Photo by Lester Cohen/WireImage/Getty
Enshrining popular music—an art form based on youth and rebellion, on evading the rule-makers while on the hunt for what's next—might be a bit of a fool's errand. Or at least that's the message sent by the Grammys, the annual celebration of the sprawling, messy media form.
The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences has a tricky balancing act with each year's telecast: How can it create a show that scores cultural-relevancy points and takes a snapshot of the previous year or so in music yet also honors those musicians who helped lay the groundwork for the form, who are crucial to the Grammy firmament in large part because of the way their conservative voting patterns often define who wins what?
Monday night's show, at times, sagged under those expectations. Tributes to recently departed pop stars abounded, in part because the past year has been brutal on the industry death-wise—Natalie Cole, who cleaned up at the Grammys in 1992, only received the "end of the obituary montage" honors and no live tribute, while Scott Weiland's former bandmates in Velvet Revolver, Matt Sorum and Duff McKagan, joined Alice Cooper and his band Hollywood Vampires for a slightly flabby tribute to Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmeister.
Jackson Browne and the Eagles' somewhat mournful "Take It Easy," in honor of Glenn Frey, was appropriately reverent, while Gary Clark Jr., Chris Stapleton, and Bonnie Raitt's "The Thrill Is Gone," a tribute to B. B. King, caught fire at just the right time. Stevie Wonder and Pentatonix's tribute to Earth, Wind & Fire's Maurice White, in which Wonder tore through "That's The Way Of The World" while the a capella juggernaut served as his backing band, worked surprisingly well because of the wise decision to put Wonder front and center; it also made his simply put statement about making culture accessible to the disabled resonate even more powerfully.
Lady Gaga's homage to David Bowie felt rushed, and the Intel ad coming immediately afterward—while nodding to the special effects that led to a spider crawling over her face at the outset—felt almost too crass, a sop to the sausage-making filled with marketing-department-approved superlatives. Lionel Richie, who is still alive, also received honors as part of his MusiCares Person Of The Year award, although having Best New Artist winner Meghan Trainor karaoke her way through "You Are" is a curious way to say "thank you" to anyone.
Current performers had their moments—Pitbull closed the show out by, thankfully, being Pitbull, while Miguel's brief tribute to bandleader Greg Phillinganes, where he sang Michael Jackson's "She's Out of My Life," showed why he deserved the shine constantly given to The Weeknd's endless bummer. But other performances tripped up on ponderous reworkings. The Gravitron-plus-strings staging of Little Big Town's slow-burn "Girl Crush" took away from the song's power, which lies in its tamped-down lust, in favor of showing off cool camera angles; Jack Ü's EDM-metal bludgeoning of the Justin Bieber showcase "Where Are U Now," meanwhile, stomped all over the delicately playful hook in favor of guitar sludge—is Skrillex prepping for a From First To Last reunion?—and Diplo doing that festival-approved trick where someone theatrically bangs on a kettle drum in order to signal to the audience that it needs to start partying. Adele's much-hyped performance was torpedoed by an errant mic; the sound on the whole night, in fact, was weirdly off for some cable subscribers (including me), with some performances only fully coming through once they were watched on YouTube.
But even those sound problems couldn't tame the fury of the Grammys' blazing hot centerpiece, a one-two punch of the opening theme from the musical-theater phenomenon Hamilton and a performance by Kendrick Lamar that turned a protest of mass incarceration into literal flames. Both used hip-hop and its theatricality to exciting ends; the Hamilton cast reframed American history so that it could fit in not just beats and rhymes, but people of color in positions of colonial power, while Lamar's reworking of "The Blacker The Berry" and "Alright" went from fiery to really fiery, adding impassioned, intricately laid-out lyrics to the Record of the Year nominee "Alright" and closing on an outline of Africa emblazoned with the word "Compton."
The Grammy telecast has made the awards that are apparently the show's reason for existing almost irrelevant—only eight, of 83 total, were given out on the telecast. The non-Big Four trophies were predictable in a sense, with three Album of the Year nominees getting their time to shine: Lamar won Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly, Stapleton took Best Country Album for Traveller, the cast of Hamilton triumphed for its cast recording, and the Alabama Shakes snagged Best Rock Performance for "Don't Wannna Fight" after a sizzling performance of that track.
But the Big Four awards—the ones that represent the whole of music, with no genre boundaries—were a testament to the middle-of-the-roadness of the whole thing. Lamar's "Alright" was beaten in Song Of The Year by Ed Sheeran's mushy-pea terrine "Thinking Out Loud," a victory that was followed up by Sheeran looking slightly abashed during Lamar's performance. Trainor, nominated for both Record and Song of the Year in 2015, won Best New Artist, a surprise given that she isn't all that new of an artist and her retroisms paled in comparison to the country-hip-hop fusion served up by Sam Hunt. At least "Uptown Funk," which defined 2015, was a worthy Record of the Year winner, and Mark Ronson's shout-outs to the artists who paved the way for his Minneapolis Sound homage were welcome.
And then there was Taylor Swift, who opened the show with a determined performance of the claustrophobic "Out Of The Woods" and who, hours later, surprised this observer with a win for 1989, her boatload-selling push into full-on pop stardom. Lamar was the political "music has Importance" favorite; Stapleton was the Nashville lifer who'd finally broken through on his own. Swift, sure, sold a lot of records and became the leading pop female by brute force, and the music industry's need for revenue—at least, the one claimed by the Neil Portnow broadside against streaming that preceded it—apparently meant that attention must be paid.
Swift's Album of the Year acceptance speech was clearly aimed at Kanye West, who name-checked her in a pretty gross way on "Famous," one of the many tracks on his just-released The Life Of Pablo that combine the sonically sublime with the atrociously masculine. While she didn't mention West by name, her speech noted that she was the first woman to win Album of the Year and explicitly rebuked the lyrical idea that West's bum-rushing of the Video Music Awards stage in 2009 helped along her rise to stardom. This whole tit-for-tat is a Team Nobody triumph, in a way: The "Kanye made Taylor famous" rhetoric conveniently ignores the fact that she was already selling boatloads of albums by that point, and West's reduction of Swift to only her sex is nauseating, but the me-first version of feminism put forth implicitly by the quite-privileged Swift makes me uneasy. (Once a Veronica, always a Veronica, I guess.)
That one of the biggest takeaways from the 2016 Grammys involved yet another scuffle between Taylor Swift and Kanye West, who have now been in varying stages of a feud since 2009, might be a testament to pop music being stuck in neutral—in part because of the way the chaotic media landscape has only further entrenched those people who were huge stars seven or eight years ago. Or it might be a sign of a tremble on the horizon; the exciting future offered by Lamar and Hamilton, not to mention Stapleton and preteen piano prodigy Joey Alexander, hint at the possibilities of pop music's next generation.
Maura Johnston would like to congratulate Jimmy Carter on his Grammy win. Follow her on Twitter.