The Grammys Review: Political, Dramatic, Upsetting

·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment

Had they known in advance, the producers of the Grammys could have promoted Sunday night’s broadcast with the slogan: “The Grammys: Come For The Music, Stay For the Drama.” I mean drama on every level. Going into the evening, the awards ceremony was cast as a battle between two women whose fame requires only one name apiece — Beyoncé and Adele — who were going head-to-head in the major categories this year. Which of these superstars would emerge triumphant?

The lead-up to the final awards — song and album of the year — strongly suggested that if there were any justice, Beyoncé would take the trophies home. For who could deny her regal domination over the proceedings? Emerging like the queen of the universe in gold raiment designed to emphasize the fertile power of pregnancy, Beyoncé presented the night’s boldest spectacle: an elaborate production number in which what seemed like scores of supportive women surrounded her in the performance of two deep cuts from her Lemonade album, “Love Drought” and “Sand Castles.” It was both a fervent feat of vocalizing and a dazzling visual event, as the chair in which Beyonce was seat tipped back, back, back — sure, it was a clever sight gag, but the star knew what was in the back of every viewer’s brain: Watch out! Be careful of those babies you’re carrying!

Contrast this with Adele, who had begun the broadcast with a firm rendition — and also what seemed like the 10,000th televised performance — of her hit “Hello.” It was a nice, if obvious, greeting to start a show hosted by a mostly neutered James Corden. But later in the show, during a salute to George Michael, Adele lost the beat and rhythm of an unwisely rearranged orchestral version of the Michael song “Fastlove.” A verse or so in, she abruptly stopped singing, announced she’d messed up — using a word that had to be bleeped and for which she apologized profusely a number of times — and asked to start the song over from the beginning. If you think the Grammy producers were pulling their hair out (“We’re going to run over!”), any anxiety was doubtless quelled as the second thought dawned on them: “We’re going to get so much media attention for this!!” For Adele, stress and anxiety add to her complex image the way serene control works for Beyoncé: Each confirms to her fans that she is indeed the person her public image presents herself as being.

Politics of the Resist-Trump variety spread across the Grammys like a virus everyone onstage wanted to catch, emerging in places both expected and startling. A Tribe Called Quest, in a duet with Busta Rhymes, confirmed that veteran group’s history of social consciousness with a performance that referred to Donald Trump as “President Agent Orange,” and they surrounded themselves with people of various ethnicities while rap-preaching against Trump’s anti-immigration ban. As always, protest in an art context is nothing if the art isn’t good, but Tribe sounded fantastic — vital and revved-up.

So, in her own way, was Katy Perry, who was allowed to showcase a brand-new single, “Chained to the Rhythm.” For the occasion, she wore a “PERSIST” arm-band, and danced to the song’s genially fractured beat in the midst of a genially fractured stage set, one which knocked down prop walls and ended with Perry in front of a gigantic projection of the preamble to the Constitution. Glorifying yourself in front of letters saying “We The People” may have struck some viewers as rather, ah, grandiose, but Perry knows how to deflate any hot-air pretensions with charming pop airiness.

The politics of the night sprouted everywhere. Laverne Cox — a presenter and human plug for CBS’s upcoming drama Doubt — tucked a plea for LGBT rights into her introduction. Before Cox, presenter Jennifer Lopez quoted novelist Toni Morrison about the importance of art in a time of “despair”: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. … We do language. That is how civilizations heal.” (I guess Lopez had been watching what Trump calls “the Sunday shows” and caught the aggressively disgraceful bull being emitted on all the news networks by administration spokesman Stephen Miller.) Even the promos on CBS conspired to offer a political edge: A chyron running beneath presenter Gina Rodriguez read: “Stephen Colbert: The Smart Choice” — implying that CBS’s late-night host, recently increasing his ratings as he steps up his Trump jokes, is the guy you smart people out there will watch instead of that other fun-lover, Jimmy Fallon.

For sheer, pure pleasure, it was hard to top the beginning of the salute to Prince, when The Time — for whom Prince had written hits — performed some of their slinky signature tunes with leader Morris Day and the camera cut to superstars in the audience imitating his dance moves. (As for Bruno Mars donning a ruffled, purple, spangled Prince suit to perform “Let’s Go Crazy”? Well, it was sincere, but it also made me squirm a little: Homage is one thing, but dressing up like Prince when you really can’t replicate his guitar work is a bit much.)

In the end, Beyoncé wuz robbed. Okay, hand Adele song of the year for “Hello.” But to also give her the best-album Grammy for 25 over Beyonce’s rich, complex, magisterial Lemonade? No, this simply was not right — as even a tearful Adele acknowledged from the stage, prompting sisterhood-tears in turn from Beyoncé. If the night ended on a rather bummer note, it was also the wrap-up to a Grammy show that was a lot more exciting and involving than a Grammy show deserves to be.

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