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Last Night’s Grammy Awards Doubled-Down On Social Justice Activism


Trevor Noah hosted the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards on CBS on Sunday night, opening up with jokes about the “10-year-long” pandemic from an outdoor stage in Los Angeles. Noah assured viewers that the whole thing was COVID-19-safe, as the show went on without an audience other than the artists who were there hoping to take home their awards, sitting masked at socially distanced tables six feet apart. Much like 2020, the Grammys were all about COVID safety and “social justice.”

Emblematic of most of the evening’s messaging, Lil Baby rapped against a backdrop of police brutality and a neighborhood on fire. A group of staged protestors demanded that President Biden provide equity, and they chanted “until freedom.” Of course, Lil Baby and his message had a national stage, a national audience, the full support of the Recording Academy — not to mention that his call for “equity” has already been taken up by the president whose name was intoned.

H.E.R. won Song of the Year for “I Can’t Breathe.” As part of her acceptance speech, H.E.R. said she and her co-songwriter wrote the song over Facetime, because of COVID restrictions, to “create change.” “We are the change we wish to see,” H.E.R. said, “and that fight we had in the summer of 2020, let’s keep it going.”

The CEO of the Recording Academy, Harvey Mason, Jr. spoke in a pre-recorded message, inviting everyone to “join in” and “continue to do the work to serve everyone in the industry,” to “advocate for the rights of all creators” to earn a living from their music. Mason also called for “more equal representation” and diversity in the music industry, and, as part of this, John Legend, Janelle Monáe, Issa Rae, and Tamika Mallory led “fireside chats regarding the Black experience in the wake of social justice.”

Beyonce won Best R&B Performance with “Black Parade,” which brings her remarkable total Grammy wins to 26. This album was released on Juneteenth in 2020 and had social justice messaging as well. For the women of the Grammy’s this year, she really was Queen B.

Lizzo gave out the award for Best New Artist, which went to Megan Thee Stallion. She stepped onto the stage in a brilliant, fiery orange dress and shed tears. “Everybody is amazing,” she said, “every artist who was nominated for this award is amazing.”

The awards show highlighted music venues that have been closed during the pandemic, from the Gulch in Nashville, LA’s Troubadour, and the Apollo in New York City. Theatres and cultural attractions shut down as a result of COVID-inspired lockdowns in 2020, and many of them are at risk of permanent closure. Musicians make most of their money not off record sales, but off ticket sales. For the music industry to survive, venues need to survive.

Even from far away on the couch, the performance room felt surprisingly intimate. Harry Styles led off the show wearing leather and a muted green feather boa with “Watermelon Sugar,” a song for which he won a Grammy. Billie Eilish was undoubtedly one of the most anticipated performances, and she didn’t disappoint with a haunting rendition of “everything I wanted.”

Typically, the best part of the Grammys are the performances, and that was true Sunday night as well. Indeed, the evening had a much more “indie” feel than the usual Grammy presentation, with Eilish and Styles hanging out on the edge of the stage to watch the other artists play — artists performing for artists.

Black Pumas performed their funky soul sound that emerged from Motown, with guitar strings that pluck the depths of the heart. Another throwback look and sound came from Bruno Mars and Anderson.Paak as Silk Sonic. With wide lapels, matching rust-colored suits, and big collars, they intoned almost a doo-wop sound in “Leave the Door Open.” These retro sounds make some amount of sense when you realize that so many artists, and the Recording Academy, think the United States is stuck in a Civil Rights Era time loop and hasn’t made any progress toward equality.

Dua Lipa, upon winning Best Pop Vocal Album for Future Nostalgia, said “happiness is something we all deserve, and something we all need in our lives,” saying that she felt liberated when she realized she didn’t have to make sad music.

It was confusing, however, why Dua Lipa’s backup dancers, in the closed performance room, were masked while the other artists were not. This was also true of Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B’s dancers. Post Malone’s backup dancers did not wear facemasks, while Doja Cat’s wore full cat-themed helmets with face shields, which makes it seem like masking or not was entirely a fashion choice.

Taylor Swift performed on the closed stage, singing “Cardigan” into “August” from her Album of the Year winning Folklore, backdropped by a set that looked like it would have served just as well for a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Finally, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion performed their disturbingly graphic “WAP,” and it was, as expected, incredibly gross. A woman can certainly own her sexuality — and can even revel in it — but part of sexuality is leaving something for the imagination. This performance did not.

Ultimately, the Grammys were, once again, fairly predictable in messaging and what was chosen to highlight and celebrate. And for his part, Noah didn’t fill up much time with his poor attempts at humor. After a while, he was barely even noticeable, and it was easy to forget he was there. But still, they managed to drag the thing on for four hours — which is just way too long to watch people congratulate themselves on being amazing.