The Woke 60th Annual Grammys: A Year of Messaging & Reckoning

In a year without a white male in the four general categories, the 60th Annual Grammy Awards got serious from the drop. Opening with a daunting performance from Kendrick Lamar that took on patriotic marketing, Black Lives Matter and the place of art, the telecast honored diversity, commitment to social change and consciousness.

Kesha Grammys
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for NARAS
– Kesha Grammys
Bebe Rexha, Cyndi Lauper, Kesha, Camila Cabello, Andra Day and Julia Michaels perform onstage during the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 2018 in New York City.

Lamar – always provocative – served a medley of “XXX” and “DNA” that continued his tradition of putting America on notice. An ironic first sequence with American flags and seemingly pro-military staging was followed by a graphic proclaiming “This is a satire by Kendrick Lamar.” Two spoken word interludes by Dave Chappelle and a cameo by U2’s Bono and the Edge added commentary before his dancers – one by one – fell to the floor to syncopated “gun shot” cracks.

A powerful start to an evening of messages and reckoning, Bruno Mars’ retro-funk took album, record and song of the year with 24K Magic and “That’s What I Like.” While Lamar, Jay-Z and Childish Gambino brought the street edge of rap, it was euphoria that carried the major categories voted on by all members across the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.

Jay-Z, who received NARAS’ Icon Award at Clive Davis’ annual dinner the night before, went home empty-handed. Lamar’s only televised win was the night’s first prize – best rap/sung performance – for “Loyalty” with Rihanna; but he also swept the rap categories, taking album (DAMN), performance and song (“Humble”).

Even more than the winners, there was awareness being flexed. From Camila Cabello speaking for the immigrants’ dreams and her own parents arriving with nothing but “pockets of hope,” Janelle Monae offering an impassioned “Time’s Up” speech to introduce Kesha’s raw performance of’ “Praying” and Logic – joined by DJ Khalid and best new artist winner Alessia Cara – delivering the suicide prevention “1-800-273-8255” with an emboldening spoken word close that reached out to the disenfranchised and the overwhelmed, the Grammys were an agent of “woke.”

In many ways, it was also a year of minimalism, where music stood unadorned. Pink sang “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken” alone, in jeans and a white T-shirt, at a mic on a satellite stage. Also working from a small satellite stage, both Childish Gambino, delivering a stripped down, but sultry “Terrified,” and Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hansen” star Ben Platt, with a near perfect take on “Somewhere” from “West Side Story,” created captivating performances.

Even Lady Gaga and Mark Ronson used the small stage to great effect. Playing a piano draped in giant wings, Gaga took a stripped down “Joanne” and “Million Reasons” into diva territory through sheer emotion, dedicating the performance to her late aunt.

Lifetime achievement winner Emmylou Harris joined country album/song/solo performance winner Chris Stapleton in homage to those creators who died with a tender two voice/two guitar reading of Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” for the “In Requiem” segment.

Not everything worked that well. “Tears in Heaven” from a trio of country’s most credible mainstreamers Eric Church, Maren Morris, and Brothers Osborne felt flat and disengaged, and the Chuck Berry/Fats Domino tribute by the talented Gary Clark Jr. and Jon Batiste failed to spark of the essence of the pioneers they meant to celebrate. That is the trouble with Grammy moments: 1+1 is sometimes less than the sum of the parts.

Over-reliance on aging rock stars also becomes a diminishing return, as familiarity breeds contempt. By the time Sting suffered through the disastrous “Subway Car Karaoke” comedy bit – a performance with Shaggy that never ignited – even Police fans had had enough. U2’s pre-taped Statue of Liberty performance paled compared to the Lamar cameo – and their album of the year presenting speech was rendered painful.

Perhaps the night’s greatest diva turns came from two of music’s longest-reigning grand dames. Sir Elton John, joined by a very grown-up and ball-gowned Miley Cyrus, celebrating 1972’s “Tiny Dancer,” a love song to the innocence of rock and roll, and Patti Lupone reprising her Evita-culminating tour du force “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” delivered.

“Despacito” – sans Justin Bieber – offered Luis Fonzi and Daddy Yankee’s earworm energy burst, but it was Mars with Cardi B who brought the night’s pop sparkle. An homage to ’80s and ’90s hip-hop that evoked Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and the original Swatch Watch Fresh Fest Tours, Mars’ “Finesse” was ebullience as a big performance number, complete with breakdancing.

As a state of the music core sample, the 2018 Grammys said as much about the creators’ states of mind as the reality of pop culture. Even the conservative-baiting – and hilarious – audition for next year’s best spoken word Grammy featuring John Legend, Cher, Snoop Dogg and Senator

Will pop music become more political? Will the machined, stacked and layered productions yield to more organic, pure performance dynamics? Hard to imagine, but for one night in New York City, the Grammys seemed determined to hold those values as the standard the Academy wanted to encourage.