It started auspiciously enough. Sting introduced the song of the year award, noting it would be given to a song that “Captured the collective imagination of people around the world. This is the transcendent power of song and these are the nominations.”
Let me repeat those words: A song that captured the collective imagination of people around the world. Not just the U.S., not just England, or Europe, or, heck, Latin America. The world.
This is it, I thought, as I watched the announcement unfold. A song in Spanish will finally win a Grammy for song of the year. Because, aside from Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's “Despacito,” what other nominee in the song of the year category had captured the collective imagination of people around the world? What other song had seen its video viewed over 4 billion times, more than any other video in YouTube history? What other song had been covered literally thousands of times, in thousands of ways and styles, by artists from seemingly every genre and country?
And then, the letdown: Song of the year went to Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like.”
Then came record of the year. Surely there “Despacito” would win. In a year that was marked by the fluidity of streaming, this song was the soundtrack of the world, not just through a catchy beat and melody, but also by blending genres, languages and cultures in such an effortless manner.
Even the story behind Justin Bieber’s participation was a triumph of collaboration and the power of music. No one had pushed this collab; no label head had made Bieber participate. He alone took one listen while on a trip to Colombia (in itself another sign of how walls are tumbling in music) and asked to participate in a record that struck him.
“Despacito” wasn’t just Latin, or pop, or reggaeton, or hip hop, or English or Spanish. It was everything together in four minutes of magic. But Record of the year, too, went to Mars, this time for “24K Magic.”
The Grammys were not always this closed to other worlds, to the notion that there was no music that mattered outside U.S. borders and beyond English. Few people may remember that the first-ever record and song of the year winner, back when the awards launched in 1959, was a foreign-language song, Domenico Modugno’s “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare).” Then, in 1964, global sounds triumphed again when “The Girl From Ipanema,” in the Astrud Gilberto & Stan Getz version, won. Even 1985’s record and song of the year winner “We Are The World” was a nod to the global power of music as an agent of change.
But the notion of music as a unifying global agent, repeated again and again during last night’s telecast, seems almost anathema when looking at the list of winners. In restrospect, it’s likely that “Despacito” garnered its three nominations simply to stave off controversy and backlash. When the VMAs blackballed the track for its awards last year, they got all kinds of flak for ignoring the most-viewed video in the planet. The Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences could control that, because nominees in the main categories are decided by committee, not by voters.
But when it came time for the members to decide, reality sunk in. A song in Spanish was not going to be awarded any honors in this ceremony. Much like other “surprise” votes – Brexit, the most recent U.S. election — true colors appeared when voters were given the opportunity to anonymously, voice their opinion. One thing is to publicly support global sounds; quite another is to truly believe in the merits of allowing other languages and cultures in.
Of course, there will be debate about whether “Despacito” was truly a good enough song to deserve to win. That’s what the Grammys always use as a shield; the fact that the awards honor quality and not popularity.
But the quality and endurance of “Despacito” is not even up for discussion. This was the song of the year. At the very least, this was the record of the year. The voting members of the Academy may have rejected it, but the world didn’t.
Last night, the Grammys were all about change. There were speeches on women’s rights, on dreamers, on speaking up. But behind the glare and scrutiny of media, clearly some biases remain alive and well.