Let’s address the elephant in the room first, and for once we aren’t talking about the pandemic. The Grammys have always, and particularly in the last few years, been riddled with issues relating to racism, bribery, an out-of-touch academy, and an unspoken pay-to-play structure that deeply disadvantages many artists without the proper connections. Complaints and outcry come to a head nearly every year, with the 2021 omission of The Weeknd from any category this year being a particular sore spot given his prominence. That’s the short of it, but frankly, the list of issues with the Recording Academy and the Grammy Awards as a whole certainly stretches beyond.
With that in mind, this year’s Grammys were actually able to put on a decent show, despite a few noticeable blips and fumbles, as well as a questionable winner or two, though most of those are present every year. It would be cynical to call the Academy’s program this year – focused predominantly on highlighting women and Black artists, as well as their struggles over the last year and beyond – an effort to placate (though given their history that certainly was part of it). While the Academy did attempt to address their controversies head-on in a late-show segment with President/CEO Harvey Mason Jr., it mostly came across as an apology notice, though we desperately hope that the promises made during the clip will be made good on. That said, even if damage control was the intent, it still led to a night where Black voices shone the loudest, and powerful statements were explicitly made both through speeches and amazing performances.
In an attempt to focus on the positives, let’s get the missteps out of the way first, rapid-fire. As always the evening runs far too long and presents far too few awards live, but that’s inevitable at this point. Obviously, we all know the nominations were a little shoddy this year, but even given some of the incredible works that were nominated, there were some head-scratching upsets. Most notably was Billie Eilish’s second Record of the Year award in a row for “Everything I Wanted,” which, while a perfectly good track, was always a clear third to both “Savage” and “Black Parade.” Billie even said so herself. Taylor Swift’s performance, though rife with incredible set design, felt a little inauthentic compared to other past intimate performances, with her backing track completely drowning out any live vocals she may have produced. That said, major congratulations to both her and Jack Antonoff for tying for most Album of the Year Awards with the runaway success Folklore (read The Untitled Magazine’s exclusive interview with Jack Antonoff here). In a very baffling choice also was the decision to have John “my dick is a white supremacist” Mayer perform with Marren Morris during a segment dedicated to women in country music. Oh, and Harry Style’s boas were all… choices.
Those are small potatoes compared to the triumphs of the evening, like the much deserved wins for artists like Megan Thee Stallion (the true star of the evening) and H.E.R, some great fashions, and the individual clips highlighting the Record of the Year contenders and independent venues.
We can’t let Beyoncé, who smashed the record for most overall Grammy wins by any artist, go unmentioned. That the record was broken by not only a woman, but a Black woman making music in 2020 explicitly about the Black Lives Matter movement, is not only an amazing achievement in music, but a poignant reminder of the power and importance of people of color in both entertainment and our society as a whole. The fact that the song she won her record-breaking award for, “Black Parade,” is such an explicit statement of Black love and American protest just makes the moment all the sweeter in a year characterized by so much hate.
The best moments though involved powerful and delightful performances from musicians of color. The lack of live audience served to make the evening feel like more of an artist’s showcase special than a live concert, and allowed performers to focus more on creating a curated video experience than to perform to a crow, much to the night’s benefit. Most set designs were absolutely magical, taking advantage of the space the set had to offer and enchanting us with wild and imaginative visuals. So below we present the best of the best performances of the evening.
Cardi B & Megan Thee Stallion – “Body” / “Savage” / “Up” / “WAP”
The one-two punch of Megan’s “Body” / “Savage” medley (complete with inspired tap segment!) followed with no interlude by Cardi B’s “Up” and a joint performance of what was undoubtedly the biggest song of 2020 (albeit a heavily censored version of it) was nothing short of spectacular. The giant high heel that doubled as both a stripper pole and money cage sealed the deal on the set design, while both ladies in question delivered in our mind one of the best performances the Grammys have ever seen. Just stop watching before Trevor Noah butts in with some truly uncomfortable cometary at the end.
Doja Cat – “Say So”
As overplayed as “Say So” was this last year, we still can’t help but love and sing along to the groove any time it plays. With sleek futuristic costumes and choreography, even the minimal set design couldn’t keep this performance from the top ranks of the night
Black Pumas – “Colors”
With an incredible story presented early in the night, Black Pumas have proved that 2020 really was their breakout year. Ramping up the momentum following Harry Styles’ low energy opener of “Watermelon Sugar” (sorry Harry, we love you), Black Pumas smashed their hit “Colors” out of the park and set the true tone of the evening after the false start.
Bruno Mars – “Long Tall Sally” / “Good Golly Miss Molly”
nobody can pull off tribute performances the way bruno mars does. put some respect on his name! pic.twitter.com/ICCw5HHxSR
— ً (@archivesbruno) March 15, 2021
Everyone’s swooning over the retro crooning of Silk Sonic, Bruno Mars & Anderson .Paak’s new project, but our pick would have to be Mars’ soulful tribute to Little Richard during the evening’s annual “In Memoriam” segment.
Dua Lipa & DaBaby – “Levitating” / “Don’t Start Now”
This on his here just as much for the fashion as it is the performance. The incredible pink and purple ensembles only enhanced the retro energy of Dup Lipa’s two monster hits, and the addition of DaBaby made the whole affair that much more fun.
Mickey Guyton – “Black Like Me”
In both a male and white-dominated field, Mickey Guyton not only stands out, but absolutely shines. With an amazing, and powerfully blunt rendition of her signature track “Black Like Me,” Guyton address her status as a country outsider directly, and sounds absolutely spellbinding in the process.
DaBaby & Roddy Ricch – “Rockstar”
Props to DaBaby for trying something new with one of 2020’s most inescapable hits. With an elderly gospel choir standing behind him, DaBaby was both amusing and entertaining performing a deeply reworded version of “Rockstar.” Special shoutout to those white gloves too.
BTS – “Dynamite”
The K-Pop takeover remains in full swing, and BTS is still very much the grand monarch atop the throne. Singing their smash hit “Dynamite,” the boy band thoroughly brought the fun and the funk, as well as their signature dance moves, to the back half of the Grammys which were starting to overstay their welcome.
Lil Baby – “The Bigger Picture”
Lil Baby and guest Killer Mike of the incredible Run the Jewels used their time on the Grammys stage to make a powerful statement, with a segment directed explicitly at President Joe Biden, regarding police brutality and systemic racism in America. Impactful, tightly choreographed, effective.