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Time-traveling with the Grammys

With honorees that predate the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, this year’s awards show may feel a beat or two behind

Dua Lipa is nominated for record and song of the year for her party anthem "Don't Start Now."
Dua Lipa is nominated for record and song of the year for her party anthem "Don't Start Now."Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for dcp

Despite billing itself as music’s biggest night, the Grammys generally feel a bit out of step with popular music — the cut-off for eligible records comes months before the telecast airs, a time gap that feels particularly yawning in the age of surprise drops and TikTok dance crazes. Heck, Taylor Swift — whose quarantine album “Folklore” is honored in multiple categories, including album of the year — released a whole other full-length between the Grammy nominations being announced and the awards’ originally scheduled date of Jan. 28.

This time around, though, the ceremony — which takes place Sunday at 8 p.m. — will have an even more surreal feel thanks to the way its nomination year spans the pre- and post-COVID eras. The 2021 Grammy Awards, its 63rd running, is honoring music that came out between Sept. 1, 2019, and Aug. 30, 2020; pre-pandemic releases like Post Malone’s much-streamed “Hollywood’s Bleeding” (street date: Sept. 6, 2019) commingle with isolation-inspired chestnuts like “Folklore” in the album of the year category, while the song of the year honorees include turn-of-the-decade party jams like Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” as well as H.E.R.’s stark “I Can’t Breathe,” inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer.


Last year, nightmare-chronicling pop upstart Billie Eilish swept the “Big Four” cross-genre categories — record, song, and album of the year, as well as best new artist — in a win that showed how fully she dominated pop. This year’s slate of winners will likely be a lot more varied, both in the major categories and the ones devoted to specific genres; for starters, no artist was nominated in all of the Big Four, and furthermore, the nominations in those categories are all over the map, perhaps reflective not just of the bisected year but also the fragmented way that even people in the industry are listening to music these days.

This year’s Grammys telecast, to be broadcast on CBS and hosted by Trevor Noah, will also be smaller than the usual Staples Center extravaganzas; it’ll be held at “an undisclosed building in Los Angeles,” new executive producer Ben Winston told Rolling Stone earlier this week, with five stages — four for performers, one for presenters — rotating new rosters every 45 minutes. (If you’ve ever seen the British music showcase “Later . . . with Jools Holland,” the setup should feel similar.)


With a list of performers that includes the likes of Swift, Eilish, Lipa, and K-pop superstars BTS, and the unpredictable nature of many of the major categories, the telecast’s overall effect could be even more dizzying than usual.

Maura Johnston can be reached at maura@maura.com.


On CBS, Sunday at 8 p.m.