Towards the end of Sunday night’s Grammy telecast, outgoing Recording Academy president Neil Portnow spent a few minutes congratulating the organization, and himself, for efforts to improve racial and gender diversity, to a visibly stone-faced audience. A few moments later, pop star Dua Lipa won Best New Artist and quipped that women were finally stepping up, a smirk-worthy reversal of Portnow’s infamous critique of female artists last year, earning cheers from that same audience.
The pair of speeches were a fitting microcosm for the whole evening: powerful women cleaning up the messes of powerful men. Despite the state of severe disarray it was in as recently as last week, this year’s Grammys were a decided improvement over last year’s snoozefest. Hosted by 15-time Grammy winner Alicia Keys, this year’s ceremony leaned heavily into the power of women and was more interesting for it. One of the night’s highlights occurred within the first 15 minutes, when Keys brought out a powerhouse collective to set the evening’s tone: Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Jennifer Lopez, and, to rabid applause, Michelle Obama. Keys kept that vibe going throughout the evening with mixed to positive results. She was great when performing, like her double piano-playing interlude in tribute to legendary pianist Hazel Scott. She was less so as a traditional host, throttled by awkward transitions beyond her control and awkward ramblings and randomness (i.e. John Mayer) that weren’t. Still, her lack in finesse didn’t detract from the spirit of the evening.
That spirit was derived from this year’s slate of mostly-female performers. Whether energized by Portnow’s sexist remarks last year, or simply exhibiting their excellence upon receiving the platform, women consistently delivered charged performances across style and genre. Janelle Monae’s “Make Me Feel” was a jaw-dropping display of sensual showmanship, complete with Prince-like agility and those iconic vagina pants. St. Vincent and Dua Lipa also turned up the temperature with their mash-up of “Masseduction” and “One Kiss” that was part-Versace commercial, part-sexual tension snapper. Newly-minted Grammy winner Cardi B turned “Money” into a glossy Vegas showcase with a Michelle Pfeiffer-esque twerk on top of the piano. Lady Gaga transformed her Oscar-nominated, Grammy-winning duet “Shallow” into a full-stop powerhouse that was a little bit unnerving, and vintage Gaga. Mysterious R&B singer and Best New Artist nominee H.E.R. used her Grammy spotlight to maximum effect, performing “Hard Place” with the confidence and vocal acuity of a seasoned pro, as did Brandi Carlile and Album of the Year winner Kasey Musgraves.
Of course, the Grammys couldn’t help themselves sometimes. The Academy’s desperation for something, or at least viral, once again led them down the path of least sensibility. The worst performance of the night belonged to the utterly bizarre pairing of nominee Post Malone and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, one of the few male acts. Malone’s set began well enough, but soon devolved into a wall of noise unpleasant enough to drive you from the room and make you miss the Aladdin trailer (which on reflection may have been a blessing in disguise). Travis Scott’s performance began with Earth, Wind & Fire and James Blake, but quickly jettisoned them for what looked like a men’s rights rally. Despite being billed as a headliner, Miley Cyrus was relegated to second stringer to Shawn Mendes and Dolly Parton’s tribute, where she out and over-performed her stage mates. Parton was long-deserving of a tribute, but the vocal histrionics that she (and we) were subjected to showed a genuine misunderstanding of her simple-yet-effective catalog. One would hope that, foreseeing the potential carnage, Diana Ross decided that she would be better off performing her own tribute.
Which brings us to the night’s most egregious performance. Under vastly different circumstances, Jennifer Lopez’s high-energy spectacle would’ve been the night’s best. The circumstance here was that she was performing the Recording Academy’s celebration of Motown’s 60th anniversary. Lopez is easily one of the best performers in the business, but she has no solid connection to the music and culture of Motown that justified her selection over the countless black and/or R&B singers who could’ve done it justice (the fact that this was done during Black History Month adds to the disrespect). Lopez is certainly not to blame; the producers should’ve known better than to tap her for this of all tributes, especially as its headliner. It’s the same level of ignorance that led them to cut Drake off during his acceptance speech for Best Rap Song, all but assuring he will never return.
The glaring errors by a troubled production team (seriously, it’s time to reconsider Mr. Erlich) shouldn’t devalue what was a good night for music, and a triumphant one for women in music. Janelle, Gaga, Cardi, Brandi and company offered up the best Grammys telecast in years, and the most compelling proof point for letting girls run the music world. Hopefully the Recording Academy will take note.