For two full hours, it was as if 2017 never happened. The first half of the 60th Grammy Awards was filled with the usual fare of booty-shaking performances, sleepy ballads and sleepier acceptance speeches.
And then singer Kesha stepped onstage to remind everyone that the last year had been anything but business as usual.
The pop singer turned social warrior was nearly destroyed, professionally and personally, when she leveled sexual assault accusations against her powerful producer in 2014. The case dragged on in court through 2017. But when she performed her redemptive hit “Praying” during Sunday’s live telecast from New York’s Madison Square Garden, it sent a clear message to an audience who had been waiting for an acknowledgment of the #MeToo moment beyond white roses worn on the red carpet, and to an industry that’s hardly begun to deal with its own demons.
While film, television and news media are being overhauled by women coming forward to speak against the men who used their power to sexually harass and assault them, the recording industry hasn’t had the same sort of reckoning.
The Grammys were potentially where that reckoning would begin. In the days leading up the awards, Voices in Entertainment, music’s answer to film’s Time’s Up movement, requested that everyone wear white roses on the red carpet and stage in support. The same day, USC released a report that found just 9.3% of Grammy nominees were women between 2013 and 2018.
It was a shocking revelation given that music has heavily banked on female artists including Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Adele, Beyonce and Rihanna to pull the industry out of a recession.
But Sunday night, the Recording Academy’s big leap into the future appeared to be a long-overdue recognition of hip-hop as a cultural force — just two decades after the rest of the planet. This year, two rappers were nominated for album of the year (though neither Kendrick Lamar nor Jay-Z won), and rappers dominated many top categories outside the usual urban music areas they’ve been stuck in since the institution first recognized the genre in 1989. (They didn’t sweep in those either.)
There was little to no recognition that the world outside Madison Square Garden had changed since Clinton (Bill) was in office; Sting and Shaggy did a duet apropos of nothing while album of the year nominee Lorde sat the night out in the audience. According to her, the Grammys did not offer her a performance of her own, only a part in a Tom Petty tribute, which she refused. But there was plenty of time for U2, who weren’t up for anything of note, to perform.
The awards themselves reflected the direction of the show. Kesha’s powerful single “Praying,” the performance of which was advertised nonstop ahead of Sunday’s show, lost to Ed Sheeran’s earnest ode to a girl’s body, “Shape of You.” Sheeran was the only male nominee in the category, which also included Lady Gaga, Kelly Clarkson and Pink.
And it wasn’t just the academy that seemed numb to the world outside the arena doors.
Artists had little to nothing to say about the climate that should, but apparently doesn’t, influence their craft. That was left up to Lamar, who was up for seven Grammys but won five. (He did better than Jay-Z, who was up for eight and won none.) Lamar opened with a powerful performance of “XXX.,” as the screen flashed “This is a satire by Kendrick Lamar” and then cut to comedian Dave Chappelle: “Hi, I’m Dave Chappelle, and I just wanted to remind the audience that the only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America is being an honest black man in America. Sorry for the interruption.”
Then it was back to Lamar’s performance, where he rapped as a woman banged away on a huge drum. The music simulated gunshots as backup dancers in hoodies fell to the ground as if shot. It was a chilling and profound opening.
But the Grammys have pulled this trick before, letting Lamar make all the poignant political points, then moving on. (Please see his amazing performance of two songs from “To Pimp a Butterfly” in 2016.)
What was missing here, especially during the first two-thirds of the show, was any acknowledgment that this was the year women pushed back — and kept pushing against individuals and institutions who have either abused them or turned a blind eye to such abuse.
The ceremony, which was hosted by James Corden and featured 20 performances, didn’t even address the elephant in the room until Janelle Monae got up to introduce Kesha’s performance. “We come in peace,” she said, “but we mean business…. And to those who dare try to silence us, we offer you two words: Time’s Up. We say Time’s Up for pay inequality, discrimination or harassment of any kind, and Time’s Up for the abuse of power.”
The singer then went on to perform “Praying” alongside Cyndi Lauper, Camila Cabello, best new artist nominee Julia Michaels, Andra Day and Bebe Rexha as well as members of the Resistance Revival Chorus, a collective of women who perform protest songs.
Corden followed up with a brotherly statement of support and an inspired pretaped bit in which Hillary Clinton read from “Fire and Fury,” but for the most part it seemed as if the Recording Academy, made up of people who have held sway in the industry for decades (there is no transparency when it comes to knowing who the Grammy voters are), is not ready to face reality.
In presenting U2, Cabello expressed solidarity with the so-called Dreamers, introducing herself as a “proud, Cuban-Mexican immigrant, born in eastern Havana, standing in front of you on the Grammy stage in New York City.”
It was one of the more powerful and moving moments of the show. Then they cut to the band playing.
If only these moments had arrived earlier. Instead, they felt tacked on to a ceremony that spent more energy dancing around the throes of culture than simply addressing the tumult.