2021 Grammy Awards: Beyoncé and Taylor Swift make history at first Grammys held during a global pandemic
The show did go on, virtually, for ‘Music’s Biggest Night’
There were so many firsts at the 63rd annual Grammy Awards Sunday night — the first ever held during a global pandemic — it was a challenge to keep track of them all, starting with Beyoncé and Taylor Swift.
Beyoncé won two awards on her own, including for Best R&B Performance for her inspirational song “Black Parade,” and shared two more with Best New Artist winner Megan Thee Stallion for “Savage.” Those wins helped Beyoncé surpass bluegrass queen Alison Krauss, who has 26, and tied her with legendary producer Quincy Jones. Only the late classical-music conductor Sir Georg Solti has more victories, with 31.
“As an artist, I believe it’s my job, and all of our jobs, to reflect the times, and it’s been such a difficult time,” said Beyoncé , who entered the evening with a field-leading nine nominations. “So I wanted to uplift, encourage, celebrate all of the beautiful Black queens and kings that continue to inspire me and inspire the world.”
Swift, in turn, won Album of the Year for her rootsy and understated “Folklore.” That made her the first female artist to win that category three times and tied her with Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and Frank Sinatra.
Reflecting the fact that the album was made largely online and long distance because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Swift acknowledged one of her collaborators by saying: “I want to thank Justin Vernon — I’d still love to meet you some day.”
Because of the pandemic, it was the first edition of the Grammys to take place without an audience, apart from the honorees who performed and applauded each other. It was also the first to be held in and around the 720,000-square-foot Los Angeles Convention Center — standing in for the adjacent Staples Center, the usual site for the 3½-hour awards marathon (which ran over by 13 minutes) — and the first where nearly all but a few awards were presented outdoors on one of the center’s balcony.
Most of the performances were held inside the center on five stages, set up in a circle that placed each stage at a significant distance from the others. Even more notably, this was the first iteration of the Grammys at which many of the performances at the telecast — long billed as “Music’s Biggest Night” — were pre-recorded and filmed in advance.
By one tally, as many as 18 of the 23 performances were shot ahead of time, although the producers declined to disclose how many were actually live. The amount of lip-synced performances, by BTS, Dua Lipa, Haim, the politically charged rapper Lil Baby and more, also seemed to set a new record for miming on a show that has long prided itself for showcasing real-time live performances. But during a time of pandemic, the adherence to health protocols was a safe and sound move. And pulling off a show of this magnitude in these times was an almost heroic effort.
It was also the first Grammys at which some of the awards were presented not by music stars and Hollywood celebrities but by on-hiatus employees of such shuttered music venues as New York’s historic Apollo Theater, Nashville’s Station Inn and Los Angeles’ The Troubadour and Hotel Café. Only a handful of artists — including Ringo Starr, Lizzo, Jacob Collier and Jhené Aiko — served as presenters.
It was the first telecast of any kind to feature a live (more or less) joint performance by Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B of their mega-hit “WAP.” The unabashedly raunchy song — host Trevor Noah quipped that it was “about washing your cat” — may have set a new Grammy record for bump-and-grind choreography and modified-for-broadcast lyrics.
It was the first Grammys hosted by comedian Noah, a South African. And it was the first produced by “The Late Late Show with James Corden” and “Carpool Karaoke” producer Ben Winston, an Englishman. Both injected a welcome infusion of fresh energy despite the surfeit of pre-recorded performance segments.
Noah struck a good balance between lighthearted quips and a more reflective tone, as evidenced by such comments as: “This is the first awards show where the white stuff going up people’s noses is cotton swabs”; followed soon thereafter by: “We’re hoping this (show) is all about what 2021 can be, full of joy, (but not forgetting).”
Tragically, it was also the first Grammys at which a number of of the nominees — including reggae pioneer Toots Hibbert and Americana-music legend John Prine — won posthumously (twice in Prine’s case) after dying from COVID-19 last year.
And, during the livestreamed pre-telecast portion of the show, which drew an audience of more than 12 million and saw 72 of the 84 awards presented, it was the first with remote acceptance speeches from winners’ homes. The worldwide media members, who usually cover the Grammys in a backstage media center, instead did so online via a virtual press room. The members of the few camera and video teams permitted on site Sunday had to test negative for COVID and undergo mouth swabbing and temperature test before being admitted — the same protocols taken for the artists and production staff.
Andrew Watt, who won the Grammy for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical, spoke from firsthand experience about the pandemic. “I had COVID pretty bad,” he said. “So, this (victory) is pretty incredible.”
Underscoring the epic proportions of the devastating pandemic — which prompted the six-week postponement of Sunday’s telecast from Jan. 31 to Sunday — it was the first edition of the Grammys in which the show’s “In Memoriam” segment was expanded to 13 minutes, about four times as long as on the 2019 Grammys telecast.
The Recording Academy, under whose auspices the Grammys are presented (and whose 12,000 voting members cast ballots), made its “In Memoriam” selections from more than 800 musicians and behind-the-scenes music industry professionals who died over the past year.
A year of loss
The performance segment Sunday devoted to recently deceased legends provided some of the most stirring moments of the telecast. Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak paid lively tribute in song to Little Richard with “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” Lionel Richie sang a nicely nuanced version of Kenny Rogers’ “Lady,” Brandi Carlile delivered a tender homage to John Prine with “I Remember It All,” and Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard (who won the Best Rock Song Grammy on Sunday for “Stay High”) teamed with Coldplay’s Chris Martin honored Gerry & The Pacemakers’ singer Gerry Marsden with a deeply moving version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
A subsequent commercial during the telecast featured Howard performing the same song on behalf of a whiskey brand. It was a move that greatly diluted the emotional impact of her touching Grammys performance of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Sadly, this was the second consecutive year in which the Grammys telecast was marked by loss. Last year’s telecast at the Staples Center took place the same day that basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter and others died in a helicopter crash.
The enormous impact of the Black Lives Matter movement was reflected by Lil Baby’s galvanizing performance of “The Bigger Picture,” which featured a brief mid-song speech by Tamika Mallory, and by a segment near the end of the show that saluted Beyoncé's “Black Parade.” In addition, 23-year-old Bay Area singer, songwriter and guitarist H.E.R. shared a Song of the Year win with co-writers Tiara Thomas and Dernst Emile for “I Can’t Breathe,” whose creation — like that of Swift’s entire “Folklore” album — was done online.
“We wrote this song over FaceTime,” said H.E.R. (real name Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson) as she accepted the award. “I didn’t imagine that my fear and that my pain would turn into impact, and that it would possibly turn into change. We are the change we wish to see. That fight that we had in us the summer of 2020, keep that same energy.”
Speaking backstage later to reporters in the Grammys’ virtual press room, she elaborated, saying: “It really means the world because when we wrote the song it came from a conversation and we honestly were coming from the perspective of our own personal feelings and then it turned into being part of the movement and being part of history.
“I think this song is going to be a stamp in time and people are going to think of this song when they think of George Floyd, when they think of Breonna Taylor, when they think of all these people that we’re still fighting for.”
But perhaps the most memorable commentary on racial injustice and perseverance came during the livestream-only Grammy Premiere Ceremony from veteran singer Bobby Rush, whose “Rawer Than Raw” won Best Traditional Blues Album honors Sunday.
“I’ve been Black for 87 years,” said Rush, who then invoked last year’s death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “And a foot has been on my neck for nine minutes.”
If Rush was the night’s oldest winner, Beyoncé’s daughter, Blue Ivy Carter, was the youngest. The nine-year-old shared a Best Music Video for with her famous mom and WizKid for “Brown Skin Girl.”
Shortly before the conclusion of the telecast, the Recording Academy’s interim CEO and President, Harvey Mason Jr., delivered some remarks clearly aimed at narrowing the divide between the Grammys and some of the performers who have denounced the show for how rarely it presents major awards to Black artists and to women artists in general. Canadian singer The Weeknd recently announced he will boycott the event in the future, after being snubbed altogether in this year’s nominations.
Mason stressed that the Recording Academy was against “all forms of racism, sexism, violence, anti-Semitism and hate.” He also issued a challenge: “Work with us, not against us,” he said, “to build a new Recording Academy.”
One step in that direction came with the Sunday night announcement that the Academy is creating a Songwriters & Composers Wing.
“The musical process begins with our fellow songwriters and composers, and we’re thrilled to launch this Wing at the Academy that creates a home for music’s storytellers across the country,” Mason said in a statement.
“These creatives are essential to the music community and we look forward to collaborating with our industry colleagues to support, educate and empower the diverse members in these crafts.”
Sunday’s Grammy Awards was preceded by Friday’s MusiCares fundraising concert, which was livestreamed for the first time and retitled MusiCares Music on a Mission Virtual Concert. It featured new performances by BTS, John Legend, H.E.R., Jhené Aiko and Haim, and archival MusiCares Person of the Year concert footage by Bruce Springsteen, Carole King, Tom Petty, Steve Nicks and others.
Friday’s MusiCares Music on a Mission Virtual Concert can be viewed through this Friday. Tickets are $25 at support.musicares.org/live
Money raised by the nonprofit MusiCares helps musicians and music industry professionals in need with medical and financial assistance.
“Since March 2020, MusiCares has distributed more than $22 million to help more than 25,000 music people through these challenging times,” Mason told the Union-Tribune in an interview in a recent interview.
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