The 2018 Grammys Looked Woke, But They Were as Retro as Ever
Sunday night’s Grammys ceremony hit nearly every major current political issue: Kendrick Lamar’s searing opening performance featured male dancers as soldiers, then as hoodie-clad figures dropped one-by-one to the sound of gunshots, comedian Dave Chappelle interjected, “The only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America is being an honest black man in America.”
Later, Janelle Monae invoked the Time’s Up movement in an introduction to Kesha’s cathartic “Praying,” which many assume is directed at her former producer, Dr. Luke, whom she accused of emotional and sexual abuse. (He’s denied the charges, and a court dismissed her case.) The ceremony also included references to the debate over DACA immigrants and a performance remembering the victims of the largest mass shooting in U.S. history at a country music festival in Las Vegas. Host James Corden even presented a pre-taped sketch in which several stars read aloud from the White House takedown book Fire and Fury, ending with President Trump’s 2016 election rival, Hillary Clinton.
Future historians could study this lineup to learn everything they need to know about our highly charged political moment. But if they looked only at the night’s winners, they’d see a different picture: Bruno Mars sweeping the major categories with apolitical pop; Ed Sheeran’s guitar-driven work taking the other pop slots; Canadian pop star Alessia Cara standing as the only woman among major winners, and beating out R&B sensation SZA; Lamar relegated to only rap wins; and JAY-Z’s politically charged 4:44 shut out.
The result was a 2018 Grammys that postured at trendy wokeness while devaluing the artists who have the most to say about our times. It was the awards-show equivalent of putting on your Levi’s Wokes to go to brunch instead of the Women’s March.
For starters, there’s the gender problem. Recording Academy president Neil Portnow responded to the trending #GrammysSoMale criticism by saying that “women who have the creativity in their hearts and souls, who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, producers, and want to be part of the industry on the executive level… [They need] to step up because I think they would be welcome.” But clearly women have stepped up, only to be quite obviously shut out. We watched it happen on the Grammys broadcast. Lorde, the only female artist nominated for album of the year, didn’t get a performance slot on the show. Powerhouse women got four of the five nominations for pop solo performance, but the award went to the perfectly adequate, if sleepy, Ed Sheeran for “Shape of You.” It’s hard to imagine how this performance beat Kelly Clarkson, P!nk, or Lady Gaga doing anything; it’s harder still to imagine it beating Kesha’s “Praying,” which stole the live show.
Meanwhile, Mars’ sweep only further baffles. He’s a talented musician and dancer of Filipino and Puerto Rican descent, but his Grammy-dominating album, 24K Magic, offered nothing particularly era-defining—just pure, feel-good R&B/pop. (In fact, if it evokes any era, it’s the 1980s and ‘90s.) It’s fun escapism, which is certainly one valid function for popular music, and a necessary escape from our dark political landscape. But he’s so mainstream-pleasant that he was the punchline to a joke to just that effect on Portlandia. And other nominated songs were more ubiquitous and timely, like Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee's “Despacito” and Lamar’s “HUMBLE.”
It's almost as if the academy is sending a message that music is better when it doesn’t say something. Lamar and JAY-Z put out albums last year that were at least as technically excellent as Mars’, with far more to offer. Lamar’s DAMN. was, in fact, a tour de force of musicianship, lyricism, and rap skill, all deployed in service of real messages: “The world is endin’, I’m done pretendin’, and fuck you if you get offended.” “The great American flag is wrapped in drag with explosives... is America honest, or do we bask in sin?”
JAY-Z was at the top of his game last year, switching gears from the braggadocio and bling that made him famous to vulnerable ruminations on his own failings, his family, and the fate of black America. He used his gift for wordplay and pop culture references to higher ends in songs such as “The Story of O.J.” and “Moonlight.” (For instance, he sing-raps in a reference to last year’s Oscars mix-up that African-Americans are “stuck in La La Land, even when we win we gon’ lose.”) In the process, he loosened the boundaries of hip-hop to allow for softer and more mature subjects. He went into Grammy night with the most nominations. He left without one award.
But, of course, the Grammys have a history of snubbing hip-hop, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Watching JAY-Z with wife Beyoncé and their daughter, Blue Ivy—indisputable music royalty—sitting out front in the Grammys audience awaiting a crowning that never came recalled Adele’s shocking win last year over Beyoncé’s masterpiece Lemonade. Adele herself asked, “What the fuck does she have to do to win album of the year?” The previous year, Taylor Swift’s beautifully poppy 1989 beat Lamar’s incendiary—and also politically charged—breakthrough, To Pimp a Butterfly. And, of course, Beck beat Beyoncé’s other masterpiece, Beyoncé, the year before that.
So there’s clearly a pattern here. This year, the Grammys acknowledged that it (mostly) knows better, given the performances we saw. Now it has to figure out how to reflect that in its winners lists.