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For one night, at least, the Grammys banished the baby boomers

Megan Thee Stallion, left, and Doja Cat on the red carpet at the 63rd Grammy Awards.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

When Ringo Starr ambled onstage to present the final prize at Sunday night’s 63rd Grammy Awards, the Beatles icon with the freshly dyed hair put across more than a little bit of where-am-I? energy.

And who could blame him?

Long a safe space for baby boomers past their prime, the Grammys ceremony made a hard pivot to youth in its first year under 39-year-old executive producer Ben Winston, who took over when his predecessor Ken Ehrlich retired after four decades at the helm of music’s most important awards show.

In Ehrlich’s day, viewers could invariably rely on the appearance of a handful of veterans to complement the annual parade of fresh pop stars — and maybe to persuade CBS’ aging demographic not to change the channel. He’d pair insurgent young acts with established old-timers (think Kendrick Lamar with U2 in 2018) or devise splashy celebrations of dubious anniversaries (like Motown’s 60th birthday in 2019).

A lot went down at Sunday’s 63rd Grammy Awards. From Beyoncé and Taylor Swift making history to Bad Bunny’s win, here are some of the highlights.

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More often than not, it seemed, Ehrlich would find a reason to have Sting on his program.

Sunday’s show at the Los Angeles Convention Center, by comparison, was virtually unrecognizable as a monument to experience. Beyond Starr’s presentation and a performance by 71-year-old Lionel Richie, who turned up during the “In Memoriam” sequence to sing his old friend Kenny Rogers’ “Lady,” the Grammys were dominated by performers in their 20s and early 30s, including Harry Styles (27), Dua Lipa (25), Cardi B (28), Bad Bunny (27), Lil Baby (26), Maren Morris (30), Post Malone (25), Megan Thee Stallion (26) and Taylor Swift (31).

There were no grizzled monsters of rock; there were no wizened Grand Ole Opry members. No jazz greats, no gospel pioneers, no elder statesmen of salsa or reggae or classical music. Instead, an actual teenager, 19-year-old Billie Eilish, was there, taking up prominent space that Dave Grohl or Emmylou Harris or, as they did just last year, the members of Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. might have.

The youthfulness extended to the awards themselves. In 2010, when Swift won her first Grammy for album of the year with “Fearless,” she became the youngest artist ever to take the Recording Academy’s flagship prize. (Eilish set a new record in 2020 when she did it at 18.) A decade later, though, Swift was the oldest of the winners of the big four awards Sunday — older than Megan, who won best new artist; older than Eilish, who took record of the year with “Everything I Wanted”; older than 23-year-old H.E.R., whose “I Can’t Breathe” was named song of the year.

At 39, Beyoncé — who per academy tradition lost the major prizes but won several genre awards — was practically the graybeard of the night. (Starr clearly took cosmetic pains to avoid that distinction.)

So how did this happen?

At least in part, Winston was bowing to the necessities of our pandemic era, doing what he could to keep older artists out of harm’s way. It was just three months ago, don’t forget, that 86-year-old Charley Pride died shortly after playing the in-person CMA Awards in Nashville — a circumstantial link, perhaps, but not one any producer wants any part of.

COVID restrictions also limited Winston’s ability, as he told The Times ahead of Sunday’s show, to assemble the kind of multi-generational jams for which Ehrlich was known.

“You can’t really mix artists very much,” said Winston, a Brit best known in the U.S. for masterminding James Corden’s viral “Carpool Karaoke” series. “L.A. County rules — not New York rules, as you’ll see on ‘SNL’ every week — are that you have to have an 8-foot distance between two microphones.”

Live updates of the 2021 Grammy Awards winners list: 83 categories including album, song, record and best new artist.

But you got the sense too that Winston was eager to differentiate himself right out of the gate from Ehrlich, whom lots of people in showbiz describe as a legend but who also attracted plenty of criticism from younger artists. In 2019, Ariana Grande opted not to perform on the Grammys, though she was nominated for multiple awards, after she said that Ehrlich had “stifled” her “creativity & self expression.”

And differentiate himself he did: Reviews of Winston’s debut have been almost uniformly positive — much brighter than the morning-after groans that have typically met the Grammys in recent decades. All the chattering-class praise could inspire him to keep on this path, even if next year’s (hopefully) post-COVID environment means he’s able to book, say, Earth, Wind & Fire or Starr’s former bandmate Paul McCartney, with whom Winston once made a “Carpool Karaoke” of which he’s very proud.

Ratings, of course, are a different story. Nielsen reported the audience for Sunday’s show dropped 53% from 2020 to a record-low 8.8 million viewers. That’s in keeping with cratering awards-show numbers industry-wide, and Winston says linear-broadcast ratings are an outdated means of measuring the success of a TV show in an era of streaming and social media. (In that way, you might say the producer is echoing the Weeknd’s feelings on the value of a Grammy.)

Still, CBS isn’t paying Winston to manage the commercial decline of one of its prestige properties, which means Aerosmith may yet be commissioned to lure aging viewers to the 64th Grammys in 2022.

That may not be so bad. Among the grim lessons we’ve learned in the pandemic is that we should appreciate our beloved veterans while they’re still here. And as Timbaland and Swizz Beatz’s smash Verzuz series has shown us, it’s possible to celebrate O.G. influencers — Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight, for example — without making everyone feel like they’re stuck in some tacky museum.

With luck, Winston will find a middle path between shock-of-the-new and shlock-of-the-old.

Just please no more Sting. Not yet. Give us a minute.


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