Once again, the Grammy Awards got caught with their pants around their ankles.
It’s a show that confused some band named Twenty One Pilots accepting an award in their underwear for a “moment”—for an encapsulation of this time in music, in our culture, in our history, really. But then left it up to Adele to give the credit that was due to Beyoncé for her transformative album Lemonade.
We talk a lot about #OscarsSoWhite and politics colliding with entertainment awards shows. And there is no awards show that is more culturally embarrassing than the Grammy Awards.
“My artist of my life is Beyoncé,” Adele said, shaking as she accepted the Album of the Year trophy for 25, the award that everyone, including the British chanteuse, felt should go to Beyoncé.
“This album for me, the Lemonade album was so monumental, Beyoncé,” she continued. “So monumental, and so well thought-out and soul-bearing, and we all got to see another side to you that you don’t always let us see. And we appreciate that. All us artists here adore you. You are our light.”
It was a gracious, beautiful tribute to Beyoncé and the impact she has had on us this past year, but it’s incredibly pathetic of the Grammy Awards to make Adele the one who had to give it.
“The way you make me and my friends feel, the way you make my black friends feel, is empowering,” she finished, as Beyoncé wiped tears from her eyes. “You make them stand up for themselves. I love you, and I always will.”
It was important that Adele stressed how profound the success of Lemonade has been on the black community, that she made sure Beyoncé knew that she helped them feel seen and empowered. Because it was the only damn time that night that it happened.
It was a disastrous show filled with snooze-worthy performances, technical mishaps, and artists most people hadn’t ever heard of—and the slighting of those artists of color we have.
The Chainsmokers accepted an award on David Bowie’s behalf. Pentatonix gave an a capella tribute to Jackson 5 that made you wonder: What did the Jackson 5 ever do to the Grammy Awards?
It was a three-and-a-half hour shit-show, and yet phenomenal, politically powerful performances from A Tribe Called Quest, Chance the Rapper, and a tribute to Prince were all stuffed into the last 30 minutes, the grand finale of which was Adele apologizing on behalf of institutionalized racism.
At one point in the night, Recording Academy President Neil Portnow came out and stood smugly while a white lady on a trumpet played “America the Beautiful.” The song “captures the essence of our country and reminds us that we are and always will be one people from sea to shining sea,” Portnow said. “In times of triumph and tragedy we turns to song and the abiding power of music to lift our spirits, soothe our souls, and remind us that everything will be OK.”
And then, minutes later, his organization did what it always does: Denied the very music that does that the validation, recognition, and, in turn, amplification it deserves and needs to keep having that power.
This is not on Adele. Everyone loves Adele. Sunday night was a triumph for her, from her flawless performance of “Hello” that opened the show, to her pointed selection of “Fastlove” to pay tribute to George Michael—a song about casual gay sex; we see you, Adele—to her classy insistence on restarting the song to get the tribute right, and then her eloquent and impassioned speeches acknowledging both what she deserved and what others (Beyoncé) did.
25 was a great album. “Hello” was an amazing song. The split everyone was rooting for was Adele takes Record of the Year and Beyoncé gets the Album of the Year that it would be a crime to deny her.
But then again, this was all to be expected.
Sure, Beyoncé has no shortage of trophies—she is the most nominated female artist in history, to boot—but the industry’s biggest honor, Album of the Year, has confoundingly eluded her. Just as it has eluded so many other black artists who have done as much work, if not more, as she has to change the face of music. And our culture.
Beyoncé, Prince, Mariah Carey, and Kanye West have never won Album of the Year. (It’s lazy to add the common gripe “and Taylor Swift has two…” but Taylor Swift has two, a blaring metaphor for our times right now.)
Only 10 black artists have won Album of the Year in Grammy history: Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, Lionel Richie, Lauryn Hill, Outkast, Herbie Hancock, Whitney Houston, and Quincy Jones. No Marvin Gaye. No Aretha Franklin. No Usher or Rihanna or Sam Cooke or The Temptations or Missy Elliott or Kendrick Lamar or Diana Ross or Mary J. Blige or James Brown or Jimi Hendrix or Nina Simone or Etta James or Tupac or Jay Z.
Herbie Hancock was the last black artist to win Album of the Year. He won in 2008... for an album of Joni Mitchell covers. At the 2014 Grammys, Macklemore beat Kendrick Lamar for Best Rap Album. Kanye West is the only rapper to win Best Rap Album over a white artist.
The Grammy Awards certainly have a whiteness problem.
It’s a night that began with host James Corden presciently proclaiming, “This is a disaster,” part of a bit he was doing in which this big production number that he had planned was falling down around him. It turned out to be a metaphor for the entire music institution he had been tasked with emceeing.
There were great moments, sure.
If you managed to stay awake through Kelsea Ballerini and Lukas Graham doing their very own prom-night performance from a WB teen drama, you were treated to Beyoncé’s epic slaying of the patriarchy with her in-another-league performance of “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles,” all while in full Mother Mary garb and celebrating the hell out of motherhood and fertility.
It was a Grammy Awards stage triumph, and it was immediately followed by James Corden in a cardboard cutout of a car trying to get J. Lo and Faith Hill to do karaoke to “Sweet Caroline” but nobody knew the words. Foolishness.
Everyone tried to get their politics in here and there. J. Lo started her presenting bit by quoting Toni Morrison, because this is 2017 and that’s something we’re going to have to accept as normal now, and Michael Jackson’s daughter was, for some reason, there, plugging pipeline protests.
Katy Perry sang that godawful new song of hers (love you, Katy Perry), and ended her Experimental Theatre 101 class final performance by beaming the Constitution onto the set behind her. Sure. A bunch of nonsense followed, like an unnecessary tribute to the Bee Gees that, once Demi Lovato sang her last note of “Stayin’ Alive,” completely flatlined.
Then it was finally late enough to bring out most of the black people.
A Tribe Called Quest killed it. Busta Rhymes called out “President Agent Orange,” decried the Muslim ban, and shouted “We the people!” as immigrants crashed through a makeshift wall. As the group ended by repeating, “Resist! Resist! Resist!” they proved that if you’re going to make a statement, go ahead and make it already. It was electrifying in a way the show hadn’t yet been.
The Time and Bruno Mars honored Prince, and if we have time for Ed Sheeran to lullaby us all into a nap why do we not have time for that to go on for at least the five minutes longer that it—and Prince—deserves?
Chance the Rapper gave the kind of spiritual, palpitating performance that should inspire any young person who witnessed it. Naturally, though, the Best New Artist winner, a rapper, was slotted way past everyone’s bedtime.
And then they rob Beyoncé.
It’s an award, something that should seem like it doesn’t matter. But it does.
If we’re going to make it through this, if we’re going to stay empowered and safe and seen, we need to do better, and that means noticing when institutions with power and influence don’t do better by us. If those who are too often invisible are going to continue to be disappeared and not validated, we need to not stand for it. We need to channel our inner Adele, who has in her own right channeled her inner Beyoncé.
And therein lies the problem.
“It’s important to me to show images to my children that reflect their beauty,” Beyoncé said as she accepted an award earlier in the night. “So that they can grow up in a world where they can look in the mirror, first at their own families as well as the news, the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the White House, and the Grammys, and see themselves, and have no doubt that they’re beautiful, intelligent, and capable. This is something that I want for every child of every race, and I feel it’s vital we look at this past and recognize our tendencies to repeat our mistakes.”
Hmm…”our tendencies to repeat our mistakes.” I wonder if the Grammys was listening.