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The Utterly Chaotic Grammys Had No Identity—but Lots of Billie Eilish

The 18-year-old pop star swept all the major awards on a night overshadowed by internal strife and Kobe Bryant’s death

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One way to summarize the chaotic, sloppy, baffling, and interminable 2020 Grammys, broadcast live Sunday night from the Staples Center in L.A., is that Usher led a Prince-tribute medley that featured a legitimately touching in memoriam pole dance from FKA Twigs, with any resultant WTF goodwill obliterated by the fact that she didn’t get to sing too, much to the internet’s confusion and chagrin.

Another way to summarize the 2020 Grammys is that Tyler, the Creator gave the best performance—featuring Boyz II Men, Charlie Wilson, a headbanging clone army, and hella pyro—and also won Best Rap Album, a genre classification that he soon thereafter declared a “backhanded compliment” and the equivalent of giving “my little cousin … the unplugged controller so he can shut up and feel good about it.”

Another way to summarize the 2020 Grammys is that they were fuckin’ six hours long. Like, “Common rapping during an all-star multidisciplinary jam to Fame’s ‘I Sing the Body Electric’ in honor of outgoing Grammys honcho Ken Ehrlich at the 210-minute-mark” long.

But the best way to summarize the 2020 Grammys is that teen phenom Billie Eilish swept all four major categories, but the Grammys themselves still felt hopelessly antiquated, an archaic and increasingly untrustworthy institution whose identity crisis is now a full-blown civil war both onstage and backstage. What a night. What a mess. Some rad stuff happened; some utterly preposterous stuff happened; without question the single worst awards-show performance I have ever seen in my life happened. The only coherent conclusion to be drawn is that coherence has been abandoned entirely; the night’s biggest winners doubled as the most skeptical humans in the building.

Also, they misspelled Ric Ocasek’s name during the In Memoriam section. This accounts for some of my saltiness, but certainly not all of it.

The biggest shock of Grammy night might be that one person definitively won it. Lizzo, Lil Nas X, and Eilish led the chaotic-good nomination slate and constituted a legit Youth Movement for an awards show direly in need of one. (Lil Nas X, convening every artist to ever grace an “Old Town Road” remix save for Young Thug, brought a cheerier spin on Tyler-esque anarchy to his performance, which he capped off by bringing out Actual Nas.) The smart money was on a calculated spreading of the wealth, statue-wise, with maybe a major win for noted Ken Ehrlich–antagonizer Ariana Grande thrown in.

But instead, Eilish, your Best New Artist in a ridiculously crowded field, dominated: “Bad Guy” won both Record of the Year (for production) and Song of the Year (for songwriting), with When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? taking Album of the Year. Her brother Finneas also won Producer of the Year, Non-Classical, and joined her at the podium for a series of increasingly incredulous speeches. How’d she take it all, you ask?

For all Eilish’s don’t-trust-anyone-under-20 future-shock grandeur, she is, in her own terrifying way, a classic Grammy darling, her songs deceptively simple and durable, her anarchic post-millennial appeal just easy enough for all those Grammy boomers to grasp. They can congratulate themselves, at least, on getting that they don’t get it. The durable knock on this awards show is that it forces every performer, no matter how youthful and pioneering and boisterous, into dolorous-ballad mode, the better to convey Serious Musicianship, the better to remind everyone of Adele. For her own performance, then, Eilish dutifully belted out “When the Party’s Over,” a fairly dolorous ballad that also happens to be the best song on When We All Fall Asleep, so there you go, maybe this sweep was always meant to be. She’s nobody’s idea of a typical Grammy artist, but she could jam herself into that mold just well enough.

The Grammys, meanwhile, are in institutional free fall. Neil Portnow, the longtime Recording Academy chief executive best known for telling direly underrepresented female artists to “step up” if they wanted more representation, finally stepped down in 2019. His replacement, Deborah Dugan, lasted five months and was removed from her position just 10 days before Sunday night’s ceremony, shortly after producing an internal memo alleging “voting irregularities, financial mismanagement, ‘exorbitant and unnecessary’ legal bills, and conflicts of interest involving members of the academy’s board, executive committee and outside lawyers,” as The New York Times attempted to summarize it. Dugan responded by filing a 44-page complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, accusing a Recording Academy lawyer of sexual harassment; the complaint also mentions a rape accusation made by an artist against Portnow himself.

But an even more immediate catastrophe loomed over Sunday’s ceremony: Kobe Bryant’s death. “Tonight is for Kobe!” Lizzo bellowed, kicking off the show by bombastically cramming “Cuz I Love You” (a showy, Grammy-friendly belter) into “Truth Hurts,” a raunchier but not-too-raunchy romp, though she did cap it off by declaring, “Welcome to the Grammys, bitch!” (Lizzo won Best Pop Solo Performance for “Truth Hurts” but could’ve had a much bigger night.)

Returning host Alicia Keys has a touchy-feely stateliness ideal for Grammys-style public mourning, crooning “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye” alongside Boyz II Men in Kobe’s honor in lieu of a drawn-out opening monologue, though she soon returned to tinker at the piano and deliver a brief, pointed, but just vague enough speech about what a weird week it had been for everyone. (“It’s a new decade. It’s time for newness. And we refuse the negative energy. We refuse the old systems. You feel me on that?”)

The three-plus-hour debacle that unfolded from there could be divided into performances that made sense in a post-Kobe context (see Tyler the L.A.-born tyrant or DJ Khaled leading a lavish tribute to Nipsey Hussle) and performances that did not make sense in any context at all. Now was not the time for the Jonas Brothers or a Blake Shelton–Gwen Stefani duet or Camila Cabello’s dolorous ballad about her dad; Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C., meanwhile, reconvened for their 10,000th run-through of “Walk This Way,” which doubled as, indeed, the worst thing I’ve ever heard at any awards show, ever. Every single person onstage was in a different key. My favorite thing about Post Malone is that he wasn’t involved.

Throw in durable, genre-blurring Recording Academy favorites like blues-rocker Gary Clark Jr. and R&B polymath H.E.R., both fiery performers but never more visible than they are on Grammy Night. Throw in the triumphant return of Demi Lovato, debuting a nuclear-powered dolorous ballad called “Anyone” that featured the most vulnerable and powerful singing of anyone all night. Bonnie Raitt sang “Angel From Montgomery” to honor John Prine; the rad Flamenco fusionist Rosalía took the same stage as the rad country survivor Tanya Tucker. Hours seemed to pass between major awards; the stunts ranged from the bizarrely delightful (Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, botching nearly every artist’s name while presenting Best Rap/Sung Performance) to the simply bizarre. (I still can’t believe the whole “I Sing the Body Electric” thing happened.)

Given Kobe, and given the Grammys’ monumental internal strife, and given the growing shock as Eilish walked off with everything, the mood, and the theme, and the whole point of any of this shifted violently every five minutes. Somewhere around Hour 3, Alicia Keys herself sang a bombastic new Grammy-friendly tune called “Underdog,” ending it on her piano on a tiny raised platform, as though she were ascending to heaven and taking whatever this awards show used to mean along with her. What the Grammys mean now, going forward, will largely be determined by the months of total calamity sure to come. What Music’s Biggest Night had to offer on this night in particular was way too much of everything.