By Danny R. Johnson – Entertainment News Editor
Las Vegas, NV–Sunday’s 64th annual Grammy Awards promised a return to (relative) normalcy following a scaled-down 2021 ceremony that primarily took place outdoors. In Las Vegas for the first time, and with the pop spectacle dialed back up, the show’s most impactful moments were often it is least flashy: a sober plea for help from President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine; Doja Cat’s teary moment at the microphone; performances on rooftops that put a spotlight on a different crop of artists. (High-octane live moments from Billie Eilish and H.E.R. made a significant impact.) Here are the show’s highlights and lowlights as we saw them.
Best Reality Check: Transmission from Ukraine
The Oscars had a moment of silence for Ukraine; the Grammys had a videotaped speech from Volodymyr Zelensky, the country’s president, who did not mince his words. “The war. What is more opposite to music? The silence of ruined cities and killed people,” he began. It is impossible to balance the indulgence of an awards show with the horrors of war. Still, Zelensky was strategic, calling on pop for its ability to transmit information: “Fill the silence with your music. Fill in today to tell our story,” He urged. John Legend followed him with a hymn-like new song, “Free,” joined by a poet, Lyuba Yakimchuk, a singer, Mika Newton, and a bandura (zither) player Siuzanna Iglidan, from Ukraine. It was a heartfelt, dignified gesture.
Most Humanizing Bathroom Break: Doja Cat
For an evening otherwise light on genuine chaos, Doja Cat and SZA’s win for best pop duo/group performance was a welcome jolt of messiness. First, alone SZA slowly hobbled up to the stage on crutches (“I fell out of bed before I came here,” she explained later) before spotting Doja hustling up to the stand and saying, “Girl, you went to the bathroom for like five minutes, are you serious?” Doja seemed rattled and winded enough that the story checked out, and as she ascended the stage to accept her first Grammy, she told the world, “I have never taken such a fast piss in my whole life,” with the comic timing of a seasoned stand-up. After collecting herself and smoothing out her dress, though, pop’s favorite troll suddenly got uncharacteristically emotional. “I like to downplay a lot of [expletive],” she said through tears, “but this is a big deal.” It was an endearingly down-to-earth moment for an artist who often revels in fantasy, irony, and otherworldly artifice.
Best First-Love Kiss-Offs: Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish
Olivia Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License” and Billie Eilish’s “Happier Than Ever” — a couple of last year’s most powerful and dramatic breakup songs — injected some much-needed feeling into the show’s first half. (Condolences to the young men these songs were allegedly written about.) Although the ceremony, as usual, could not decide on its target demographic, it was the youth —these young women— who carried the mantle of relevance, but also of performance, with strong enough live vocals for any pop skeptics among the CBS faithful.
Rodrigo failed to go full Eilish 2020, winning only one of her nominations in the Big Four categories, best new artist, best pop vocal album, and best pop solo performance. But hopefully, the long shots of her during Eilish’s onstage rock explosion were more about their songs’ emotional kinship than trying to force a fake rivalry. Rodrigo, 19, and Eilish, 20, should get used to this stage; the Grammys are lucky to have them both.
Worst Handling of the Most Popular Genre: Rap’s Spotty Presence
Nas, who is 48, nodded at his classics: “I Can,” “Made You Look,” “One Mic” — sure. Baby Keem, Kendrick Lamar’s cousin and protégé, won an award for a weird song — cool. Jack Harlow wrapped well and censored himself artfully during his “Industry Baby” verse with Lil Nas X — OK, nice. Still, rap could not help but feel like an afterthought at the ceremony, despite having separated itself over and over as the lifeblood of the music industry in the streaming era. Few of the genre’s rising stars, or heroes, were present, let alone featured, while the rock was referenced repeatedly. The winner of two rap awards in the preshow, Kanye West’s absence, necessary as it may have been, was glaring. And even a gesture that could generously be seen as inclusionary — dubbing Virgil Abloh, the artistic director of Louis Vuitton men’s wear who died last year, a “Hip Hop Fashion Designer” — was widely received online as dismissive or minimizing. The distrust runs deep, and the healing has yet to begin.
Worst Overcorrection: Trevor Noah’s Anti-Oscar Niceties
Last week’s Oscars left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths, and even before The Slap Heard Round the World, there was already some chatter that the show’s jokes at the expense of nominees had been a little too acidic. Considering all the controversy, it was not surprising that the Grammys wanted to present themselves as anti-Oscars. The host Trevor Noah wasted no time, proclaiming in his opening monologue, “We’re going to be dancing, and we’re going to be singing, we’re going to be keeping people’s names out of our mouths” — about as polite a reference to Will Smith’s Oscars outburst as a person could muster. But as the show went on, Noah’s bland, the gee-whiz tone felt increasingly like an unfortunate overcorrection, blunting the edges of his jokes such that they hardly had any impact. In introducing Jared Leto, Noah even breezed right by the lowest hanging fruit in the 2022 joke book: Making fun of the accents in “House of Gucci”! No one was asking him to take mean-spirited swipes, but a well-placed zinger here or there would have given the show some needed spice.
Best Moment for the Stans: BTS’s V Flirts with Olivia Rodrigo
Sometimes the Grammys give us rare moments of wonder that could only be dreamed up in the universe of fan fiction. Consider the opening of BTS’s “Butter” performance: As the James Bond-themed presentation started, the camera panned to BTS’s V (Kim Taehyung) and Olivia Rodrigo, where the pair were seated next to each other in the audience, chatting. For 18 seconds, V leaned over and whispered what we could only assume were sweet nothings into Rodrigo’s ear. Jaws dropped; eyelashes batted. It was the flirtiest moment in BTS history. I ship it.
Best Carnivalesque Spirit: Jon Batiste and Lil Nas X
Not every Grammy spectacle works out for the best. But two over-the-top song-and-dance numbers this year made their points both visually and musically. Instead of trying to mimic the CGI extravaganza of his video for “Montero (Call Me by Your Name),” Lil Nas X — a social media mastermind — flashed internet reactions to it, surrounded himself with menacing, black-clad drummers, then went bare-midriff to dance in front of a gleaming bust of his head, big enough for a carnival float. He and the ensemble switched to glittery marching-band uniforms for his duet with Jack Harlow, “Industry Baby” — a high-kicking, cheerleading victory parade.
Jon Batiste brought the candy-colored palette and long-limbed, high-stepping moves of his “Freedom” video to the Grammy stage, but in real-time and even more delirious, surrounding himself with dancers of wildly assorted shapes, sizes, and cultural signifiers. Batiste was a piano virtuoso, a vaudevillian, a preacher, and an instigator; he led his forces into the audience and danced onto Billie Eilish’s table. She enthusiastically joined him in singing “Freedom!”
Most Refreshing Comeback: Big, Bold Fashion
The move to Las Vegas or the pent-up desire to dress up after two years of distanced and postponed awards, but the Grammys red carpet was alight with over-the-top, exuberant fashion. Megan The Stallion was channeling an entire big cat enclosure in her one-shouldered, slit-to-the-waist Cavalli; Lil Nas X, a sci-fi warrior angel in pearl-encrusted Balmain; and St. Vincent, the most luxurious boudoir in organza ruffled Gucci. Even Lady Gaga, whose entrance look was classic silver screen elegance, changed into a mint green satin strapless number to perform — with the enormous bow behind her. Meanwhile, the best bling was not just bling for bling’s sake: It was bling with meaning. Jon Batiste set the tone with a silver, gold, and black harlequin sequin suit whose colors were an ode to his hometown New Orleans, and Brandi Carlile said her “40-pound” bejeweled Boss tuxedo was a homage to Elton John. One of the most striking outfits of the whole night was the least fancy: Billie Eilish, performing in a shirt featuring Taylor Hawkins, the Foo Fighters drummer who died in late March. It was a fashion statement of the most effective kind.
Best Sidelined Performances: The Preshow and the Roof
Doubtless, with an eye on the show’s weak ratings, the Grammys — which used to be available for performances of jazz, classical music, and other not-so-commercial genres — have focused in recent times on hits, even as its 80-plus categories recognize niches galore. But there are still music lovers alongside the Grammy metrics team, and the internet is their safe space and consolation prize. The pre-prime-time awards regularly feature superb performances, where all the categories get handed out in a brisk web-only ceremony. This year was no exception: Alison Russell recasting her “Nightflyer” as passionate string-band chamber music, Ledisi presenting a regally tormented version — in French, then English — of “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” Jimmie Allen suffusing country with filial pride in “Down Home” and Mon Laferte working herself up to gale-force fury in “La Mujer.” The prime-time show also allowed itself glimmers of music from beyond the pop charts, sandwiching some ads with snippets of outdoor performances as exuberant as anything on the main stage: salsa from the Cuban singer Aymee Nuviola, worship music from Maverick City Music, and labyrinthine progressive bluegrass from Billy Strings. Eventually, the show promised it would be on the Grammy website.
Best Arm Choreography: J Balvin
J Balvin is not known for his vocal presence. So, it was surprising that the Colombian star chose to open his Grammys performance with “Qué Más Pues? ” His lukewarm pop-reggaeton collaboration with the Argentine singer Maria Becerra. José always has something up his sleeve: After a minute and a half duet with Becerra, the lights came down, and Balvin ascended a lighted staircase in an all-crimson ensemble, flanked by masked, seated dancers in neon bleachers. As he started up his Skrillex-produced EDM jaunt “In da Getto,” the dancers, illuminated by an electric blue glow, broke out coordinated arm choreography. The movements were tight, jagged, and slick: think synchronized swimming, but edgier and with less water. Both well-conceived and executed, it was a refreshing reprieve from the cartoonish visuals and leopard-print buzz-cuts Balvin is known for.
Best Theater Kid Energy: Lady Gaga
It is no secret that the Grammys have had trouble booking A-listers these past few years, so when you can guarantee a household name like Lady Gaga, you better give her the best seat in the house and keep a camera on her all night. Gaga seemed eager to hold court, posing for pics with BTS, rocking out to the Brothers Osborne, and even holding SZA’s train to help her get on stage without tripping over her crutches. But her most memorable moment had to be her gloriously theatrical and somehow-also-touching tribute to her ailing duet partner Tony Bennett. Vamping her way through jazzy renditions of “Love for Sale” and “Do I Love You,” Gaga once again proved she has the range and (with apologies to an impressive Rachel Zegler) somehow out-theater-kidded the show’s Sondheim tribute.
Best Young Awards Show Staple: H.E.R.
The 24-year-old songwriter, singer, and multi-instrumentalist H.E.R. (Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson) has found a regular place at awards shows. That is good because she always has something to say, with a message in her lyrics and a musicianly presence. She flaunts her skills as a singer and player, combining historical knowledge and up-to-the-minute awareness. Her latest Grammys appearance was typically informed and flamboyant. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis flanked her on keytar and bass from the Time and Janet Jackson albums as she sang “Damage,” a song about being taken for granted. Then H.E.R. moved on to a drum kit, slamming out cross-rhythms, before shifting to what used to be called a Grammy Moment: a younger musician joining in on an oldie. This year, she stepped up alongside Lenny Kravitz for his 1993 hit, “Are You Gonna Go My Way,” both singing and strapping on a guitar, presenting herself not as a disciple but an equal.