It needs one. An ugly tension quietly saturated this year’s Grammy Awards, where last week’s roiling allegations of sexual misconduct and vote tampering from the Recording Academy’s outgoing president and CEO, Deborah Dugan, threatened to detonate “music’s biggest night” from the inside.
Dugan was dismissed from her post just 10 days before Sunday night’s national telecast on CBS. Then, five days after her removal, Dugan filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — one that includes accusations of sexual misconduct by the Academy’s former chairman and current general counsel Joel Katz, as well as claims of a rigged voting process that Dugan said had been poisoned by a boys-club atmosphere. (Katz has denied the allegations.)
But Sunday’s show somehow went on — slowly and exhaustingly, for nearly four hours, without anyone mentioning the elephant in the room. Instead, the big surprise was Eilish’s dramatic sweep in the top four categories. The 18-year-old pop prodigy won album of the year for her intimate and innovative debut, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?”; song and record of the year for her sauntering hit “Bad Guy”; and best new artist. In the final moments of the show, Eilish’s acceptance speech for record of the year was simply a bewildered, “Bye!”
Fittingly, she gave one of the evening’s most magnetic performances, too. Dressed in what looked like bedazzled pajamas, Eilish invited the audience into her dream world, singing in her most intimate voice. But while Eilish’s singing felt purposefully subdued, other performances were sloggy by design. Many took the form of sodden ballads, cross-generational duets or both. The Recording Academy has long branded its most superficial collaborations as “Grammy moments” — and they might finally be coming to an end. Ken Ehrlich, the telecast’s producer for decades, has said he will step down after Sunday night’s awards.
But for his last hurrah, Ehrlich stuck to his formula, loading up the program with nostalgic-soaked music — presumably to lull viewers into a stupor and prevent them from clicking off their televisions. That meant a sparse duet between country legend Tanya Tucker and understudy Brandi Carlile, Camila Cabello serenading her tearful father and Demi Lovato getting emotional during her survivor’s anthem “Anyone.”
When it was time for fun, Ehrlich invited the boys to have it. Usher dominated a Prince tribute medley that also featured Sheila E and FKA Twigs. Later, Aerosmith and Run-DMC stumbled through “Walk This Way,” roughly 33 years too late. What did either of these performances have to do with music in 2020? Maybe a little more than whatever was happening toward the end of the program, when a gaggle of singers honored Ehrlich by belting out “I Sing the Body Electric,” a song from the movie “Fame.” That film hit theaters in 1980, the year that Ehrlich started this job.
At least Tyler, the Creator figured out how to subvert the form, giving a shouty, dizzying, joyfully gonzo performance, with Boyz II Men and the legendary Gap Band founder Charlie Wilson crooning handsomely in the wings. It felt wild, weird and maybe even beautiful. Later, when accepting the Grammy for best rap album for “Igor,” Tyler called his new trophy a validation after “growing up feeling left of center.”
Also left of center: Lil Nas X, who transformed his planet-eating megahit “Old Town Road” — which won Grammys for best pop duo/group performance and best music video — into an international singalong with the help of K-pop stars BTS, child yodeler Mason Ramsey and country star Billy Ray Cyrus. Thanks to Tyler and Lil Nas X, the “Grammy moment” code had finally been cracked. If you’re asked to perform with unlikely collaborators, lean into the absurdity of it.
Like Lil Nas X, Lizzo probably went home with fewer trophies than she had hoped for. She won best traditional R&B performance for “Jerome” and best urban contemporary album for “Cuz I Love You.” But like Eilish, she was nominated in the top four categories — album, record and song of the year, and best new artist — and got blanked.
Was this progress? Was this what former Recording Academy president Neil Portnow meant in 2018 when he told women who felt systemically excluded from the Grammy process to “step up?” Portnow later apologized for the remark and stepped down, making room for Dugan’s abbreviated tenure, but with the future of the Grammys up for grabs, there are still so many problems that need fixing. In addition to a long history of gender disparity on the nominee slate, it’s practically unfathomable that no black artist has won album of the year since 2008, when jazz veteran Herbie Hancock won for a collection of Joni Mitchell covers.
Aside from a quick suggestion at the very end of the show that “we need to do better,” host Alicia Keys chose to focus on all the bad news outside of the Staples Center. She teamed up with Boyz II Men to sing a last-minute tribute to the late NBA superstar Kobe Bryant (inside the very arena where Bryant spent his entire career with the Los Angeles Lakers), then delivered a lighter-hearted monologue that posited music as a balm to the impeachment trial of President Trump. Maybe nobody cares if the Grammys are burning when the rest of the world is in flames, too.
And when it was all over, the clearest picture of the Grammys’ grand hopes and embarrassing shortcomings could best be seen further down Sunday night’s ballot. That’s where Koffee, a 19-year-old Jamaican singer, won best reggae album for her stylish debut “Rapture.” She was the first woman to win that prize. Ever.
She had made history. The kind that should have been made a long time ago.