Adele’s piano-mic kerplunk. Rihanna calling in sick and Lauryn Hill not showing up. Jack U’s shaggy-dog set of electro-emo with Justin Bieber.
This year’s Grammys were full of the rarest things in pop music today — mistakes. Not social media meltdowns, bizarre rap beefs or surprise album leaks patched over with duct tape on Tidal. These were earnest attempts to find greatness that fell dramatically, unmistakably flat.
And the Grammys were all the better for it.
For as much as fans like to complain about nearly every aspect of the Grammys, it’s perhaps the last public space where musicians must perform their craft on someone else’s terms.
Pop music today is defined by control. From the ubiquity of vocal tuning to the elite super-producers and songwriting summer camps and the omnipresence of laptops in live band setups — so much of modern pop is about leaving nothing to chance.
That insistence on perfection creates its own uncanny aesthetic. Though pop music is perhaps more baseline pleasurable in 2016 than it’s ever been, it’s more and more rare to see any reminders that humans make this music.
On the other hand, it’s also never been a better time for an artist to be maniacally authentic on social media. They can be revealing, uncouth, brash and confused — or entirely in command of their public persona in ways that mass media would never let them have before.
Consider the contrast in those semi-manufactured musical adversaries, Kanye West and Taylor Swift. Watching Kanye’s creative process unravel in real-time has been one of the more educational things in recent music memory, if only to remind us that art often comes from some deeply weird corners of one’s brain, while Swift's multiplatform capabilities of delivering a massive fan base's ideal of the Taylor Swift Experience is unmatched in media or art.
The Grammys are perhaps music’s last space in between those poles. Forced into a live-television production schedule, on someone else’s stage and someone else’s set, they no longer set the terms of their engagement with the audience.
When it works, it’s transcendent. The Eagles and Jackson Browne paying pristine tribute to Glenn Frey just weeks after his death. Kendrick Lamar burning down the stage and earning his place as America’s most meaningful musician. Even Lady Gaga turning the unenviable task of capturing the sprawling musical legacy of David Bowie into a zany and virtuosic medley.
But even when (and perhaps especially when) artists drift out of tune on live TV, or find that their bodies and schedules have failed them at the last minute, it’s a last vestige of the kind of animal fear that can grip even the mighty Adele when they get in front of a crowd. Nowhere else in pop music allows for that kind of surrender to the fates. And somewhere in that dynamic is the thing that makes us relate to musicians as people.
So go ahead: Mock the show, rip the award winners or revel in the perpetual weirdness of the Grammys’ task in capturing a year in music in one telecast. But acknowledge that there is nothing else like it in how it forces artists to reckon with the essence of their jobs.
That is, to make us watch and listen, right here and right now.
Follow @AugustBrown for breaking music news.