The music community offered a state of the union address of its own on Sunday at the 61st Grammy Awards ceremony. After months on defense, artists positioned music as a unifying force and healing salve for a deeply polarized world.
Camila Cabello set the tone at Staples Center with show opener “Havana,” which celebrates her Cuban American heritage, telegraphing a salvo of acceptance and inclusion regarding the immigrant experience in U.S. history. She was joined by Latin pop star Ricky Martin in a production number that emphasized Latin music and dance.
Immediately afterward, host Alicia Keys was joined by a quartet of high-profile women that included actresses Jennifer Lopez and Jada Pinkett Smith, music superstar Lady Gaga and former First Lady Michelle Obama.
“Whether we like country or rap or rock, music helps us share ourselves,” Obama said. “Our dignity and its sorrows, our hopes and joys, it allows us to hear one another, to invite each other in. Music shows us that all of it matters. Every story within every voice, every note within every song — is that right, ladies?”
By way of many of the live performances and songs honored with awards, the ceremony attempted to provide some degree of counterbalance to criticism for a lack of diversity that has been leveled at the Recording Academy, which bestows the Grammys, during the past year. In addition to performances that highlighted the female artists shaping pop music today, hip-hop scored historic wins as “This Is America” from Childish Gambino became the genre’s first hit to win record and song of the year awards, and Cardi B became the first solo woman to win the prize for rap album.
In many major fields, Grammy voters went outside of household names.
R&B star H.E.R. won R&B album for her self-titled effort, British pop singer Dua Lipa won best new artist and Kacey Musgraves won album of the year with “Golden Hour” and dominated the country fields, this despite the fact that country radio continues to emphasize male stars. Elsewhere, rootsy artist Brandi Carlile won American roots performance and American roots song trophies for her song “The Joke,” thankingher wife and two daughters when she accepted the performance award.
Carlile remarked that after coming out as a lesbian in high school, “I was never invited to any parties, I never got to go to the dance.”
The academy has been in regroup mode since critiques arose last year on a number of fronts, notably including findings of a 2017 USC study that highlighted extreme gender imbalances among award winners in top categories in recent years.
Additionally, in response to a question about the male-centric results in top categories last year, academy President Neil Portnow said the time had come for women to “step up” to receive their due, igniting a firestorm of negative reaction. Portnow will step down when his current contract expires at the end of July.
In the past year the academy assembled a task force under the guidance of Tina Tchen, formerly Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, to identify and address conscious or unconscious biases in the areas of gender and race that might be creating imbalances in the nomination and awards processes.
Best new artist winner Lipa quoted what Portnow now refers to as “those two words” as she accepted her award. She stated she was “honored I am to be nominated beside so many incredible female artists this year. I guess we’ve really stepped up.”
She then added, “One thing that I really want to say, is for anyone that hasn’t realized how special they are, who have a different story, a different background … just know that no matter where you’re from, your background, or who you believe in, never let that get in the way of you and your dreams, because you deserve it.”
In many respects, Sunday’s Grammy show appeared to be a response to blowback it had weathered from musicians, record executives and the public.
The three top general field awards were divided among an album of the year winner that celebrates experimentation and boundary-pushing with Texas singer-songwriter Musgraves’ “Golden Hour,” and a record and song of the year in Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” a bracing critique of racism, sexism, commercialism and other isms prevalent in contemporary American life.
The song’s co-writer, Swedish-born musician Ludwig Goransson, spoke on behalf of immigrants everywhere when he recounted growing up in Sweden and dreaming of coming to the United States to pursue a career in music.
“No matter where you’re born or what country you’re from, you connect with ‘This Is America,’” he said in collecting the award inthe absence of Gambino, aka actor Donald Glover. “It celebrates life and reunites all at the same time.”
A segment paying tribute to country star Dolly Parton, who also had been feted on Friday as the year’s MusiCares Person of the Year, opened and closed with her 1980 crossover hit “9 to 5” from the film she starred in with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin about sexism in the workplace, and which is slated to be the subject of a sequel.
The performance also included collaborations with a number of other female artists including Katy Perry, Musgraves, Miley Cyrus, Maren Morris and singers Kimberly Roads and Karen Fairchild of country-pop quartet Little Big Town.
Hip-hop recent arrival Cardi B performed her hit “Money” in a production that carried echoes of pioneering Jazz Age film and nightclub star Josephine Baker.
Later, after her win for rap album with “Invasion of Privacy,”she told of her struggle to finish the album after becoming pregnant, a tale of the balancing act facing working women that furtherechoed a theme of female empowerment running through the show.
Women so dominated the performance aspect of the show that numbers showcasing teen heartthrob Shawn Mendes, as well as another pairing rising pop star Post Malone and long-running L.A. punk-funk band the Red Hot Chili Peppers, seemed almost like afterthoughts.
Another sign of academy voters’ intent this year was a trio of Grammys awarded to jazz musician John Daversa for his album incorporating performances by several young people in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act (DACA).
“American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom” won for large jazz ensemble album, while Daversa’s wildly imaginative arrangement of John Philip Sousa’s 121-year old iconic march “The Stars And Stripes Forever” earned him the instrumental or a cappella arrangement award. The track “Don’t Fence Me In” collected a third for improvised jazz solo.
Diana Ross sang her 1970 hit “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” yet another plea for unity, triggering a sea of waving hands from the Staples Center audience.
Lady Gaga teared up when her song “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born” won for pop duo or group performance, lauding the film for the spotlight it shines on issues of alcoholism and suicide.
“If I don’t get another chance to say this,” she said, before learning whether the song might also collect the record of the year award, “I am so proud to be part of a movie that addresses mental health issues.
“They’re so important. A lot of artists deal with that, and we’ve got to take care of each other. If you see somebody that’s hurting, don’t look away. And if you’re hurting, even though it might be hard, try to find that bravery within yourself to dive deep and go tell somebody and take them up in your head with you.”
It was Gaga’s third Grammy win at that point in the evening, after she’d previously won with her song “Joanne (Where Do You Think You’re Goin’)” for pop solo performance, and a songwriting award for “Shallow,” the breakout hit from “A Star Is Born” that took the Grammy for song written for visual media.
More recognition to art of inclusion and diversity was evident in three other awards to Musgraves: country solo performance with her hit “Butterflies,” country song for “Space Cowboy” and country album for “Golden Hour.”
And yet Grammy officials still couldn’t avoid controversy: During rehearsals early in the week, pop star Ariana Grande — coming off a difficult year that included the 2017 terrorist attack at her concert in Manchester, England, and the accidental drug overdose death in September of her ex-boyfriend, musician Mac Miller — declined overtures to appear after reaching an impasse over song choice.
“I know i’m not there tonight,” she tweeted Sunday to her 60.7 million Twitter followers, adding, “trust, i tried and still truly wished it had worked.” Still, the artist was awarded the Grammy for pop vocal album for “Sweetener.”