Young star Billie Eilish shines at the 2020 Grammy Awards, but the death of Lakers star Kobe Bryant still sets the tone.
Ecstasy and agony gripped the 62nd Grammy Awards ceremony Sunday in Los Angeles, as 18-year-old L.A. musical wunderkind Billie Eilish swept the four most prestigious award categories on the same day an L.A. cultural icon, Laker superstar Kobe Bryant, died in a helicopter crash.
Just hours before the Grammy ceremony began, news broke about the death of Bryant, and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, along with seven others, in the tragic accident barely 30 miles away from Staples Center, the sports arena in which the Grammy Awards show played out and which for two decades had been the home court for Bryant’s stellar career.
“Tonight is for Kobe!”hip hop soul singer Lizzo shouted as the show began, belting out the opening line “I’m crying!” from her nominated song “Cuz I Love You” to get the evening started.
Host Alicia Keys promptly acknowledged the impact of the news of Bryant’s death on the best-laid plans of Grammy show organizers, stating immediately upon taking the stage “Here we are together on music’s biggest night celebrating the artists who do it best.
“But to be honest with you,” she added, “we’re all feeling crazy sadness right now, because early today, Los Angeles, America and the whole wide world lost a hero. I’m literally standing here heartbroken in the house that Kobe Bryant built.”
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Sunday’s Grammys were dominated by three L.A. artists — Billie Eilish, Tyler, the Creator and Nipsey Hussle — and its greatest athlete, Kobe Bryant.
Nevertheless, it became a stellar night for Eilish, whose low-fi hit single “Bad Guy” and darkly throbbing, introspective album “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” swept record, album, song and new artist for only the second time in Grammy history, and won all six awards for which they were nominated. (Yacht-rock progenitor Christopher Cross won the four major categories in 1981).
Eilish is the youngest solo album of the year winner, two years younger than previous record holder Taylor Swift, who was 20 when she won for “Fearless” at the 2010 Grammy Awards.
Eilish’s album, which she and her producer, engineer and songwriter brother Finneas recorded, mixed and mastered in the family’s Highland Park house, also earned the non-classical producer of the year Grammy for Finneas, and was named best engineered non-classical album as well. The enormity of her sweep seemed to overwhelm Eilish as the final awards were given out.
“Wow, wow, wow, wow,” Eilish began her song of the year acceptance speech for “Bad Guy.” “So many other songs deserved this, I’m sorry.”
“We didn’t write a speech because we didn’t think this would ever win anything,” Finneas said near the end of the show. “We didn’t write an album to win awards, we wrote an album about depression, about suicidal thoughts, about climate change…..We stand up here confused and grateful.”
Lizzo went on to win three of her field-leading eight nominations, while rapper Lil Nas X also scored two Grammys, out of six nominations, for his runaway hit single with country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, “Old Town Road.” It won for music video and pop duo or group performance. In his rendition of the song during the telecast, a living room set included a No. 24 Lakers jersey with Bryant’s name draped over a lounge chair.”
More broadly, however, the award choices and performances generally reflected an endorsement of the gender, racial and musical diversity for which the Grammys have historically been criticized. Eilish’s critically acclaimed, anybody-can-do-this creative aesthetic, Lizzo’s empowering and body-positive messages and Lil Nas X’s barrier transcending cross-genre success were emblematic of an industry that’s fitfully trying to exert its potential as a social and cultural force of leadership.
The proximity of tragedy and celebration elicited memories of the 2012 Grammy Awards show that transpired a day after the death of pop-R&B superstar Whitney Houston, prompting that show’s host, rapper-actor LL Cool J, to deliver an opening prayer to address the grim reality.
Two other deaths inspired performances Sunday, including a multi-artist salute to slain L.A. rapper, entrepreneur and community activist Nipsey Hussle that featured John Legend, DJ Khaled, Meek Mill, Roddy Rich, Kirk Franklin & YG. At the end of that number, Hussle’s image was juxtaposed on a giant video screen behind the stage with a shot of Bryant in his Laker uniform.
Another medley fronted by singer Usher commemorated the 40th anniversary of the arrival of musical polyglot Prince, who died at 57 nearly four years ago of an opioid overdose.
Rapper Tyler the Creator collected the rap album Grammy for “Igor,” a work many in the music community considered worthy of an overall album of the year nomination. In accepting the rap award, he thanked his mother, managers, friends and fans “for trusting my crazy ideas and putting with my hyperactive energy.”
It was one of many salutes to parents and other family members on Sunday, both during the evening telecast and the afternoon so-called Premiere Ceremony during which the vast majority of winners in this year’s 84 categories were announced.
“This award belongs to my sister Billie for her trust and her vision,” Finneas said during the pre-primetime ceremony. He also thanked “My mom and dad [who] never told me to shut up while I played music in my room all night while I learned how to master a kick drum.”
The show brought the first public performance of pop singer Demi Lovato’s new song “Anyone,” a stark cry for help that grew out of her struggle with substance abuse that resulted in a widely reported overdose in July.
After a false start from a small stage in the middle of the arena, where she was accompanied only by a pianist, Lovato took a second stab at her song that gives voice to a cry for help from one feeling powerless and alone: “I feel stupid when I pray/So, why am I praying anyway?/If nobody’s listening,” sounding like a sister in need to Lady Gaga’s character in “A Star Is Born.”
The shadow cast by Bryant’s death may also have pushed into the background any comments artists may have considered making regarding the very public meltdown over the past 10 days between the Recording Academy that bestows the Grammy Awards and its ousted first female President and CEO, Deborah Dugan.
Even as late as Sunday morning, the academy issued a statement about initiatives it would be embracing in the days and weeks ahead at least tacitly responding to criticisms Dugan leveled after being placed on administrative leave and accused by one female academy employee of fomenting a ‘bullying” workplace environment during the five months since she took office on Aug. 1.
On Tuesday, Dugan’s lawyer filed a harassment and retaliation complaint against the academy with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, detailing in the filing her allegations of voting irregularities, financial mismanagement, self-dealing and conflicts of interest among some members of the academy’s board of directors and the powerful committees that select nominations in many Grammy categories.
But during both the evening and afternoon award distribution ceremonies, the music community sidestepped comments about the controversy and instead keeping the focus on mourning the fallen Laker idol and celebrating the night’s musical achievements.