The Grammys have become, in some ways, less and less meaningful with each passing year. As the music industry has moved from records to C.D.s to digital ownership to streaming, it has become easier and easier for listeners to sample large swathes of music without committing to, for instance, a certain album as the year’s best. Online music platforms like Bandcamp and DatPiff have also undermined the monopoly of popular music by record companies, but it is difficult to qualify for a nomination if an artist is not signed to a record label, which disqualifies many indie artists and rappers who self-release albums or mixtapes.
At the same time, the Grammys have become more discussed and anticipated than ever in the past few years, because — just like the Academy Awards — they have become a measure of seismic changes in cultural conversations. As racial and gender inequity have become more publicly debated, nights like the Grammys offer a chance for aging societies run by white men to show that they “get it” — with some necessary prodding, like the #OscarsSoWhite online movement.
The Grammys have not received the same degree of scrutiny as the Oscars have, but they have had their share of controversies. Two particular standouts both involved Kendrick Lamar — his loss to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis in 2014 for Best Rap Album and his loss to Taylor Swift in 2016 for Album of the Year. Both of these decisions caused commotion among critics who argued that Kendrick, the most vital and incisive artist of his time, was being snubbed in favor of safe, pop-radio choices that could only deserve the award if “best” meant “biggest-selling.”
Kendrick used his early performance slot on Sunday night to deliver a shock to the award show’s system: a high-concept and visually stunning piece that was announced via a screen over his head as a “Satire by Kendrick Lamar.” Men in combat fatigues and hoodies marched in place around Kendrick, then returned in red hoodies and were methodically shot dead onstage as Kendrick stood in the eye of the storm, rapping. Dave Chappelle operated as something between a hype-man and a host, reminding the audience during the performance that “the only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America is being an honest black man in America.”
But while the Grammys flirted with making politics central to the show, they smothered it with a whole lot of sugary frosting. James Corden was a cloyingly saccharine host, and standards like “Tears in Heaven,” Patti LuPone’s “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” and “Tiny Dancer” were familiar and boring (to be fair, Elton John killed it, as usual). The mix of relevant and vital commentary with tone-deaf, cringeworthy sloganeering was most irritating in the transition from Kesha’s performance to U2’s. Kesha sang “Praying” after a speech by Janelle Monae about the #MeToo movement and gender inequity in the music industry. Kesha’s performance became a kind of symbolic exorcism of her years-long struggle to escape a contract with Dr. Luke, a producer who she claims serially abused her during their long-running business partnership. After Kesha had finished her wrenching performance, the show switched immediately to a pre-recorded performance by U2, staged in front of the Statue of Liberty, which quickly degenerated into Bono crowing something about the American Dream into a flag-decorated megaphone. Apparently he said,“blessed are the shithole countries” in reference to Donald Trump’s recent derogatory language. However, not only was this censored for live TV, but my friends and I couldn’t understand a damn thing he was saying into that megaphone in the first place, which really encapsulates the “appearance over content” nature of the Grammys in general.
The Grammys made somewhat of a good-faith effort to make time for performances and speeches about serious and topical issues, but the most remarkable thing about the night was that the committee chose to give all of its top three awards to Bruno Mars — Record of the Year (for performance/production), Song of the Year (for songwriting) and Album of the Year. In every single one of these categories, Bruno Mars was the safest, most anodyne choice — the one who wasn’t doing anything provocative, just doing it goddamn well enough. Jay-Z’s and Kendrick’s meditations on race and fame, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” — perhaps the most inescapable song in America in 2017 despite none of the lyrics (until the Justin Bieber remix) being in English — Logic/Alessa Cara/Khalid’s “1-800-273-8255,” a song named after the National Suicide Prevention Hotline that addresses timely mental health problems, and Lorde’s Melodrama, a gorgeous album about emotional crises, were all snubbed in favor of an artist who relentlessly mines nostalgia. Bono and the Edge introduced the Album of the Year award, and Bono offered a bizarrely halting and defensive assertion of the value of the award — which only underscores how little Bruno Mars’s win means. More than ever, the Grammys want to allow for and support radical speech, but they haven’t yet figured out how to actually honor any of it.
Jack Jones is a senior in the college of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column Despite all the Amputations runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.