Criticism of the Grammys depends primarily on how you’ve reconciled what you think the ceremony should be—an evening of music’s finest honors—and what it has become: an amalgamation of presentations, a series of viral swings aimed toward the elusive “Grammy moment.” Hell, it’s now a goal so unsubtle, presenter Anna Kendrick even mentioned we were about to see one before it even happened.
Those rare moments offered the night’s most spell-binding feats of performance and artistry, but the ratio of that magic—only about 20 out of 210 minutes of telecast—made the highlights bolder but the airless in-between all the more tedious. And that’s not even including the idea that you dared to tune into CBS’ 58th Grammy Awards to see, well, actual awards.
Of the good: Early stand-out duets between non-winning winner Tori Kelly and James Bay (singing a pitch-perfect mash-up of their respective hits, “Hollow” and “Let It Go”) and newcomer Andra Day and Ellie Goulding set the harmonic bar high; a hot-blooded Sam Hunt-Carrie Underwood duet had Twitter ablaze, although the brunt of the conversation seemed primarily concentrated on Hunt’s distracting brawn.
As expected, the live performance from Broadway’s hip-hop phenomenon Hamilton brought palpable energy and heft—it’s the first time a musical has performed live on the telecast, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s cast made fine use of their shot—and offered the perfect transition to Kendrick Lamar’s trippy, soul-shaking statement after his impassioned To Pimp a Butterfly deservedly won Best Rap Album. Lamar’s act was possibly the evening’s only burst of passion; such spirited momentum was quickly cut short by Seth MacFarlane and an inexplicable live Target ad turned music video from Gwen Stefani.
Justin Bieber miraculously revived the energy with a reimagined approach to his hits “Love Yourself” and “Where Are U Now,” dovetailing his recent comeback. Shortly thereafter, Lady Gaga arrived and gave one of the strongest performances of her career, blending her raw talent and illustrated artistry into a spectacular, ferocious tribute to the late David Bowie. Gary Clark Jr., Bonnie Raitt, and Best Country Album winner Chris Stapleton followed with nasty guitars to honor B.B. King with a sweet salute of “The Thrill Is Gone.”
The night’s other tributes largely came and went when MusiCares Person of the Years honoree Lionel Richie had to rescue his own innocuous homage from Meghan Trainor, Luke Bryan, Tyrese Gibson, and John Legend (though it needed no rescuing from Demi Lovato, who offered the best delivery of the word “Hello” since Adele).
Some of the night’s most surprising misses came from its biggest stars, between the Adele’s sound issues not-heard round the world, a pitchy early offering from The Weeknd, and a far-too-long headscratcher from Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp, and the Hollywood Vampires. (Eulogized Lemmy Kilmister deserved better.) Ceremony bookends by Taylor Swift, meanwhile, were but before-and-afterthoughts.
As a cohesive awards show, the Grammys didn’t flow—how could they? The telecast opted to only show a troubling eight awards in the three-and-a-half-hour runtime, thereby essentially declaring that the honors themselves are mere second fiddle to the performances. On that front, flow was never achievable as producers did their best to check the pulse of genres rather than dissect them (and this year even admirably awarded precious airtime to musical theater).
But how many times were performers introduced as having just won their first Grammy Award? As enthralling as Bieber’s performance was, I’d have preferred to hear him deliver an acceptance speech on the stunning new leg of his career. Speeches from Lamar, Trainor, Stapleton, and Alabama Shakes frontman Brittany Howard proved that these artists had something to say on a night that would only have them sing. (Power to Lamar, though, who used his airtime to accomplish both.)
As a distended concert of sterling production value and spasmodic set list, the ceremony entertained and will continue to exist in what’s now its assumptive basic goal—YouTube videos—but, almost insultingly, the night barely attempted to be an evening of honorifics that minted narratives for its new and returning winners. The Oscars and Emmys classically conclude with a flourish of celebration and stories for their biggest victors, but the Grammys consistently failed to award their artists the agency, exposure, or platform for gratitude that can spur an artist’s career for the coming year.
It does no favors that five-time host LL Cool J is at least a decade past his hosting prime; his mere presence instantly overcast the night with tired familiarity. Mr. Cool J offered nothing in the way of significance and never salvaged the pace, certainly doing no more to inject jubilance into the evening than the slate of humorless presenters or anti-streaming guilters with heavy hands.
But it’s not the fault of the host, nor the experimental alchemy of the night’s tributes or duets or sought-after “Grammy moments”—it’s the lack of awards that plague the telecast. As nice as it is to watch our favorite artists dazzle for our childish happiness, it’s infinitely nicer to flip the role and let them lavish in what should be music’s biggest night.