2019 Grammys: The Recording Academy Tried “Stepping Up” Their Game
A year after Neil Portnow's controversial comments about women in the industry, the Academy actually got some things right.Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Music Features Grammys
Last week, Spencer Kornhaber over at The Atlantic predicted that one body in particular would rule the 2019 Grammys: women with guitars. His forecast could not have been more spot-on. Despite rap and R&B dominating the major category nominees, as those genres have for years now, that fearless, reckless mob of guitar-slinging ladies triumphed last night. A teary-eyed, humble Kacey Musgraves won Album of the Year for her untouchable masterwork Golden Hour. She also beat out the likes of Chris Stapleton, Dan + Shay and Brothers Osborne to take home trophies for Best Country Song, Solo Performance and Album. St. Vincent, often an indie outsider, won the Grammy for best rock song. H.E.R., who also had nominations for Album of the Year and Best New Artist, delivered a star-making solo performance of “Hard Place,” just after snagging the award for Best R&B album. Brandi Carlile sung an anthem for the ages. Musgraves, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and more joined Dolly Parton in a moving tribute to the country legend. Women without a doubt owned the night.
That’s quite a pleasant pivot from last year’s show, which, like the Grammys so often are, was a flop. The 2018 show happened a few months after #MeToo took off, and the Recording Academy’s stab at reckoning was weak. Sure, they recruited Kesha to lead a flamboyance of women artists in a powerful rendition of her #MeToo anthem, “Praying,” but it was the worst kind of woke: a surface-level, PR-friendly performance meant to distract us from the Grammys’ actual travesties, which included choosing Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic for the awards trifecta (AOTY, SOTY and ROTY) over Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed DAMN. Also among the malfeasances was Recording Academy president Neil Portnow’s cringe-worthy comments made in an attempt to explain away the glaring gender disproportion among the 2018 winners: “It has to begin with… women who have the creativity in their hearts and souls, who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, producers, and want to be part of the industry on the executive level,” he said. ”[They] need to step up because I think they would be welcome.” Cue the collective “yikes” from female musicians everywhere.
After copious amounts of backlash, Portnow has since announced his retirement and was given quite the superfluous send-off during last night’s telecast. But, thankfully, that was just one of a few eyebrow-raising decisions by the Academy last night (joined by the washed-up bro party that was the Post Malone/Red Hot Chili Peppers medley, the 21 Savage-sized elephant in the room and Jennifer Lopez’s questionable Motown tribute). Last year’s Grammys were the lame snooze we always expect them to be. Unlike the Oscars, which typically favor artistic merit over commercial success, the Grammys usually go for the uncontroversial blockbuster (i.e. Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic). This year, choosing the album with the most critical consensus (Musgraves’ Golden Hour) for AOTY was a big step (pun very much intended) in the right direction.
The Academy also broke the norm in the SOTY and ROTY categories. While Donald Glover, like Ariana Grande, opted to appear in a Google ad over actually attending the ceremony, Childish Gambino also made history last night after the politically charged “This is America” became the first ever hip-hop track to win song of the year. Rap and hip-hop have been among the biggest genres in music for almost 30 years now, so there’s really only one thing to say about that: It’s about damn time.
The night’s performances were also beautifully out of the ordinary for a Grammys broadcast, mainly because they were mostly delivered by women. Carlile’s devastating “The Joke” will likely go down in history as one of the best, and Camila Cabello’s energetic opening of the show with her hit “Havana” was a spectacle honoring the current Latin domination of the pop charts. Lady Gaga, no stranger to the Grammys stage, did an earth-shattering take on “Shallow.” It will be interesting to see how her Oscars performance compares. Cardi B, who rightfully won Best Rap Album last night, wowed in an unforgettably confident performance of “Money.”
And, maybe for the first time ever (at least in an embracive sense), the Grammys were also queer as hell. Musgraves could’ve performed any of the hit singles from Golden Hour (the stream giant “Slow Burn,” disco banger “High Horse” or the smash ballad “Space Cowboy”). But instead, she performed the pride-forward “Rainbow” and released it as a single accompanied by an emotional new video, specially for Grammys night. As Vulture pointed out last year, Kacey Musgraves is something of a gay icon. And Janelle Monàe, while notably snubbed from the winners’ circle, did a show-stopping rendition of her Prince-inspired queer anthem, “Make Me Feel.” St. Vincent and Best New Artist winner Dua Lipa offered up the hottest thing you’ve seen on live TV in a minute, a steamy mash-up of the sex-positive “Masseduction” (“I can’t turn off what turns me on”) and Lipa’s “One Kiss.” Brandi Carlile’s heart-touching “The Joke” is a loud call for acceptance. Rainbows abounded.
Another spot of sunlight was host Alicia Keys. She’s a class act and proved a much warmer, more welcoming host than last year’s overzealous James Corden. The Academy may have pawned her off as a woke item, but there was something very genuine about her inviting former First Lady and forever icon Michelle Obama on stage to talk about the power of music. Maybe a little nostalgia was just enough to pacify the pickiest viewers.
Don’t read me wrong: The Recording Academy, like most awards bodies, still has a long way to go in terms of gender (not to mention genre) equality. But with Neil Portnow on the outs, and conscious effort to promote inclusion and diversity, the future is looking a little brighter for music’s biggest night. As Kacey Musgraves would have it, it’s “happy and sad at the same time.”
Find the complete list of 2019 Grammy winners here.