How Beyoncé won the Grammys without taking the big awards

Beyoncé performs during Sunday's Grammy Awards.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Pop Music Critic

It was Adele’s night. But it happened in Beyoncé’s world.

That was the takeaway of Sunday’s 59th Grammy Awards, where the young British singer won three of the music industry’s biggest prizes — album, record and song of the year — yet seemed overshadowed by the visionary multimedia star she described as her idol.

Accepting the album of the year award for “25,” her blockbuster set of personal, old-fashioned pop ballads, Adele said she couldn’t rightfully take the Grammy knowing that it came at the expense of “Lemonade,” Beyoncé’s album connecting one woman’s marital troubles to the wider cultural struggle faced by women of color.

“You are our light,” Adele told Beyoncé, who looked on with an expression of queenly gratitude.


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It wasn’t the only moment in Sunday’s show, broadcast live on CBS from Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, in which Adele seemed to wobble under the pressure of her position — and Beyoncé thrived in the spotlight.

Opening the production with a performance of her hit single “Hello,” Adele had trouble nailing a couple of notes, instantly bringing to mind her flawed performance on last year’s show.

She quickly locked in, but things went worse when she returned to pay tribute to the late George Michael by doing his song “Fastlove” — and then, about a minute in, had to stop the song and start again, dropping an F-bomb in the process.

“I’m sorry if I offended anyone,” she said, a wild look of fear in her eyes.

In contrast, Beyoncé was a study in composure during a stunning medley of two songs from “Lemonade” — the slinky “Love Drought” and the pensive “Sandcastles” — that depicted the singer, who recently announced that she’s pregnant with twins, as a kind of spiritual earth mother.


Dressed in a flowing gown and elaborate head piece, Beyoncé moved slowly but surely down a long runway surrounded by female dancers, then took a seat in a wooden chair that reclined nearly 90 degrees over empty space — all while she continued to sing powerfully and with palpable emotion in her voice.

The performance was a masterful display of strength and delicacy, intelligence and feeling — one she pulled off not in spite of her changing body but because of it.

Elsewhere in the show Beyoncé won the award for urban contemporary album and spoke eloquently in her acceptance speech about the need to confront ideas that make us uncomfortable and her determination to give voice to others’ pain.

Adele’s domination of the major categories — she also took pop solo performance and pop vocal album — was in keeping with the Grammys’ longstanding preference for tradition over innovation.

(This year several of pop’s most vibrant creators, including the R&B singer Frank Ocean and the rapper Drake, elected to skip the show, with Ocean saying publicly that the Grammys don’t celebrate success the way he sees it.)


Yet again and again Sunday, it was the traditionalists who seemed shaken while disruptors found solid ground.

A collaboration between the country star Kelsea Ballerini and Lukas Forchhammer of the Danish pop-soul band Lukas Graham — two young singers lovingly mining old styles — felt woefully free of chemistry, while a tribute to the Bee Gees on the 40th anniversary of “Saturday Night Fever” had vocal power but little of the Bee Gees’ silky rhythmic drive.

Performing Metallica’s “Moth Into Flame” with help from Lady Gaga (for some hard-to-fathom reason), that band’s James Hetfield encountered a malfunctioning microphone.

And then there was the retro-minded country singer Sturgill Simpson, a left-field nominee for album of the year with his excellent “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” looking deeply uncomfortable as he performed in front of a small orchestra.

In contrast, Chance the Rapper, named best new artist, seemed to beam determination in his lively rendition of several tunes from his album “Coloring Book,” which upended record-industry convention by being available only to stream, not to buy.

Chance the Rapper performs.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Katy Perry was sneakily effective doing “Chained to the Rhythm,” her new single that might have been inspired by the rise of fake news in last year’s divisive election cycle.

“Dance to the distortion,” she sang, “Keep it on repeat, stumbling around like a wasted zombie.”

A clearer political moment came from A Tribe Called Quest, the groundbreaking hip-hop group, which rampaged through its song “We the People…” — about who rightfully belongs in America — as a long line of people of color marched around the rappers.

To finish the song, the group’s featured guest, Busta Rhymes, addressed “President Agent Orange,” calling attention to what he described as the “evil you’ve been perpetuating” around the world.

And he wasn’t sorry if he’d offended anyone.

Twitter: @mikaelwood



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