Despite putting on an entertaining show, the Grammys remain overshadowed by controversies
The last few years have seen the Grammy Awards shrouded in a cloud of controversies. Following criticism over the low female representation at the male-dominated event in 2018, The Recording Academy’s long-serving president Neil Portnow faced backlash after making matters worse. He said that female artists needed to “step up”. He was subsequently forced to step down, and replaced in 2019 by Deborah Dugan, who became the first woman to head the organization. But just months later, she was unceremoniously relieved of her duties in early 2020 after being accused of bullying her assistant. On her way out, she raised concerns about alleged behind-the-scenes corruption, claiming to have witnessed voting and financial irregularities at the organization.
It’s under the spectre of such scandals that we inched towards this year’s show, only to hit yet another snag along the way. The Weeknd’s ‘Blinding Lights’, arguably 2020’s biggest global hit was inexplicably shut out of the nominations. The song that had garnered widespread critical and commercial success, its creator (and his fantastic pop album After Hours) was also snubbed. The singer responded to these omissions by first criticising and then boycotting the Grammys. Many of his peers – Drake, Wiz Khalifa, Nicki Minaj, Halsey – expressed shock and offered support, with several lashing out against the award show. Allegations were once again levied that the selections come down to, in Halsey’s words, “behind-the-scenes private performances, knowing the right people, campaigning through the grapevine, with the right handshakes and ‘bribes’ that can be just ambiguous enough to pass as ‘not bribes’.”
Zayn Malik then chimed in with his own critique, saying there is no nomination consideration “unless you shake hands and send gifts”. Meanwhile, Fiona Apple was upset that Dr. Luke – the producer who allegedly assaulted singer Kesha – had been given a nomination (for his work on Doja Cat’s ‘Say So’) under the alias Tyson Trax. And Justin Bieber wasn’t happy that he was nominated in the pop categories, while the rest of the planet wasn’t happy that Justin Bieber was nominated at all.
The road to the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards was, in short, quite bumpy. And when we finally arrived at Sunday’s celebrations, the Academy did put on an entertaining show but never quite managed to dispel the cloud that hovered over the event.
Trevor Noah was an amicable presence as the host, shuttling all over the place across a sprawling venue that had to be set up in accordance with COVID-19 restrictions. But his humour, when it wasn’t falling flat, was mostly toothless, as he went after easy targets like the British royal family instead of skewering more relevant issues and addressing the proverbial elephant in the room.
The main nominees were all in attendance, a welcome change from the virtual conference call aura of other pandemic-era ceremonies, like the excruciatingly dull Golden Globes 2021. Also included in the event were personnel from shuttered independent venues who presented some of the awards while highlighting the plight of these pandemic-affected businesses and sites.
The telecast itself offered a mix of live and pre-recorded performances but never made it clear which ones were which, leaving viewers playing a guessing game, as they tried to figure out who was live and who was not, who was actually singing and who was merely miming.
From Harry Styles and his instantly iconic feather boa opening the show with a funky rendition of ‘Watermelon Sugar’ to Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B’s controversial, provocative performance of ‘WAP’, there were several water cooler moments in the ceremony. A couple of the routines along the way (like Silk Sonic’s rendition of ‘Leave the Door Open’) did end up feeling more like music videos than mini live concerts.
As for the awards themselves, the results were more scattershot than usual. Unlike last year when teen sensation Billie Eilish was the big winner, there was no sweep at this year’s ceremony. The most awarded artist of the evening was Beyonce who took home four trophies (Best Music Video for ‘Brown Skin Girl’, Best R&B Performance for ‘Black Parade’, as well as Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song for ‘Savage’ with Megan Thee Stallion). As the telecast kept reminding us, Queen Bey became the most-awarded woman in the show’s history. But all her awards came in the genre categories, as she was, once again, completely overlooked in the general fields.
The Big Four instead went to four different artists: Billie Eilish (Record of the Year for ‘Everything I Wanted’), Taylor Swift (Album of the Year for Folklore, her third time winning this trophy), H.E.R. (Song of the Year for ‘I Can’t Breathe’) and Megan Thee Stallion (Best New Artist).
There was a certain degree of whiplash as the Academy yo-yoed from artist to artist. There was Eilish losing the Song of the Year prize to H.E.R.’s ‘I Can’t Breathe’ and Best Pop Solo Performance award to Harry Styles’ ‘Watermelon Sugar’ before unexpectedly winning the coveted Record of the Year trophy for ‘Everything I Wanted’ at the end of the ceremony. Then you had Dua Lipa beating Taylor Swift in the Best Pop Vocal Album category, then losing to Swift in the Album of the Year category (somehow simultaneously making each album both better and worse than the other), and Swift herself losing in all five of her categories before winning the sixth and final one. It all seemed a bit random.
And while several acts left the ceremony empty-handed, at the end of the day, it was fairly obvious that the actual losers were the Grammys themselves.
Major artists have become weary of the show. Several are now openly speaking against the event. Beyonce even declined to perform at the ceremony, while seething BTS fans think the Grammys just used the South Korean band for ratings. Speaking of which, viewers no longer seem particularly interested in the show either. Ratings hit an all-time low this year as – in keeping with the ongoing award telecast slump – viewership drastically dropped.
The scandals are overshadowing the awards, making us wonder if these accolades even mean anything at this point. It has almost become a tradition that a major award will inexplicably be given to a Caucasian artist who will then apologise to their more deserving black counterpart(s), a practice that is getting more awkward by the year.
The Academy’s attempt to address the controversies in the form of a speech by interim president Harvey Mason Jr. was delivered in a package that made it seem more like a PR move than a genuine effort, and it made it even more clear just how much things need to change. If it wants to remain relevant, The Recording Academy needs to get its act together, address the allegations that have been raised, come up with a fair and transparent voting process, and stop alienating both artists and their fan-bases.