Heading into this weekend, there was reason to expect one of the worst Grammys ever. Awards shows have struggled to figure out a pandemic-appropriate format that doesn’t suck, and the Grammys, mired in corporate scandal and historically baffling taste, seemed unlikely to crack the code. So, a surprise: last night’s Grammys were pretty damn good. By actually focusing on music instead of the Grammys themselves, the Recording Academy successfully put on a show that felt relevant and fun to watch.
Things looked dodgy at the start. Instead of happening inside the Staples Center, the show overlooked it from across the street, splitting the program into an awards area on a rooftop, which had a country club luncheon vibe, and an indoor multi-stage that resembled the setup of Later… with Jools Holland. As host, Trevor Noah’s job was less about telling good jokes and more about ferrying the viewer back and forth between the two venues with as little awkwardness as possible. This proved an inspired way to do things. The heart of the Grammys this year was the stacked slate of performances.
Style god Harry Styles kicked things off with a soulful rendition of his hit “Watermelon Sugar,” wearing a leather suit, a green boa, and absolutely zero shirts. He passed it off to Billie Eilish and HAIM, and it appeared that the show would use a similar round robin format for the rest of the night, but the performances steadily grew more elaborate as the night went on. Taylor Swift went all-in on her cottage-core aesthetic, singing a medley of her 2020 songs in a makeshift forest wonderland. Brandy Carlile sang a moving tribute to the late John Prine. Lil Baby performed “The Bigger Picture” in a staged scene of police brutality, walking up to a wall of police officers with riot shields, but instead of handing them a Pepsi, he walked right past them and climbed on top of a cop car against a backdrop of fireworks.
But the highlight of the night was hands-down the first televised performance of the seemingly un-televisable “WAP.” As the moment approached, America watched and wondered, “Just how are they going to do this?” By seemingly spending half of the budget for the night on one hell of a spectacle. After Megan Thee Stallion ran through an impressive jazz-age inflected performance of her hits “Body” and “Savage,” Cardi took the stage, where a giant platform stiletto materialized in a matter of minutes, complete with a dancer rolling around in a pile of cash inside. Megan joined her later to roll around on top of a massive bed. The whole enterprise captured the best part of “WAP” – it’s incredibly sexy, but also incredibly fun. Watch it again and note the pure, unfiltered joy on Post Malone’s face when Cardi approaches the heel of the aforementioned giant stiletto, which doubled as a stripper pole. We are all Post Malone.
The awards were, blissfully, more of an afterthought. The big news of the night belongs to Beyoncé, who took home her 28th Grammy, the best R&B performance award. for “Black Parade.” That makes her the woman and singer, male or female, with most career wins. In a moment that might’ve been shocking to anyone watching the Grammys for the first time, Taylor Swift won album of the year for Folklore. (Is it really an awards show if we don’t get shocked-Taylor face?) Megan Thee Stallion took home three trophies, for best rap song, best rap performance, and best new artist. Harry Styles won his first Grammy for Best Pop Solo Performance, which he collected in another spectacular boa, this one purple. Pre-broadcast, Burna Boy won Best World Music Album for his epic Twice As Tall and Thundercat won Best Progressive R&B album for It Is What It Is. It was also quietly a big night for New York City legends, with Nas and the Strokes both taking home their first ever wins.
But the awards portion worked last night because it was so tastefully short. Instead of having two celebrities engage in forced pre-award banter, the Recording Academy had employees of independent music venues, struggling during the pandemic, talk a little about themselves before reading out the winner. A small gesture, but it gave the evening focus where it has so often sagged in the past. Music’s Biggest Night was about music instead of the night itself. Even though we’ll all (hopefully) be able to get in a room together next year, the Grammys will be better if they can keep their priorities straight.