Of course the 2016 Grammy Awards ended with Sofia Vergara shaking her ass in a cardboard yellow taxi while Pitbull and Robin Thicke sang. In a way, it was an inevitable pop culture travesty.
This was an awards show that staged a revolution. That gave us 30 minutes of legendary performances. That brought Hamilton from Broadway history to our living rooms, saw Kendrick Lamar announce himself officially as one of the most important musical voices of our generation, and helped Lady Gaga capture lightning in a bottle with her psychedelically perfect tribute to David Bowie.
Yes, the Grammys would feature all that and then leave us with Pitbull. What else would we expect?
What, honestly, can we think about this year’s Grammy Awards, at once a cruise ship lounge act that was lost at sea, an easy listening radio station's 2 a.m. programming playlist come to life, a spotlight for irrelevance, and yet, still, a showcase for some of the most incendiary and essential musical moments that have been staged in the show's 58 years.
Can we turn back the clock and live in a world where we only watched the 20 minutes featuring Hamilton and Kendrick Lamar and then went on to more enjoyable things? Well if we did that, we'd have missed out on Taylor Swift's epic retort to the current Kanye West controversy during her acceptance speech for Album of the Year.
We’d have missed the opportunity to whine that she won the award instead of Kendrick Lamar (even though we all already suspected that she would.) We’d have missed the opportunity to marvel over the lunacy of a music awards show that would have so many sound issues—music! sound!—and that had the idiotic wisdom to follow the one-two punch of Hamilton and Lamar’s performances with the words, “Now please welcome Seth MacFarlane!”
We’d have missed, at least for this brief moment, living in a world where Demi Lovato’s vocals outshined Adele’s, and where Justin Bieber is a respected musician. We’d have missed Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp, and Joe Perry have a collective midlife crisis before our very eyes.
We’d have missed what were at once the best and the worst Grammy Awards of all-time.
It all started with Anna Wintour opening the night in a fabulous sequined blue jumpsuit and a convincing rendition of Taylor Swift’s “Out of the Woods.” Just kidding! That was a joke about Swift’s very sillly new mom bob. What is very serious is “Out of the Woods,” one of the least fun songs off Swift’s now Grammy-winning album and therefore a very odd choice to kick off the ceremony.
Sure, everything is all rousing swells and melodramatic bridges, but it all sort of devolves into silliness when the lyrics just repeat themselves over and over. But then, you know, Swift set off a glitter bomb and the crowd went wild, so things started off excitingly enough, I guess.
You actually relish and become wistful for the energy Swift relentlessly brings to performances when, for essentially the next 90 minutes, unusual pairings of serviceable singers pose on stage and sleepily perform slow ballads together in the dark.
First there’s Carrie Underwood and—oh my, howdy there—young country hunk Sam Hunt, her voice embarrassingly overpowering his but his tight white t-shirt making it so you’re almost distracted away from noticing. I appreciated the control room’s “yeesh…just zoom in on his bicep” panicked reaction to the strangely menacing, chemistry-free performance.
The Weeknd followed with a medley of hits that were performed in a style that apparently paid homage to Michael Jackson. But can you really call something an homage when it was so terrible? Off-key and with scary goat-bleat vibrato, The Weeknd, typically an explosive live performer, whimpered to a weak death. Guess this is what happens when you ask The Weeknd to perform on a Monday! Hey-o!
Andra Day performed with Ellie Goulding. They sounded very nice. Little Big Town sang “Girl Crush,” a song that was apparently controversial because people thought it was about lesbians when it’s actually about psychotic heterosexual jealousy. They also sounded very nice.
Jackson Browne and the Eagles performed “Take It Easy” in honor of the late Glenn Frey and even snarky millennials stopped live-tweeting for a second, smiled, and thought of their dads. They sounded very nice!
Stevie Wonder performed with a cappella group Pentatonix. Did you know? Their voices are their instruments! Glee, look what you’ve done to us. (But hey—they also sounded nice.) Tori Kelly and James Bay—a who’s who of “who?”—announced themselves understatedly as very talented vocalists and worthy Best New Artist nominees. They, too, sounded nice. But we’re so damn bored!
Bored, it turns out, is a good thing, when presented with the alternative: a Lionel Richie tribute starring the dream team of John Legend, Demi Lovato, Luke Bryan, Meghan Trainor, and Tyrese Gibson. We were all on this cruise ship together, folks, rolling our eyes when Bryan started his swinging snaps and clutching each other’s arms in amazement when Lovato positively slayed her rendition of Richie’s “Hello.” That alone made the Royal Caribbean fever dream nearly worth it.
Consider, then, the Grammys an exercise in tonal whiplash. In quality whiplash. In ambition whiplash. Basically, the Grammys are trying to break our damn necks.
How can you compare something as kitschy as the Richie tribute or the pathetic Pitbull finale with the spine-tingling, axis-shifting performances by the cast of Hamilton and Kendrick Lamar?
The reaction to the performance by the hottest show on Broadway—moving, thrilling, and in every way superlative—suggests that it will be the next millennium before you can get tickets. Seriously, it’s almost deranged how psychotic everyone gets over this show. What happens if you don’t like Hamilton? How quickly do they kill you?
For someone who, like the majority of the world’s plebeians, has not had a chance to see the show on Broadway, it felt like a capital-M Moment to get to witness what all the fuss was about, and to have basis for applauding Lin-Manuel Miranda’s creative accomplishments. It was a huge moment for theatre lovers who don’t normally get recognition like this.
The energy only built when Kendrick Lamar took the stage, bringing the show alive with his power and intensity. His performance was literal fire. The imagery. The meaning. We needed it.
He began with “The Blacker the Berry,” performing in chains, before erupting into his Black Lives Matter anthem “Alright” and ending with a freestyle nod to Trayvon Martin and an image of the word “Compton” emblazoned on an image of Africa.
Considering how worked up conservative (and racist) America seemed to get about Beyoncé’s performance of “Formation” at the Super Bowl, we can only imagine what the response to Lamar’s charged performance will be. And thank god for that.
For the monumental achievement of scale and scope that Lamar’s performance was, Gwen Stefani’s live music video was an achievement in cuteness. (Hey, you try and craft a convincing transition from Kendrick Lamar evoking Black Lives Matter to Gwen Stefani roller skating to the beat of her new single.) It was cute!
In fact, call us crazy, but everything after Hamilton arrived seemed to no longer drain us of our will to live, which so much of the first half of the Grammys aggressively set out to do.
Adele sang “All I Ask,” the song from 25 that makes me cry the most. (When she whimpers, “What if I never love again…?” I die.)
It began with the arguably executable offense of messing up the sound during an Adele performance—I mean, of all people—a goof that we are going to say threw off our queen, who gave an uncharacteristically screechy and strained vocal turn. But she ended with a shout-out to Kendrick Lamar so all is forgiven.
Justin Bieber channeled the college dorm experience he never had, serviceably strumming an acoustic performance of “Love Yourself” that would make all the girls on the quad—and yours truly—dutifully swoon, and then continuing his whole “I’m an artist now!” thing with “Where Are U Now.”
Come to think of it, by the time Lady Gaga showed up for her transcendent, meticulous, perfectly weird homage to David Bowie, we were daresay enjoying and appreciating the Grammy Awards again. With a run like this—oh hey, the Alabama Shakes are killing it, too!—the show was threatening to be actually good!
Fool us twice, you know?
Apparently we have the memory of houseflies. And here to remind us of that were Johnny Depp, Alice Cooper, and Joe Perry—the Hollywood Vampires—to perform the Hot Topic explosion inside a retirement home of my worst nightmares. And what’s that? A star-studded finale featuring Pitbull, Robin Thicke, Travis Barker, and Sofia Vergara in the aforementioned cardboard taxi cab? Send help.
Have we skipped over the winners? Of course. If we talk about the winners you will erupt into a fit of rage.
Yes, Kendrick Lamar and Alabama Shakes are first-time winners. Yes, Swift made history by becoming the first woman to win Album of the Year twice. Yes, Meghan Trainor is Best New Artist because—wait, excuse me?! I’d explain to you how this happened, but I’m going to watch the Hamilton performance again instead.
This is where I would offer my inspired notions on how to fix the Grammy Awards, so that a telecast that teetered so wildly between brilliance and dreck would stabilize. So that artists who deserved recognition would be holding trophies. So that three and a half hours of my life didn’t just pass with utter meaningless, were it not for the brief sighting of Our Lord and Savior Beyoncé at the end.
But can you fix something so broken? With pieces so scattered and no one in charge of cleaning?
This is a mainstream awards group that is tasked with—and burdened with—rewarding the entire world of music. Of course its tastes and proclivities are going to venture more towards populist fare than that cool underground act you love that is soooo much cooler than Taylor Swift.
And this is a television show that has to spotlight that entire world of music, meaning that those segments that I could’ve done without—the country bits, the odd pairings—might have been thousands of fans’ favorite parts, and vice-versa.
So what do we do? We say thanks for Hamilton. We hear Kendrick Lamar. We come to terms with Taylor Swift. We nod politely at the country stuff. And we, by all means, do everything in our power to stop Pitbull. That, at least, we can fix.