Nostalgia is all around us in popular culture, in movies, on TV, and even in various clothing trends. So forgive me for being nostalgic for the kind of musical artists who didn’t mind using televised occasions to make potentially controversial political statements.
At Sunday’s Grammy Awards on CBS, connections to the turbulent era we’re living through were few and far between. Katy Perry wore a sparkly “Persist” armband when she performed off her new song, “Chained to the Rhythm,” which showed her tossing away a pair of rose-colored glasses shortly before a house and white-picket fence disintegrated on the stage behind her.
But for the Grammys’ first two or three hours, most of the collaborations, tributes, and speeches were notably light on politics, current events, or anything like the kinds of statements Kanye West, Madonna, or Prince could be counted on to make back in the day. It was a big night for the very talented Adele, of course, who won both record of the year and album of the year. But even she seemed to feel that something was off on Grammy night (and not just because she re-started her tribute to George Michael due to some kind of glitch).
When the endless slog of a ceremony was almost over and she took home the night’s biggest award, album of the year, Adele tearfully talked about how Beyonce’s “Lemonade” was “so monumental” and how much she adored the singer, who looked on from the audience. Adele genuinely felt awkward about her win, which was touching, and one of the few moments of the night that felt spontaneous and charged.
Beyonce did win one award, for best urban contemporary album, but the dreamlike performance by the pregnant artist, who wore an angelic halo as she sang, was more memorable than what she said when she accepted her award. Of course, it wasn’t the sole responsibility of Beyonce, whose pointed 2016 Super Bowl performance is just one example of her willingness to take chances with political commentary, to bring some kind of resonance with the current moment to the Grammys. But it’s a little surprising that so few other artists felt that desire, or the need to speak truth to power in even a moderately forceful way.
Of course, it’s not unreasonable for artists to want to provide the audience with a fantastical outlet or a bit of an escape, especially during a glitzy celebration of the many different forms of commercially popular music. But even though producer Ken Ehrlich had said he welcomed political statements during the broadcast, much of the 59th Grammy Awards felt like it was taking place in a bubble that was disconnected from the events, protests, and political controversies that have gripped the nation for weeks.
Near the start of the broadcast, Jennifer Lopez — quoting Toni Morrison — had said that “this is precisely the time when artists go to work.” The Grammy producers apparently took that to mean they should have very attractive artists show up, wear sparkly clothing, and sing pleasant songs. The sad fact is, the Grammy organizers couldn’t even get their tributes right, aside from Adele’s rather dirge-like but still heartfelt tribute to George Michael. In the otherwise fairly terrible tribute to the BeeGees, only Andra Day brought the kind of outsized, dramatic flourish that truly paid tribute to the Australian legends. The other artists involved in that particular tribute simply seemed out of their depth, and nothing about their performances felt particularly connected to the heritage of disco or the BeeGees.
At least those artists didn’t encounter the kind of technical problems that beset Lady Gaga and Metallica; James Hetfield’s microphone didn’t work during their hard-rocking duet, which featured lots of flames but not much in the way of a spark.
Host James Corden gamely kept things moving, but at a certain point, the weighty dullness of the ceremony just began to drag everything down.
Thank goodness for A Tribe Called Quest and Busta Rhymes. Just as the Grammys broadcast seemed headed for epic irrelevance, Tribe came out and performed snippets from a couple of their older songs, but then lit into a blistering version of a more recent track, “We the People.” During that room-shaking performance, Rhymes decried “President Agent Orange” more than once.
It was genuinely moving when the group brought a whole host of regular people to the stage, many of them apparently Muslim or Mexican; the song’s politically charged lyrics about who “must go” could not have been more topical. Some of the women were wearing hijabs, and Rhymes explicitly noted the current administration’s attempt to impose a Muslim ban from the stage. Moments later, Tribe’s Q-Tip shouted “Resist” three times. It was the kind of moment that would have fit right in during an awards ceremony during the Reagan or Bush eras.
Two of the most joyful performances of the night came soon after Tribe. At the start of the tribute to Prince, a blast from the past from Morris Day and the Time — in the form of the irresistible “Jungle Love” — had the audience dancing in the aisles. Minutes later, Chance the Rapper, who had earlier won best new artist, clearly energized the room via a performance of “How Great” and “All We Got” with Kirk Franklin and an electrifying array of gospel singers.
One of the night’s most anticipated moments, however, was another swing and a miss. Reasonable music lovers may disagree on this, but Bruno Mars didn’t seem like the most apt choice to pay tribute to the late, great Prince. Given the Grammy organizers’ clear preference for marketable pop stars of the current moment, it probably was unrealistic to hope that the producers would try to reassemble the remaining members of Prince’s most famous backing band, the Revolution. Still, given how great that ensemble was, their absence was keenly felt.
But even if the Grammys were still intent on using Mars, it seemed bordering on sacrilegious for Mars to don an imitation of the Minneapolis legend’s purple suit and use a version of the icon’s distinctive white guitar. Unlike much of the lengthy ceremony, those choices made a real statement. But it may well have been a misguided one.