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Performance-wise, the 60th Annual Grammy Awards mostly got it right — after all, what’s not to like about a telecast that starts with Kendrick Lamar waking up Madison Square Garden and that reaches its emotional climax with Chris Stapleton and Emmylou Harris tenderly eulogizing Tom Petty?
That doesn’t mean we don’t have questions, like: Why Sting x3? Why did DJ Khaled keep interrupting a perfectly fine Rihanna performance by reintroducing himself? Do the white roses and #TimesUp buttons make up for women’s lack of key nominations and wins? Will hardcore conservatives ever watch this show again? And did Cardi B mean to dress up as a Hot Dog on a Stick employee, or was that just a happy accident?
Some highs and lows from Sunday night’s telecast:
High: Kendrick Lamar’s incendiary opening
Hip-hop’s man of the moment started the show off with a bang. Well, a lot of bangs. His performance of “XXX” had a team of young black male dancers designed to collapse on cue, showing that you don’t have to actually invoke familiar slogans about lives mattering when you’ve got shocking choreography to get your point across.
Low: Sting’s ubiquitousness
First, the former Police-man and Shaggy showed up in a filmed subway busking sketch that went on interminably, and bombed; then, the two of them performed what amounted to a wan advertisement for their upcoming duets album. By the time Sting appeared for a third time, as a presenter, it wasn’t clear whether he was getting three separate incidents of airtime because he’s a reassuring classic rock face among all the hip-hop kids, or because he has some blackmail material on someone at CBS.
High: Pink’s earthbound bravura
When you’ve exhausted every possible stunt, maybe there’s no stunt like going to the opposite end of the Cirque/Spider-woman scale and just singing the living spit out of a powerful ballad. “There’s not enough tape to shut this mouth,” sang the glam-and-tricks-free diva, even as an interpreter for the deaf provided her only acquiescence to any kind of high concept.
Pink performs “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken” at the 60th annual Grammy Awards. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)
High: Kesha’s universal sisterhood moment
All those symbolic white roses on men’s lapels on the red carpet threatened to make the Grammys look like a prom. When it came down to it, as much as the support of men matters, Sunday’s #TimesUp moment belonged to women, as it should. Faces both famous and unfamiliar made up the choir surrounding Kesha, and the emotion was heightened by the fact that her comeback single was now not so much a personal mini-memoir as an anthem for a generation.
Low: “Time’s Up” doesn’t apply when it comes to dude domination
Sexual harassment: bad. Men still getting all the glory: good. Never mind the rarity of women in the top categories. When there was one prominent category, Best Pop Solo Performance, that somehow had five of the most powerful women in music and one guy, it seemed all too ironically preordained who’d get it. You could see that Ed Sheeran — who didn’t bother to show — had it coming, as consolation prize for his own shutout in bigger categories. But P!nk, Lady Gaga, Kesha, and Kelly Clarkson deserved more from the Grammys than one big split vote, particularly in the so-called Year of the Woman.
Low: No-show performers Jay-Z, Lorde, and Ed Sheeran
It was clear why Sheeran declined to show up, since he’d gone down as one of the most noted Grammy snub-ees of the 21st century. (Yes, he won Best Pop Performance and Album, but was overlooked in the major categories.) It was more of a mystery why Lorde and Jay-Z declined their invites. Lorde was reportedly outraged that she hadn’t been invited to do a solo performance, and while Jay was offered a solo slot, maybe he bowed out after sensing a shutout in the wind. Whatever the reasons, all three were glaring performance MIAs.
High: Trolling Trump with a Fire and Fury sketch
Any response from the Twitterer-in-Chief himself would have to wait for morning, if it was going to come, but Cabinet member Nikki Haley was faster on the social media trigger, immediately tweeting to denounce a filmed sketch in which music stars came in to audition to narrate the audiobook of Fire and Fury, with Cher and Snoop potentially inciting conservative riots merely by the act of reading random sentences aloud. The inevitable punchline was Hillary Clinton’s recitation of a passage about the president’s McDonald’s fixation. That noise you heard following this capper wasn’t hip-hop percussion but the sound of millions of heads exploding.
Low: A very variety-show “Despacito”
Most of the night’s staging and production design was imaginative, even when it was at its most simple. “Despacito” was an exception. Maybe there’s only so much you can do with a good-time party song, besides sending out barely dressed dancers; at least it inspired a healthy debate over whether what the choreography was engaged in counted as twerking or just good, old-fashioned dirty dancing.
High: Lady Gaga goes to heaven
Some supporters of #TimesUp were wearing white roses for the night, but only Lady Gaga seemed to actually transform herself into a white rose, with blindingly pale hair and garb to match the illuminated angel wings draped over her piano. Coming right on the heels of Kendrick Lamar’s blowout/epic of an opening performance, Gaga took the satellite stage with just an acoustic guitarist for support — and immediately showed that the Grammys had every intention of doing intimate, too. Not that she didn’t finish big, dramatically speaking, as she finally leaned backward into the wings she’d earned. It wasn’t as overtly political as Kendrick’s performance, but it seemed just as topical: not so much a #MeToo moment as an #UsToo one.
Low: DJ Khaled featuring (or versus) Rihanna
This production number had a great look to it — the female dancers arrayed in everything from Gatsby flapper wear to modern minidresses — and Rihanna has never looked or sounded like more of a dream. But we kept being woken up by DJ Khaled’s yelling. Yes, that’s part of the shtick, but wouldn’t it be just as fine if he merely stood there like a proud papa instead of advertising himself every other line?
High: Childish Gambino’s chillout music
Donald Glover turned in the most low-key performance of the night … which, on some ironic level, might be why it counted as one of the evening’s best. Pretty much everyone else was out to blow the audience away. Glover, conversely, overwhelmed by being willing to underwhelm, picking the unshowy “Terrified” as his Grammy showcase, starting cooly and building up to his Prince-ian falsetto/howl, right about the time he was being joined onstage by child actor J.D. McCrary, who not only appears on the record but will join Glover in the upcoming live-action Lion King remake. Far from terrifying, it was slow-burn exhilarating.
High: The Grammys’ first in memoriam to fans
Let’s hope there aren’t years to come in which the Grammys have to do an in memoriam for concertgoers. Morris, Church, and the Osbornes, all of whom performed at the Route 91 festival where the massacre occurred, couldn’t have been better picks for the job, although a less worn-out song than “Tears in Heaven” might have made it even more moving.
Low: Maren Morris’s accidentally censored speech
These things happen, but Morris’s mic being dead as she set up the tribute to the victims of the Route 91 shooting massacre didn’t help viewers immediately suss out what the country all-star performance of “Tears in Heaven,” performed with Eric Church and Brothers Osborne, was supposed to be about.
High: The Broadway salute
A happy reminder of the days when the Grammys always had at least one “high art” moment on the show. Patti LuPone killed, as expected, but would it have been too much for the Grammys to pair her with Cardi B for a Grammy Moment?
Low: Donny Wahlberg and Hailee Steinfeld patronize country music
At least we’re past the days when awards-show producers bring out hay bales as backdrop for country performers, but was it really necessary for actor/singers introducing a country award to don cowboy hats (something that’s actually a rarity in contemporary country music)? Also, Wahlberg praised Chris Stapleton as “my man,” but you had to wonder how big a fan he is when he mispronounced the “a” in the album title From a Room.
High: Dave Chappelle’s shoutout to missing rap nominees
It was a crime that the final release from A Tribe Called Quest was not up for Best Rap Album, and Chappelle helped rectify that, to the extent he could, by not only calling out the group in his category intro but singling out every member by name. The show would be three hours longer if every presenter tried to right an injustice that way, but it sure felt good when Chappelle did it.
High: Camila Cabello dreams a little dream
Even if you’re not a pro-DACA fan, you’d have to admire it when as non-political a performer as Cabello takes a stand by standing on her own Cuban-born heritage to speak out in favor of the Dreamers. Wouldn’t you?
High: The elevation of Bruno Mars
It’s hard to feel churlish about Mars getting some glory. As his performance with Cardi B showed, he’s one of the era’s great entertainers, and if he now officially represents the middle of the road, it shows just how far down the highway we’ve all come.
Low: The ‘Lemonade’-ization of Kendrick and Jay-Z
Still … Lamar and Jay-Z, both passed over for Album of the Year, in favor of a guy who’d probably be first to admit his album was really a collection of first-rate singles? If the idea is for the Grammys to make the album format itself seem prematurely irrelevant, voters are doing a good job.
High: Chris Stapleton and Emmylou Harris pick Petty’s flowers
Even if Stapleton hadn’t won all three awards he was up for, even if Harris hadn’t just gotten a Lifetime Achievement award, the Grammys couldn’t have picked two worthier pallbearers to pay tribute not just to Tom Petty but all of music’s recently fallen. Has there been a better in memoriam song in memory than “Wildflowers”? Whether the wish it conveys is meant to come true on earth or in heaven, this acoustic number will someday be universally remembered as standing in the same company as Petty’s most classic rockers. And these are the two voices anyone would wish to sing them to sleep, or back from the grave.
Low: Chuck Berry and Fats Domino’s quickie funerals
The Grammys surely thought they were getting cred picks when they got Jon Batiste and Gary Clark Jr. to pay homage to the late Fats Domino and Chuck Berry, respectively. And they were. But the medley was over before it started, and there is no bigger legend looming over the near-entirety of what the Grammys represent than Berry. Ten minutes and 10 superstars would not have been enough to give rock’s truest originator his due, but we would have settled for five each.