With producer Ken Ehrlich stepping down after a decades-long career, the Grammy broadcast in 2021 was already set to be reinvented. Sunday night was an extraordinary opportunity for a complete reboot when Covid-19 prompted a deeper rethink and James Corden’s Ben Winston took over the production alongside longtime BET Awards producer Jesse Collins (who had just worked on The Weeknd’s hit Super Bowl performance).
It performed fantastically well for the most part, but only as a broadcast. The Grammys have historically been a stronger and more inclusive television program than the often-problematic nominations and awards process (from which the producers of the broadcast show have always been independent, an argument that is difficult to explain to musicians’ audiences alike). This year, the divide was more pronounced than ever. Fixing a Recording Academy that has never won Beyoncé the Album of the Year award would be much more difficult than producing a few hours of wildly exciting television.
- Harry Styles is incredibly talented in this field, and it just does not mean singing. Hip-hop could, of course, be the first port of call for someone of a certain generation looking for the rock stars of the twenty-first century. But there was another reaction standing right there in a green feather boa, offering the most swaggering, charisma-dripping show-opening appearance by a dude in tight black leather since Elvis Presley sang “Trouble” in his 1968 comeback special. And there was no Dev Hynes on bass for Elvis.
- Haim made a lasting impact on the audience. The L.A. sisters are far from beginners, but they were well aware that they were performing in front of their largest-ever crowd, which, according to social media, included a surprising amount of people who had never heard of them before. They went all out, casually swapping instruments while playing “The Steps,” one of their best, most intensely Los Angeles-y tracks, which raises an intriguing question: What if Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks weren’t just collaborators, but the same person?
- Dua Lipa was brilliant. When you equate Dua Lipa’s dominant performance to her hesitant first Saturday Night Live appearance in 2018, you’ll see a pop star who has used her time in quarantine to train for global supremacy. At the start of her show, the hypnotic images indicated she was luring us into some esoteric new religion of her invention — maybe Duanetics — of millions of people willing to participate.
- Bruno Mars should’ve gone full Wandavision. Then there was his performance with Anderson. Paak as Silk Sonic was downright uncanny in its evocation of 1970s vocal-group R&B (greta Van Fleet sound nothing like Led Zeppelin when measured against this duo’s standards of accuracy). Then, in the In Memoriam section, Bruno reappeared with a brilliant take on Little Richard, bringing the crowd back to the 1950s. However, this left broad swaths of the twentieth century unchanged. While this was a surprising mistake, there is still next year.
- Taylor Swift may be about to embark on a journey into the unknown. So, no, her team didn’t plant an entire forest 30 years ago just to be primed for Taylor’s cottagecore-meets-woodnymphcore medley masterstroke, but can you be sure they didn’t? The tempting fairy-tale atmosphere of the show pointed at yet another new course for the night’s top winner, set in what looked like an other-dimensional version of Long Pond Studio and embellished with some Stevie Nicks-onian twirls.
- Mickey Guyton’s success was a paradigm transition in and of itself. The beautifully blunt “Black Like Me,” which uses the musical and lyrical tropes of radio country to send a message that the genre isn’t yet ready to convey: “If you think we live in the land of the free/You should aspire to be black like me,” by the first single black woman in country music to appear at the Grammys, was one of the night’s best performances.
- The most old-Grammys moment of the evening was Lionel Richie doing his version of Kenny Rogers’ “Lady.” It was perhaps an unusual decision to lavishly praise Rogers, considering the number of musicians who suffered in the previous year. On the other hand, seeing at least one singer over the age of 50 participate was encouraging, demonstrating that the Grammys will welcome youth without going maximum Logan’s Run.
- Megan Thee Stallion restored TikTok to its rightful place. Megan is one of the few musicians that can produce songs that can be used as chopped-up “sounds” inside the TikTok world, sparking competitions, dances, and other Gen Z-related material that can conquer the app fully. On the other hand, her regal medley served as a reminder of who owns those tracks and that their full influence can only be realized after all of the sonic elements have been reassembled.
- Cardi B and Megan screamed “WAP” as they stood in the center of history. Nothing could make would-be cultural cops like Ben Shapiro seem lesser than the performance’s gleeful good humor. In reality, if you looked closely, you might see Ben stuck within the giant boot’s lucite sole.
- Do not try to catch Beyoncé off guard. Beyonce’s tentative response to Trevor Noah’s declaration that she had teamed up with Alison Krauss for a Grammys album spoke volumes about decades of understandable cynicism toward the Grammys.
- The show should have been opened or closed by BTS. BTS, who beamed themselves across the ocean to L.A. by sheer force of will, presented the evening’s single most visually beautiful moment as they showed off their rooftop view of Seoul, had more energy and excitement on the show than any other act. It seemed like a minor provocation to place them in the second-to-last spot.