Kendrick Lamar, who along with Bruno Mars was one of Sunday night’s big winners at the 60th Grammy Awards, opened this year’s telecast surrounded by a grid of masked figures marching in place in front of an American flag. Staring down at the floor, he tore through a verse of his hit “XXX” before the flag vanished and a message appeared above him: “This is a satire by Kendrick Lamar.” This seemed to be confirmed by the sudden appearance of Bono and the Edge of U2.
With that, he exploded back into a section of “DNA,” another hit off of his Grammy magnet “DAMN.” — which garnered five trophies, including best rap album, best rap/sung performance, best rap performance, best rap song, and best music video (the latter three were for album single “Humble”). He paused for brief interruptions from comedian Dave Chappelle (whose “The Age of Spin/Deep in the Heart of Texas” won best comedy album): “The only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America is being an honest black man in America.” That part didn’t seem like satire; by the end, Lamar’s performance seemed literally to catch fire, his lyrical shots dropping each figure to the floor.
It was as good a suggestion as any of who was really running the show at the Grammys. Last year, host James Corden’s golden-retriever-esque eagerness to please had him throwing himself down a flight of stairs to entertain, but this time around, the “Late Late Show” host seemed content to let the artists do the talking and preside over the party as an aggressively anodyne wallflower — though he did offer a brief reassurance that this year’s batch of hopefuls was “the most diverse group of nominees in Grammys history” and invited Jay-Z on a tour of Brooklyn.
To Corden’s credit, his diversity claim was true-ish — this year’s winners were led by artists including Lamar and Mars (whose six wins included song of the year, best R&B performance, best R&B song for “That’s What I Like,” and album of the year, record of year, best R&B album, and best engineered album, non-classical, for “24K Magic”), Jay-Z (who led the field with eight nominations and left empty-handed), Lamar (who had seven nominations), Childish Gambino, Khalid, and SZA (five each). Down the dial, amply-bearded country star Chris Stapleton pulled a cowboy hat trick, winning for best country album (“From a Room: Volume 1”), country solo performance (“Either Way”), and country song (“Broken Halos”).
But while diverse, this year’s spread across the top categories skewed conspicuously dude-heavy. Apart from Lorde’s spot in the album of the year category and a songwriting credit to Alessia Cara in the song of the year category (for her part on Logic’s “1-800-273-8255”), the big three were a bro-fest.
And despite Cara’s surprise early victory in the best new artist category, the glaring scarcity of women among the winners was a weird look in the midst of a #MeToo moment, and the white roses many attendees pinned to themselves in honor of the movement doubled as silent reminders of their absence. (Ed Sheeran’s defeat of P!nk, Kelly Clarkson, Kesha, and Lady Gaga with the ubiquitous come-on “Shape of You” in the best pop solo performance category probably didn’t help matters on this front.)
Women, however, were well represented in the night’s performances; other than Lamar, they gave the broadcast the only real life it had. Little Big Town balanced the salty sweetness of “Better Man,” which took home a trophy for best country duo/group performance. Lady Gaga gave a spare and elegant take on her “Joanne” that segued into a stirring section of “Million Reasons.” Pop-dial veteran P!nk delivered a powerhouse performance “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken,” and underground newcomer SZA gave what could be a breakthrough performance of “Broken Clocks.” Patti Lupone gave the night’s most pearl-clutching performance, honoring Andrew Lloyd Webber with a crowd-flattening “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” Emmylou Harris joined Stapleton to introduce a particularly brutal memorial reel with a rendition of Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers.” And Rihanna’s sensuous performance of “Wild Thoughts” gave the club staple some fresh dimension while preserving the mystery behind what, exactly, collaborator DJ Khaled actually does.
Women also gave the show its most powerful moment. Janelle Monae’s introduction of Kesha was the show’s centerpiece, and the clearest rallying cry for the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements: “We come in peace, but we mean business,” said Monae to applause. Kesha gave a cathartic performance of the ballad “Praying,” joined by Cyndi Lauper, Camila Cabello, Julia Michaels, Andra Day, Bebe Rexha, and members of the Resistance Revival Chorus. Through the final notes, a tearful Kesha drew as many of them in for an embrace as she could reach. (Logic’s impassioned off-script ending to “1-800-273-8255,” his anti-suicide anthem with Cara and Khalid, came a close second.)
Other notable performances included a remembrance of the victims of the mass shooting in Las Vegas set to Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” and performed by Eric Church, Maren Morris, and Brothers Armstrong; while on the far opposite end of the spectrum was the short-shorted throng of backup dancers taking the stage for Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s sex jam “Despacito.” And the perennially unavoidable U2 gave an appropriately disconnected performance of “Get Out of Your Own Way” from a barge floating near Ellis Island.
The vast majority of the 84 Grammy winners were recognized hours before the telecast at the Premiere Ceremony, with some notable locals among them. The War on Drugs, led by Dover native Adam Granduciel, won best rock album for “A Deeper Understanding” and Aimee Mann won for best folk album for her spellbinding recent record “Mental Illness.”Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.