As the host of the Grammy Awards on Sunday, Alicia Keys did a bit in which she recalled one of her previous experiences at music’s most prestigious awards show. The year was 2005, she said, and the R&B singer badly wanted to win song of the year for her tune “If I Ain’t Got You.”
Well, that didn’t happen.
But evidently the guy who won that night, John Mayer, shared Keys’ opinion that she deserved the award — so he broke his Grammy into two pieces and gave her one, which she pulled out all these years later to show the audience.
Nobody was asking women to settle for half a Grammy this time.
Female artists took many of the biggest prizes at the 61st Grammy Awards, held at Staples Center in Los Angeles, including album of the year, which went to Kacey Musgraves for her psychedelic country disc “Golden Hour,” and best new artist, which went to the dance-pop singer Dua Lipa.
Cardi B, the delightfully straight-talking New York MC, became the first solo female rapper to win the award for rap album with her smash “Invasion of Privacy.” Other winners included H.E.R., who took R&B album with her self-titled debut, and Ariana Grande, whose “Sweetener” was named the year’s best pop vocal album.
The results represented a remarkable shift from 2018, when the Grammys were roundly — and justly — criticized for shutting women out of several major categories, despite the fact that women have reliably been the ones moving pop’s needle in recent years.
Recording Academy President Neil Portnow made matters worse after last year’s show when he suggested that women should “step up” if they wanted to be recognized — as though the systemic barriers women face were merely a trick of the mind, and failure to surmount them merely a lack of gumption.
Accepting her prize, Lipa grinned and said, “I guess this year we’ve really stepped up.”
The academy’s chosen winners this year — and its chosen performers and honorees — can be taken as evidence of an attempt at damage control. The recent dearth of female winners and Portnow’s clumsy phrasing — along with the Grammys’ long-established blind spot when it comes to hip-hop — have done serious harm to the show’s reputation among young hitmakers.
Last week Grande went public with her beef with the Grammys’ executive producer, Ken Ehrlich, over what she said was his lack of respect for a performance she’d planned to give. (As a result, she sat out Sunday’s ceremony.)
And though he was nominated for album of the year with his soundtrack to the Marvel blockbuster “Black Panther,” Kendrick Lamar also opted not to appear. Also notably absent was Childish Gambino, who had several important wins for “This Is America,” his viral rap hit about gun violence and racial terror.
Along with the awards, Sunday’s performances — the vast majority by women and people of color — at times seemed to scream, “Hey, we get it!” But the night, hosted by Keys with low-key warmth and enthusiasm, never felt cynical. It simply seemed more in line with pop as it exists today than the ceremony has for years.
Camila Cabello opened the show with a colorful rendition of her song “Havana” that featured cameos by Ricky Martin, Young Thug, Arturo Sandoval and J Balvin (the last of whom held a newspaper headlined “Build bridges not walls”).
Janelle Monáe did a medley of songs from her “Dirty Computer” — a futuristic account of love defined as broadly as possible — while accompanied by dancers wearing anatomically inspired outfits.
“Let the vagina have a monologue,” she said.
H.E.R., shredding on an electric guitar, did a beautiful rendition of her song “Hard Place” that felt suffused with confidence in her own vision. She wasn’t hurrying for anyone.
And then there was Cardi B, who rapped “Money” while dressed as an evil queen amid a boudoir dreamscape.
Onstage later to accept her rap album trophy, the outspoken and verbally dexterous hip-hop star was speechless for once and admitted that her nerves were getting the best of her. With a grin, she added, “Maybe I need to start smoking weed” — a line that exemplified the authentic goofball charm that’s endeared her to so many over the last two years.
Another sign of progress for the Grammys: The awards for record and song of the year went to Childish Gambino — also known as the actor Donald Glover — for his searing track “This Is America.” The latter represented the first time a hip-hop track has won song of the year — an absurdity, given how long rap has dominated the Top 40, but a welcome achievement nonetheless.
Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper won the award for pop duo performance with “Shallow,” from their movie “A Star Is Born,” which felt only right. After all, what musical moment got more mileage online in the last 12 months than Gaga’s whoa-oh-oh yowl from that pitch-perfect power ballad?
As if to prove the point, the singer performed “Shallow” on Sunday’s show, refashioning it into a kind of art-metal extravaganza sure to be endlessly memed in the days ahead.
And the show — long scorned for pairing young up-and-comers with past-their-prime veterans for performances proudly referred to as “Grammy moments” — also did better balancing old and new.
Miley Cyrus and Shawn Mendes, both in their 20s, performed his “In My Blood” together, while Lipa joined St. Vincent — as opposed to, y’know, Judy Collins — to mash up a couple of their tunes.
Even the inevitable tributes to aging icons felt fresher than usual, in large part because Dolly Parton and Diana Ross took control of their own salutes, singing with real gusto (if not always a clear sense of pitch, as in Ross’ case).
Keys, in a lovely sequence that had her playing two pianos at the same time, paid tender homage to some of her favorite songs, which had to have been the first time Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” and “Lucid Dreams” by the rapper Juice WRLD were in such close proximity.
Not everything worked, of course.
One dreadful Grammy moment had Post Malone jamming with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which did nothing for either act. And a celebration of Motown Records — the label that arguably laid the groundwork for black American pop — was fronted for some reason by … Jennifer Lopez.
Perhaps this number could have illustrated how Motown’s glorious songs reached beyond specific cultures to unite people of all backgrounds. But Lopez didn’t do anything to “Dancing in the Street” or “Please Mr. Postman” to make that point; it was pure high-level mimicry — as professional as it was meaningless.