Appropriately for an event billed as “Music’s Biggest Night,” the Recording Academy has long gone for size and scale when it comes to the presentation of the Grammys: The biggest artists, the biggest collaborations, the biggest spectacles, even the biggest tributes. Over the years, the results have often been entertaining, and occasionally downright historic — Aretha Franklin singing Pavarotti in 1998, Eminem joining forces with Elton John in 2001, P!nk taking to the skies in 2010 — but just as often, they’ve felt forced, over-indulgent, or simply too much.
“Too much” was never likely to be the case in 2021, when the Recording Academy had to delay their marquee night an additional month and change to March, just to be able to hold the ceremony at all. And not only would this be the first Grammys put on in the socially distanced era of COVID-19, but it would also be the first done under the guidance of new show producer Ben Winston, following the 40-year run of predecessor Ken Ehrlich. Most of the greatest moments in Grammy history were conceptualized or organized by Ehrlich, but a tribute to the departing producer in last year’s ceremony — a star-studded performance of Fame‘s “I Sing the Body Electric” — was also emblematic of the messier parts of his stewardship, particularly the tendency to pursue overstuffed super-teamings that valued star power and novelty over general coherence and relevance.
There were no such unexpected X-meets-Y collaborations at the Grammys on Sunday night (Mar. 14), nor were there any out-of-nowhere mega-homages to past greats (aside from a handful of tasteful mini-tributes interrupting the In Memoriam segment) or where-did-they-come-from appearances by artists without a clear tie to the proceedings. Whether as a result of creative choice, circumstantial necessity or both, you instead got what you might actually expect from the Grammys if you had no previous knowledge of their long-oversized ambitions: the most-nominated artists performing their biggest hits of the year, with awards occasionally given out in between. And the result was the most enjoyable, least exhausting Grammys in ages.
The tone was set for the night in the opening segment, which featured back-to-back-to-back performances from Harry Styles (a lightly funked-up “Watermelon Sugar”), Billie Eilish (a quietly spellbinding “Everything I Wanted”) and Haim (an absolutely ripping “The Steps”), with only minor traffic-directing intrusion from host Trevor Noah. The open setup of these outdoor Grammys — held just outside the Staples Center — allowed for all three acts not only to fire off immediately after one another, but also to build on one another’s energy, giving the feeling more of a South by Southwest-like mini-music festival than a grand award-show gala. The show also smartly cut back to the prior performers — still lingering around their own sets — grooving to the new performances, building a communal spirit and a looser, more intimate feeling than you can really get with reaction shots of stars locked into their assigned seats.
And that was sort of the vibe for the night: With both a smaller assembly and less overall emphasis on shock and awe, the evening’s proceedings and participants felt connected in a way you just don’t often get from major award shows. There was a real thrill in watching Dua Lipa put on a typically show-stopping medley of Future Nostalgia smashes “Levitating” and “Don’t Start Now,” and then seeing Bad Bunny and Jhay Cortez (hot off their own “Dákiti” rendition) sitting on the stage in the wings, excitedly applauding for her like they were cheering on their classmate who just went after them in the high school talent show.
All night, the show’s principals couldn’t really escape each other — which occasionally resulted in uncomfortable moments, like Trevor Noah announcing that Beyoncé had just tied the record for most Grammy wins by a singer, with Queen Bey (having just accepted her and Megan Thee Stallion’s best rap song win for “Savage”) still visible in the background, surprised and visibly annoyed at not being able to get off the stage already. But even at its most awkward, the show was still refreshing — since Noah’s sporadic over-excited megaphoning aside, the show did such a good job of letting the music and performers simply speak for themselves.
Aside from the fewer-frills presentation, the Grammys helped put another big prior stumbling block behind them this year. Three years ago, then-Recording Academy president Neil Portnow answered a question about the disproportionately limited number of female artists among Grammy winners and nominees with an answer that encouraged female artists to “step up” in order to receive such recognition. The response was widely perceived as both patronizing and ignorant to the struggles women face to receive equal representation in the music industry at large, and brought long-simmering frustration with the Grammys’ handling of diversity among its constituents and honorees to a rapid boil.
While the issue of gender equality within the Recording Academy (and at the Grammys specifically) has hardly been solved since 2018, progress has been made each year, with higher concentrations of female nominees across the 80-plus total categories, and in particular more wins for female artists in the marquee “Big Four” categories (album of the year, song of the year, record of the year and best new artist). And after Billie Eilish became the first female artist to sweep the Big Four in 2020, history was again made this year, with four different lead women taking home the honors — Megan Thee Stallion, best new artist; H.E.R, song of the year (“I Can’t Breathe”); Taylor Swift, album of the year (Folklore); and again, Eilish, record of the year (“Everything I Wanted”). There’s still a long way to go, but after a 2018 where only one woman total was nominated between the record and album of the year categories, it feels like the outrage has at least been properly heard.
Which isn’t to say the 2021 Grammys get A’s across the board for being progressive. The institution’s always-complicated relationship with Black music of course got more fraught this year with The Weeknd’s surprise shutout from the nominations, compounded by the pop superstar announcing last week that he would be pulling his music from future Grammy consideration in response. Hip-hop in particular remains an area where the Grammys are forever playing catch-up: performances from Megan Thee Stallion, DaBaby, Roddy Ricch and Lil Baby were undoubtedly some of the evening’s strongest and most powerful, but only Megan actually heard her name called to the winner’s circle — while Nas, a veteran MC, took home an informal lifetime achievement award in the best rap album category for his lukewarmly received King’s Disease, after losing in his first 13 career nods. (It was also telling that Pop Smoke, easily one of 2020’s most impactful recording artists of any genre despite his murder last February, was not only ignored in the year’s nominations, but recognized during the broadcast with no more than a slide in the In Memoriam tribute.)
Still, this year felt like an important step taken by the Grammys; both in the variety and diversity of its biggest winners, and in its remembering (or discovering) that the show doesn’t have to build a Tower of Babel-like monument every year to reach the heavens of recorded music, one that usually ends up toppling and leaving everyone confused. The Grammys already have the greatest argument for the music industry’s greatness right in front of them, in the form of the year’s biggest and most important artists. They just need give those artists the stage and let them do their thing — and as long as the Recording Academy keeps improving their efforts to make sure the right winners are being recognized by the trophies handed out in between those performances, “Music’s Biggest Night” won’t need to do anything else to prove its largesse.