Who Runs The Grammys? Women + Childish Gambino

Brandi Carlile
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
– Brandi Carlile
performs onstage during the 61st Annual GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on February 10, 2019 in Los Angeles, California

By the time Brandi Carlile delivered a tour de force performance of the outsider-embracing “The Joke,” which propelled the roots songwriter to No. 1 on the iTunes chart, she’d already taken home three Grammys. But just as importantly, her performance, along with standout moments from Janelle Monáe, Lady Gaga, Kacey Musgraves, H.E.R., Cardi B, Jennifer Lopez, Dua Lupe and St. Vincent, Chloe X Halle, Andra Day, Fantasia and Yolanda Adams, stood as a joyous, if firm, rebuke to last year’s comment from outgoing Recording Academy president Neil Portnow that “women need to step up” following criticism of the 2018 Grammys’ lack of female nominees and winners.

Actually, the Grammys need to reinstate the Best Male and Female Solo Performance Awards in the genre categories, but that’s another article. In a night hosted by 15-time Grammy winner Alicia Keys, NARAS made good on Beyoncé’s notion of “Who Runs the World? Girls Do.”
Starting with Gaga, J Lo, Jada Pinkett Smith and Michelle Obama. Linking arms with Keys, each offered her own witness for how music saved their life. It was compelling to hear from a weird outsider, a poor girl from the Bronx who lived to dance, and a First Lady who drew strength from the radio, then fuel over the last decade as so many people debate music’s meaning, relevance and import in our rapidly evolving society.
Kacey Musgraves
Matt Sayles/Invision/AP
– Kacey Musgraves
accepts the award for Album Of The Year at the 61st annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 10, 2019 in Los Angeles.
Kacey Musgraves took the night’s biggest prize, startling many with her Album of the Year win for the critically-lauded Golden Hour. A smearing of styles, she maintained her crystalline country, but expanded into dance, trance, Adult Contemporary and pop, consistent with her own professed desire to bring people together. With a minimal performance – dressed in white with only a white piano behind her – “Rainbow” stood as a small song with a big heart and a genuine offering of acceptance to all. 
Beyond the obvious mea culpa, there were performances that would’ve stood out no matter what the production’s subtext. 
Gaga’s high velocity, David Bowie/Mick Ronson-evoking, large rhinestoned catsuit ’n’ platforms reinvention of “A Star Is Born”’s “Shallow” was almost heavy metal opera. Beyond the Americana-leaning recording, Gaga showed the song’s dexterity as social commentary (an indictment of a surface world, a hunger for deeper connection, a seeking of personal meaning) and canvas for thundering rock ‘n’ roll.
 Janelle Monáe’s Prince-evoking “Make Me Feel” made playing your own guitar and a bot-meets-girl distaff chorus a funnel of cyber-hotness. Jubilant, musical, strong, empowered, Monáe brought sexual dynamism to the show, giving femme-politics a more orgasmic thrust. 
H.E.R. took a leeaner approach to playing your own guitar – a literal rejoinder in a world of musical mansplaining – and turned in “Hard Place.” The performance recalled the days of bands who “merely” played, and it set her song in clear focus. Just as importantly, the 21-year-old Californian’s organic instrumentation helped pick up Grammys for Best R&B Album and Performance.
Cardi B, of course, brought serious sex. Working a purple bordello set, she evoked the glory days of the Zeigfeld Follies, while delivering on image-defined expectation with an industrial strength “Money.” But as she realized she was the first woman to win Best Rap Album, she broke character at the podium; clearly overwhelmed, she could barely accept her award.
Equally important, though, was who wasn’t there to accept. Ariana Grande took home Best Pop Album, ultimately tweeting a picture of her Grammy dress after stepping out due to conflict with the producers. Childish Gambino picked up two of the Big Four – Single and Song of the Year – for “This Is America,” and he, like fellow winners Jay-Z and Beyoncé, chose to pass on being in the room. 
Drake, who declined to perform, took the stage to accept the Grammy for Best Rap Song for “God’s Plan.” Ironically, his speech was its own political truth, decrying the importance of a Grammy. “I want to take this opportunity while I’m up here to just talk to all the kids that are watching this, that are aspiring to do music, all my peers that make music from their heart, that do things pure and tell the truth. I want to let you know we play in an opinion-based sport, not a factual-based sport. So, it’s not the NBA where at the end of the year, you’re holding a trophy because you made the right decisions and won the games. 
“This is a business where sometimes it’s up to a bunch of people that might not understand, you know, what a mixed-race kid from Canada has to say or a fly Spanish girl from New York or anybody else. The point is, you’ve already won if you have people who are singing your songs word for word, if you’re a hero in your hometown. Look, if there is people who have regular jobs who are coming out in the rain, in the snow, spending their hard-earned money to buy tickets to come to your shows, you don’t need this right here. I promise you, you already won …” 
And then the speech was cut-off. It was that kind of night. For all the celebration, there was a sense of what wasn’t being said, or seen. NARAS, in some ways, seemed determine to self-congratulate, and weren’t going to let anything get in the way. At times, even the winners felt forced, with some sniping on social media, “Are only women going to win?” 
Was there a hangover from last year’s fall-out driving voting? Did self-interest or self-preservation come into play? And what about the whispered about committee, who ultimately sets the ballots? Nobody wants to win because an agenda must be served. Though not one person, not even the impossibly composed Drake, didn’t seem honored to be recognized by a voting body made up of the people who create the music.
If there was a greater sag, it was the need to spend so much time in homage to the elders. While Dolly Parton’s MusiCares Person of the Year tribute provided a showcase for several show-promoting stars (Miley! Katy! Maren! Little Big Town!), it also had torque, sparkle and a reminder of how awesome – and still vital – the Pigeon Forge supernova is. Parton’s presence was as vital as anyone’s on the show.
The same can’t be said for Diana Ross, in a dress that looked stolen from Loretta Lynn’s trunk of dyed wedding gowns. Working cute with an intro by her 9-year old grandson, she revisited an obscure hit, then dove into the aisles for “Touch Somebody’s Hand.”
Roots are important. TV values essential. But how much? And how? J Lo may have been the great compromise, bringing her best dance moves to a Motown tribute. Channeling Ann Margaret and Tina Turner, she gave the classics a sizzle that was as visually electric as it was romping through the hits. Ditto gospel great Yolanda Adams, Fantasia and Andra Day, who offered Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman” at the end of the In Memoriam section.
It’s a tricky thing to be all to everyone. Somehow that line has never been the answer for Music’s Biggest Night. Yes, it comes down to TV and attracting eyes, but a show that’s meant to honor music should be able to create production to do just that – and reflect the world as it is right now. Strides were made, though too many gaffes may see  the hip hop community never buying in. 
For now, progress and not perfection is the most realistic outcome. But where there is progress, there is right direction. Let’s hope as producer Ken Ehrlich’s team winds down, they keep moving that way, as music – even more than film – is the fuel, the grouting, the watermarks of so many lives.