December 18, 2018, 14:58

The 2018 Grammys: Kendrick Lamar’s Great Open, Jay-Z for President, Lorde’s Snub |

The 2018 Grammys: Kendrick Lamar’s Great Open, Jay-Z for President, Lorde’s Snub |

On Sunday, in New York, the Grammy Awards telecast is preceded by
something called the Premiere Ceremony, when the majority of the
awards—seventy-five of the eighty-four categories—are meted out in the
shadow of the main event. This year, Paul Shaffer was the master of
ceremonies. “I am happy, proud as punch, to be host,” he announced to
the room. Because of the outsize pomp and glamour of the telecast, the
Premiere Ceremony inevitably has a junior-varsity feel, even though it
includes many of the big genre categories: Best Pop Vocal, Rock, R. &
B., Jazz, Folk, Latin Pop, Dance/Electronic, Americana, Reggae, and
Alternative Music Albums, to start.

The very existence of the Premiere Ceremony (“You are good, maybe very
good, but still not good enough for television!”) would be kind of
funny—it at least lays certain priorities bare—if it weren’t so
dispiriting. Shaffer barked some instructions to the nominees: if you
win, wave your hands around, so the camera can locate you. “You get
forty-five seconds, and the clock starts ticking when you start walking
down the aisle,” he warned. Congratulations!

The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was called onstage to present a
string of trophies, including one to the art director Lawrence Azerrad,
who won Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package, for “The Voyager
Golden Record: 40th Anniversary Edition,” a reissue (of
sorts) of the golden phonograph records placed aboard Voyager I and II,
the two exploratory spacecraft launched by NASA in 1977. (The idea was
that the discs might communicate something about life on Earth to
extraterrestrial creatures.) Following a successful Kickstarter
campaign, Ozma re-released the
record last year—it included greetings in fifty-five languages, natural
sounds, and popular music from around the world—on three translucent,
heavyweight vinyl LPs. Azerrad dedicated the award to Chuck Berry, whose
“Johnny B. Goode” was selected for inclusion by Carl Sagan. After his
win, I asked Azerrad if he thought it held up as a representation of
mankind. The creators of the record made a conscious decision not to
include any images of war or disease or famine or poverty,” he said.
“It’s an idealistic self-portrait—something we can aspire to live up to.
It’s a picture of the best of ourselves.”

Azzerad could have also been talking about the evening to come, which
wasn’t apolitical, exactly, but nonetheless felt languid, gentle,
bloodless—the fraught, impassioned speeches that felt so omnipresent at
the Golden Globes never quite came. Many artists wore or carried white
roses on the red carpet, in ostensible support of the #MeToo movement,
but the gesture, orchestrated by a group called Voices in Entertainment,
felt fractured, obligatory, and rushed. I asked Reba McEntire, who won
for Best Roots Gospel Album, about the rose’s significance. Her response
was kind and judicious, but hardly strident. “My interpretation is,
basically, I’m going to treat you like I want to be treated,” she told
me. “That’s the golden rule. I think if we did that more often, a lot of
these problems would be nonexistent.”

Maybe the better question isn’t why weren’t the Grammys morepolitical, but why any awards show ever is: “Fame is like a river, that
bareth up things light and swollen, and drowns things weighty and
solid,” Francis Bacon wrote, in 1625. One significant exception among
the performers was Kendrick Lamar. He opened the telecast with “XXX.,” a
song from his most recent album, “DAMN.,” which was up for seven awards,
and won five. Lamar stood before a flapping American flag, among a troop
of dancers dressed for combat. His eyes were fixed downward. He was
nearly motionless, letting his voice—which is nimble and singular—do the
necessary work. “XXX.” is unambiguous in its indictments of the
brutalities routinely enacted against black Americans. “I can’t even
keep the peace, don’t you fuck with one of ours,” he warned. A person
can only bear so much weight, he seemed to say: “It be murder in the
street, it be bodies in the hour.” The comedian Dave Chappelle offered
periodic interjections (“The only thing more frightening than watchinga black man be honest in America is being a black man being honest in
America”). The cumulative results were beautiful and tense.

The problem of having Lamar open the show was that everything else felt
tepid by comparison. The Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi and his
collaborator, the rapper Daddy Yankee, capably ran through “Despacito,”
the best-selling and most-streamed single of 2017. (Justin Bieber is
featured on the remix, but did not appear). Childish Gambino, the
musical alias of the actor Donald Glover, performed “Terrified,” a
creeping and eerie song about his own ascendency. “I’m going to eat you
alive,” he sang, his voice high and just deranged enough to register
real menace. Chappelle, who also won Best Comedy Album, for his “The Age
Of Spin & Deep In The Heart Of Texas,” returned to present the award
for Best Rap Album. He began by pointing out that A Tribe Called Quest’s
sixth and final record, “We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service,”
wasn’t nominated, although it really should have
(Lamar won, and ended his speech with a loving shout-out to his
forebear, Jay-Z: “Jay for President!”)

An homage to the victims of the Manchester and Las Vegas tragedies, in
which the Brothers Osborne, Eric Church, and Maren Morris performed Eric
Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” made no specific mention of gun control,
although Church did manage to say something about “the healing power of
music.” Janelle Monáe, wearing a Time’s Up pin, advocated for equality
and gender parity before introducing Kesha, who performed “Praying”—a
song presumably addressed to her producer and alleged assaulter, Dr.
Luke—backed by a chorus of women that included Cyndi Lauper, Camila
Cabello, Julia Michaels, and Andra Day. The host, James Corden, said
something inane about music speaking louder than words; U2 played “Get
Out of Your Own Way” in front of the Statue of Liberty. In a skit
coordinated by Corden, Cardi B., DJ Khaled, and Hillary Clinton read
excerpts from Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” aloud, as if auditioning
for the audiobook. Chris Stapleton and Emmylou Harris performed an
acoustic tribute to Tom Petty, whose “Wildflowers” is a poignant,
generous coda—a song about peaceably letting go of the people we love
the most. When I spoke with Stapleton after the performance, he told me
that “Wildflowers” is his favorite album of all time. “Sonically,
song-wise, I judge all other things by that,” he said. “It was a really
hard thing for me to do tonight. I was tearing up a bit, before I had to
walk up and do that.”

The Grammys telecast is chiefly about live performances, which stack up
quickly, and by a couple hours in, it’s easy to feel inured to most
everything. That fatigue is profound; by 10:45 P.M., the ghost of
Leonard Cohen could have drifted down in the basket of a hot air balloon
to collect his award for Best Rock (!) Performance, and I still would’ve
yawned. There were a few upsets—Bruno Mars’s “That’s What I Like” beat
“Despacito” for Song of the Year, and then his “24K Magic” beat it
again, for Record of the Year—and Jay-Z, who was nominated for eight
awards, was shut out entirely, though he did recently irritate and
confuse the
which seems like some sort of accomplishment.

The rapper Logic, a nominee for Song of the Year, for his
“1-800-273-8355,” inadvertently encapsulated the present state of
political engagement at the end of his performance, delivering a
breathless screed in favor of basic equality and decorum. Later,
speaking to reporters, he explained himself: “If our President can say
those beautiful places are shitholes, I can stand up and say that they
are not shitholes.”

Lorde, the only female nominee for Album of the Year, was also the only
Album of the Year nominee not asked to perform a solo song (she was
reportedly invited to participate in the Petty tribute, but declined; she also
opted out of appearing on the red carpet). Neil Portnow, president of
the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, equivocated when
asked about her absence after the show, saying only that it’s the
Academy’s responsibility to curate a “balanced” program. “What you saw
was our best judgment on how to do that,” he said. The press corps
groaned, quietly. As the Times pointed out last week, only nine per
cent of the eight hundred and ninety-nine Grammy nominees in the last
six years have been women; on Sunday, only one of the televised awards
went to a woman (Alessia Cara, who won Best New Artist). Which meant
that when Bruno Mars finally took home the big award—for “24K Magic,” an
honor he deserved as much as
felt like a very particular kind of slight.


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