequent tribute to Aretha Franklin. “Guess this year we’ve really stepped up,” Dua Lipa deadpanned minutes later in her Best New Artist speech, a majestic Portnow dig that is all the tribute he needed or deserved.

Kacey Musgraves was likewise the perfect candidate to close out the night, neither the flashiest nor the most likely Album of the Year candidate, but certainly the most deserving. (An overdue Kendrick Lamar was the most probable scenario, whereas Post Malone was the doomsday scenario.) Country music—or, at least, country radio—often seems to have abandoned Musgraves entirely, but her Golden Hour, warm and starry-eyed and defiantly insular, recast the genre in her own image, and for a brief moment bent America’s most maddening and stubbornly retrograde awards show to her will. She didn’t get enough time to deliver a full acceptance speech or fully bask in the moment. Exhaustion had long since set in, even for her biggest fans. The Grammys were once again a grueling battle between good sense and bad taste, more grueling than ever, but finally, for a change, more satisfying, too.