The Grammys returned to New York to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the music industry awards after 15 years on the other coast. The crowd that jammed Madison Square Garden, along with the performers and presenters on two stages delivered an electric charge of protest that frequently had the CBS censors hitting the silence button.
The recording academy voters, in contrast, sent a more conventional message as Bruno Mars danced off with the three top awards – record of the year, album of the year (both for the album 24K Magic) and song of the year (for the lyrics he contributed to “That’s What I Like”) for his largely apolitical, dance-inducing work. 24K Magic also won for Best R&B Album “That’s What I Like” also won for Best R&B Performance and Best R&B Song – seven in all and not a bad haul.
Between his acceptance speeches (which were heartfelt and nonpartisan), and his performances (which were high-energy), Mars may well have gotten more air time than James Corden, hosting the event for the second year running.
Nevertheless, the show, which ran slightly over its allotted 3-1/2 hours, will be remembered for a number speeches and performances that were emotion-filled and distributed pointedly among the issues that have come to roil the entertainment industries: sexual assault and harassment, income parity and glass ceilings in the business, and attacks on values close to the hearts of artists, including racism, immigration and inclusiveness.
Any doubt that there would be holding back was erased with the opening, which featured Kendrick Lamar and a company of dancers, at first in military camouflage against the backdrop of the American flag waving on a digital screen, performing the bitter “XXX.” He was joined by U2’s Bono and The Edge, and after “This Is A Satire” flashed on a screen, the camouflage was replaced by men in re hoodies being shot, one after the other.
It was ferocious. If one’s lens is that of a child of the Sixties, as mine admittedly was, the performance was as shattering as early Bob Dylan singing “The Chimes Of Freedom.” (Why? “Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake / Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsakened /
Tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake / An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.”)
The camera moved offstage, where comedian Dave Chapelle ruefully observed, “The only thing more frightening than watching an honest black man in America,” here he took a short beat, “is being an honest black man in America.” And we were, no pun intended, off to the races.
The mood was somewhat ameliorated by Lady Gaga, in all white, at a white piano draped with gigantic feather angel wings, to sing “Joanne” and “Million Reasons.” There were teardrop diamonds the size of waterbugs adorning her ears. “Time’s up,” she signed off.
Lamar also was a big winner, his first prize coming for “LOYALTY” as best rap/sung performance. Perhaps with a nod to Oprah Winfrey at the Golden Globes, he ended one of his acceptance speeches with “Jay-Z for president.”
The arena certainly made a great case for the show being in New York, even if this was a one-off, the next four years already booked back in L.A. Still, there were massive set changes – including Little Big Town singing Taylor Swift’s “A Better Man” (speaking of messages) on what appeared to be a gargoyle atop the Chrysler building.
Not to be outdone, a pretaped segment later found U2 on a barge in the Hudson River with Lady Liberty as the backdrop, singing “Get Out Of Your Own Way.” Pink sang “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken,” with its rallying call, “To want my share is not a sin.”
Country singers Chris Stapleton (following an appearance the night before on SNL) and Emmylou Harris paid emotional tribute to the victims of massacres in Manchester, England, and Las Vegas before Marin Morris, Eric Church and the Osborne Brothers gave an account of Eric Clapton’s “Tears In Heaven”
And then the Garden sizzled. Many had come bearing white roses, in solidarity with the Time’s Up movement. First came a rallying call from producer/singer/actress Janelle Monáe, artfully bundling many of the issues that have emerged under the banners of #MeToo and Time’s Up, denouncing both sexism in the corporate ranks of the entertainment industry and the acceptance of sexual harassment and assault. “We come in peace but we mean business,” she said. “Time’s up for the abuse of power. We have the power to undo the culture that does not serve us well.”
She was followed by the singer Kesha, accompanied by Cyndi Lauper, Camila Cabello, Julia Michaels and Andra Day and the Resistance Revival Chorus, to sing “Praying,” a raw, swelling cry of anguish against a vicious tormentor that had the singers and, it appeared, much of the arena, in tears. Corden himself seemed undone by the number, calling it “powerful” and thanking Kesha.
After Cabello recited the first verse of Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” we watched U2 backed by the Lady of the Harbor, at the end of which, Bono prompted the censor-button by saying, “Blessed are the sh!thole countries, for they gave us the American Dream.”
Similarly, the rapper Logic followed his performance of the anti-suicide song “1-800-273-8255” with this: “To all the beautiful countries filled with culture, diversity and thousands of years of history, you are not a sh!thole, you are beautiful.”
Another pre-taped bit offered the evening’s comedic high-point. Noting that Grammys also go to spoken-word recordings, many by former presidents, he took us to the scene of auditions for readers of next year’s possible spoken-word Grammy contender, Michael Wolff’s blazing Fire and Fury. After curtly dismissing several readers, he came upon one reading with the book covering her face, reading a disparaging paragraph about Donald Trump. The reader was Hillary Clinton, whom Corden deemed perfect: “That’s it, we’ve got it, that’s the one!” “The Grammy’s in the bag?” HRC asked, the picture of innocence.
Elton John appeared, in full Elton regalia, to sing “Tiny Dancer” accompanied by Miley Cyrus, resplendent in a gauzy scarlet gown that minimized her tatts. John has performed so many times at the Garden the performance had the feel of a homecoming. They were followed by a remarkable one-two punch acknowledging composers Andrew Lloyd Webber (whose Phantom of the Opera turned 30 on Broadway this past week) and Leonard Bernstein (who would be 100 during this year of centennial celebrations).
Ben Platt, who originated the title role in Dear Evan Hansen – whose Broadway cast album also won a Grammy – gave a lump-in-throat inducing rendition of Bernstein’s “Somewhere,” from West Side Story (lyric, Stephen Sondheim). Then Patti LuPone sang “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” (lyric, Tim Rice), the anthemic number from Evita nearly as perfectly as she had in the title role more than three decades ago.
Accepting yet another award, Mars enthused with a bit of a jab at the competition: “Too many ballads tonight,” he scolded, before saluting his father, looking up and calling out, “Look at me, Pop!”
Which was oddly apt, in a different context: Many of the nominees in major categories had a more diverse or pointed message, and many of them, including Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s global smash “Despacito,” went away empty-handed. There was also an odd disconnect between the pro-women message that dominated the evening’s speeches and the blatantly sexist costuming and dancing in several numbers – notably the same “Despacito.”
Everyone was heartily entertained, white roses and shaken fists be damned. You could call it the triumph of look-at-me-pop Pop.