The Grammys Sucked a Surprisingly Small Amount This Year
Last night’s 57th Annual Grammy Awards was the most rewarding in the show’s recent history, and even in its misfires you could see a long-standing legacy institution lurching toward renewed respect.
So the Grammys just happened, and, as per usual, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences did its best to cram all the major musical trends of a calendar year into one evening. It’s a coolly insurmountable task, pulling luminaries from every corner of the industry into the same room and honoring their achievements for four hours. It’s impossible to please everyone all the time, and the Academy’s struggled to stay in step with the beat of the times. They’re notoriously conservative, and they’ve got a history full of baffling moves like giving Jethro Tull a Best Metal Album award over Metallica and sliding Album of the Year to Steely Dan the year Marshall Mathers LP and Kid A were nominated. Serious music fans’ trust in the show and the prestige of their decisions is at an all-time low.
Last night’s ceremony was one of the rare Grammys that seemed to care about Getting It Right. This one felt better suited to rewarding the breadth of the 2014 class than perhaps any year since the Arcade Fire’s shock 2011 Album of the Year win. Keener attention was paid to the show’s shortcomings. Last year’s Macklemore sweep of all the hip-hop awards threatened to see its match when Iggy Azalea snagged nominations in all the key rap categories. Chatter around the rap community took an Iggy sweep as a foregone conclusion and groused about dwindling prestige for black artists in a predominately black art form. But then she didn’t win anything. Instead, she spent her day embroiled in a Twitter fight with Papa John’s. (I guess she actually orders takeout under her stage name?) Two of the night’s rap awards went to Eminem, perennial award season fave, but two of them went to first time winner Kendrick Lamar, whose snub at last year’s show was palpably frustrating and roundly criticized.
This evenhandedness trickled down to the choice of performers as well. Recent Grammy ceremonies’ commitment to unlikely superstar performance pairings has led to abominations like last year’s desecration of Metallica’s classic “One” with help from Chinese pianist Lang Lang as much as it's created magic moments like the same show’s Daft Punk/Pharrell/Stevie Wonder meet. This time bad matches were in shorter supply (although Tom Jones and Jessie J over the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” was laughably sketchy decision making). Instead we got Mary J. Blige pulling the robbery on a duet version of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” backed with a captivating Annie Lennox cover of “I Put a Spell on You,” and Ed Sheeran trading lines with Jeff Lynne of ELO’s on the group’s classic “Mr. Blue Sky.” All three reached across genre and generational lines for inspiration, but none more smoothly than Kanye West, Rihanna, and Paul McCartney, whose debut performance of their collaborative single “FourFiveSeconds” showcased a seamless bond between artists at very different stations in life. Each artist repped a different demographic but the song’s campfire groove melded their divergent strengths into an irresistible singalong—exactly the kind of genuine big tent moment this award show should be about.
The show got a lot right, but this is the Grammys we’re talking about, so there were screwups. The Academy’s only giving out one metal award nowadays, and this one went to Jack Black’s joke band Tenacious D for a tribute album cover of the late Ronnie James Dio’s “The Last in Line,” beating out actual heavy music institutions like Anthrax, Motorhead and Slipknot in the process. Beck won Best Rock Album for Morning Phase, a decent album but also his personal worst and a record few would venture to say “rocks.” It sways at best. The big winner of the night was Sam Smith, who took home four awards including statues for Best New Artist and Record and Song of the Year. Sam’s Record and Song wins sent the ubiquitous insta-platinum Taylor Swift home empty-handed, although one imagines 1989’ll clean clocks next year when it becomes eligible for album award honors.
Country superstar Eric Church had the genre's biggest selling and most critically acclaimed album of 2014 until T Swift came along, but he got shut out, too—although it’s worth note that Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert’s wins are not only well deserved but quite possibly a commentary on a country industry much too short on accolades and sales for its women. Country’s seat at the Grammys inches ever toward something resembling dominance, as killer performances by Lambert, Church, and Brandy Clark with Dwight Yoakam brought a wide range of twangy charm to the proceedings. Country music heiress Rosanne Cash took three trophies home for her Southern travelogue The River and the Thread (although you’d be hard-pressed to know that since it all happened in the pre-show).
Beyoncé matched Cash’s haul, pulling two awards for “Drunk in Love” and a pre-show win for Best Surround Sound Album, which… OK. But her gobstopping, stealth-released self-titled album lost the Urban Contemporary Album award to Pharrell’s good but less beloved G I R L and the Album of the Year award to Beck. The latter decision was so bewildering it sent a drunk Kanye West onto the stage, only to stop short of the microphone and a repeat of his 2009 MTV Video Music Awards gaffe with Taylor Swift. (Breaking: those two patched it up last night!) Incensed Beyhive soldiers quested to figure out who Beck even is. A drunker Kanye would pop by the E! network aftershow roundup to clarify to Khloe Kardashian in more than a few words that he doesn’t feel black artistry is duly respected at events of this nature. He feels Beck should “respect the artistry” and give the award back. The statement was a touch extreme—like all things Kanye, historically speaking—but few who witnessed the snub would doubt that Academy rockism isn’t the reason Bey’s juggernaut game-changer was treated like an afterthought.
Kanye’s got a deeper point: the Academy was happy to have him perform twice and and short him two awards. (He got shut out last year too.) After the Beyoncé Album of the Year snub (which was given out earlier in the night than usual, one would think, to keep them from looking bad for fucking her over while finessing her star power) the show closed on a dramatic Selma-inspired Beyoncé performance of Dr. Martin Luther King’s favorite hymn “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” followed by a rousing rendition of the film’s John Legend and Common helmed theme song “Glory.” Legend lost a statue to Pharrell, and Common, to Eminem. There’s the sense that the show is pursuing diversity and genuflecting to a very of-the-moment black protest movement (see: sly Hands Up, Don’t Shoot gestures in Pharrell, Beyoncé, and Common’s performances and a “Black Lives Matter” word from Prince upon presenting the Album of the Year trophy), but at the end of the day, they give the rap awards to the white guy in the clutch, and none of the Grammys’ nine hip-hop and R&B awards are even handed out during the televised portion of the show. It’s worse for the Latin music community: All they got was a Juanes performance and Enrique Iglesias as a presenter.
Last night’s 57th Annual Grammy Awards was the most rewarding in the show’s recent history, and even in its misfires you could see a long-standing legacy institution lurching toward renewed respect. They’re stuffy enough to open on a no-bullshit AC/DC performance but also faintly edgy enough to honor St. Vincent and Paramore alongside the rock bros and to sneak Aphex Twin that Best Dance/Electronic Album statue. The Grammys’ twin devotion to mild-mannered showmanship and to the audacity of spectacle struck a fine, weird balance last night: what other show’s letting Madonna sacrifice herself to devil-horned bullfighters over a throwback house bop in the first hour only to have Beyoncé conduct a church service to close it out? Who else is jump cutting from Dwight Yoakam to Kanye West like it’s nothing? The Grammys regained a measure of lost cachet last night, and even though there’s at least one what-the-fuck moment everyone who watched can point to off top, there are ten where we got wrapped up in the improbable greatness of the moment. That’s more than any televised award show could ever hope to offer.
None of this means nothing to Craig Jenkins, he's celebrating with his family. Follow him on Twitter.