Sunday’s 61st Annual Grammy Awards, held at the Staples Center in Downtown Los Angeles, seemed at risk of being defined more by who didn’t show up than by the actual attendees, performers and winners. And there were certainly some conspicuous absences that made this one of the more forgettable Grammy ceremonies in recent memory. But thankfully, a handful of brilliant performances, mostly by women like Brandi Carlile, Janelle Monáe and especially Lady Gaga, saved the day. Jennifer Lopez? Um, not so much.
HIGH: Lady Gaga is a rock star reborn
On a night when all of the Rock category awards were presented off the air, Pantera’s Vinnie
Paul was left out of the In Memoriam segment, and even Black Sabbath’s Lifetime Achievement Award warranted nothing more than a passing mention, it seemed like the only rock ‘n’ roll moment of the entire telecast would be Post Malone’s mashup performance with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But leave it to Lady Gaga to really rock the Grammys.
Joined by her “Shallow” co-writers Mark Ronson and Dirty Pretty Things indie-rocker Anthony Rossomando for a Hedwig-like tour de force, Gaga took the pyro-showered Staples Center stage in a silver-sequined unitard, clubfoot platform boots, rhinestoned eyelids and bleachy bedhead. She delivered an absolutely fierce, fearless performance that rocked every bit as hard as her 2017 Grammy duet with Metallica and was as over-the-top and glamtastic as her polarizing Bowie tribute from the 2016 Grammys. This was a very different “Shallow” from the one viewers knew from A Star Is Born. Gone was the scrubbed-faced, timid Ally Maine. This was 100 percent Gaga.
Giving her first speech of the night, accepting the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for “Shallow,” Gaga made a different sort of impact, saying, “I just want to say I'm so proud to be a part of a movie that addresses mental health issues. They're so important. And a lot of artists deal with that, and we’ve got to take care of each other. So if you see somebody that is hurting, don't look away. And if you are hurting, even though it might be hard, try to find that bravery within yourself to dive deep and go tell somebody, and take them up in your head with you."
[caption id="attachment_4239921" align="alignnone" width="1308"] Lady Gaga accepts the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance award for "Shallow" (with Bradley Cooper) at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards Feb. 10, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for the Recording Academy)[/caption]
LOW: Jennifer Lopez sings Motown is a letdown
There’s no denying that J.Lo is a dynamic performer, but considering that, well, Diana Ross was in the building -- and that Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich is taping a “Motown 60” special this Tuesday with black music luminaries like Ross, Stevie Wonder, Martha Reeves, Thelma Houston, Boyz II Men, Lamont Dozier, Brian and Eddie Holland, and Valerie Simpson, Ehrlich’s decision to have Lopez lead Sunday’s Motown medley made zero sense. Her cheesy, Vegas-y spectacle did little to appease protesters who thought she’d been miscast.
HIGH: Dolly Parton’s tribute is pure “gold”
This all-star homage was decidedly more successful. Only 2019 MusiCares Person of the Year and national treasure Dolly Parton could outshine her goddaughter Miley Cyrus, Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, Little Big Town and even an excessively dramatic Katy Perry -- without breaking a sweat or knocking a single platinum hair out of place. Everyone in the audience from Beck to K-pop boy band BTS was singing along to a spirited Dolly/Miley “Jolene” duet and a stunning near-a cappella trio version of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” with Miley and Maren. But it was the big group finale of the still-relevant feminist anthem “9 to 5” that really had the beloved showbiz icon working the stage as only she can.
LOW: Drake’s speech doesn’t go according to plan
Drake has a longstanding beef with the Grammys, in the past accusing the Academy of being racist and even refusing to submit his music for nomination consideration. This year, he reportedly turned down an invitation to perform on the show. So it was a big deal that he actually showed up to pick up his Best Rap Song award for “God’s Plan” in person. But then producers accidentally cut to commercial in the middle of Drake’s heartfelt acceptance speech — probably making Drake reconsider his decision to attend the ceremony in the first place.
HIGH: Chris Cornell’s kids accept his posthumous award with loud love
The late Soundgarden/Audioslave frontman’s 12-year-old son Christopher Cornell Jr. and 14-year-old daughter Toni Cornell -- the latter wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with their dad’s likeness -- provided the most moving moment of the pre-telecast Premiere Ceremony. “I never thought we’d be standing here without our dad,” began a visibly nervous Christopher, who starred in the music video for "When Bad Does Good,” his father’s winning song for Best Rock Performance. “He was known for many things: a rock icon, the godfather of grunge and the creator of a movement. … But the most important thing he is known to us is for being the greatest father and our hero.”
HIGH: Diana Ross's 75th birthday celebration is a family affair
The Motown legend seemed to be living her best life Sunday, shouting, "Happy birthday to me!" as she sashayed through the Staples Center audience rocking a billowing gown and billowing tresses. And on the subject of family and kids, Ross’s adorable and (also impeccably coiffed) grandson, Raif-Henok Kendrick, practically stole the spotlight from his grandma with his charismatic introduction. A star is born, indeed.
HIGH: Brandi Carlile is no joke
This year’s most-nominated female artist did pretty well, winning in three of her six categories, albeit in three categories that were presented off the air (Best Americana Album, Best American Roots Song, and Best American Roots Performance). But her true winning moment was her understated, substance-over-style performance of her Record/Song of the Year nominee, “The Joke.”
HIGH: Janelle Monáe brings the black girl magic
The Dirty Computer provocateur and Album of the Year nominee challenged CBS censors with a Prince-ly, latex-slick “Make Me Feel” performance that climaxed, so to speak, with backup dancers in puffy pink vulva pantaloons and (presumably) simulated masturbation. Let the vagina have a monologue, indeed.
HIGH: Michelle Obama is the Grammys' first lady
If the Grammys handed out awards for Most Thunderous Applause, Michelle would’ve taken home top honors Sunday. The former first lady easily upstaged host Alicia Keys, Jada Pinkett Smith and even Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez during a group speech that set the tone for the girl-powered evening. In fact, she elicited such deafening shrieks of delight from the A-list audience, she had to wait a good 30 seconds before she could speak. “We’ve got the show to do!” she laughed, trying to get the roaring audience to pipe down. Based on this response, it wouldn’t be surprising if she’s asked to host the Grammy Awards ceremony next year.
HIGH: Jimmy Carter wins a third Grammy term
And speaking of White House icons … Carter won Best Spoken Word Album in 2007 and 2016, and this Sunday, the nation’s oldest living former president picked up another Grammy for his audio memoir Faith – A Journey for All. The 94-year-old cancer survivor beat out youngsters Courtney B. Vance, David Sedaris, Questlove and Tiffany Haddish, and while he wasn’t there to accept in person, his victory was still a highlight of the Premiere Ceremony.
LOW: The big show suffers many no-shows
It was understandable that President Carter sat out this year’s Grammys. It was more disappointing that some unrelated Carters, Jay-Z and Beyoncé, weren’t there to accept their Best Urban Contemporary Album award for Everything Is Love, and Childish Gambino wasn’t there to accept his Song or Record of the Year awards for his political protest song “This Is America.” Additionally, the presentation for Best Pop Vocal Album got moved at the last minute to the pre-telecast Premiere Ceremony -- probably not coincidentally, because the winner of that award was no-show Ariana Grande’s Sweetener. Oh well. At least Drake showed up.