Grammy Performances Transcend Pathos & Controversy

Billie Eilish
(Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell, who swept the four top Grammy Award categories, performing onstage during the 62nd Grammy Awards at Staples Center on Jan. 26 in Los Angeles.

In a moment, something can happen that wipes away the he-said, she-said in the kind of perspective adjustment no one sees coming. Kobe Bryant’s death – along with his teenage daughter and seven others – by helicopter crash this morning cast a pall over the Grammy Awards that reminded everyone: now is all you have, be your best, rise up, work in love.

On the heels of a week where voting members were barraged with email after email from the Academy clarifying, justifying or just trying to distract from the outsized reaction to allegations, the one thing getting lost was the music and artists being honored. 

But from the moment Lizzo took the Staples Center stage in full figure black sequin Diana Ross glam that morphed into a SciFi neon brothel corset for “Because I Love You” and “Truth Hurts,” music proved to be bigger than potential corruption, shock or the business-is-bigger-than-art momentum that often consumes the industry

Taking Best Pop Vocal Performance, the night’s first award, the clearly stunned woman, who’d already won for Best Traditional R&B Performance for “Jerome,” spoke of attitude adjustment as she waved away tears in her eyes. Then she got down to the verge, “This is the beginning of making music that feels fucking good, that liberates people.”

That notion of why music matters was omnipresent. Alicia Keys did a yeoman’s job addressing the loss of Bryant, asking for a moment of silence “in the House [Staples Center] That Kobe Built.” She then leaned into an a capella “It’s So Hard To Say Good Bye,” joined by Boyz II Men. In a matter of hours, the unflappable musician turned paralyzing sorrow into seeds of healing that resounded throughout the night.

Whether the Nipsey Hussle tribute of “Higher,” anchored by DJ Khaled with John Legend, Meek Mill, Kirk Franklin, Roddy Ricch and YG, that would win Best Rap/Sung Performance, as well as Hussle taking “Racks In The Middle” for Best Rap Performance, the Grammys honored his life, loyalty to family/community and love of music.

(Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

Usher and FKA Twigs perform a Prince tribute at the 2020 Grammy Awards January 26 in Los Angeles.

Prince’s tribute found Usher coming into a more adult thrust, slowing things down but honoring the slink, the sex and the music that made Prince stand out through steamy takes on “Little Red Corvette,” “When Doves Cry” and “Kiss.” With Sheila E on percussion and FKA Twigs serving as a foil, Usher matured into a man who can follow the moves, channeling the eroticism without turning into a cartoon – and like “Higher,” reminding us music transforms, elevates and even transcends.

In spite of the pall, hope stained the night. Billie Eilish, the teen in the baggy clothes singing dysthymic songs for her peers, swept Album (When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?), Song and Record of the Year (“Bad Guy”) and Best New Artist. Performing with just her brother/producer/writer brother Finneas on piano, her vulnerability and intimacy proved a hand grenade in a room of BIG production, demonstrating the raw power of unadorned music.

With each successive win, Eilish – and her brother who’d won Producer of the Year pre-telecast – demonstrated an earnestness and gratitude often unseen at award shows. Receiving Song of the Year, she offered, “I grew up watching the Grammys … I joke around a lot, and never seem to take these things seriously, but I am grateful to my core. I grew up watching you, all of you …

Finneas addressed their fellow nominees, “I love all these songs,” then added, “We still make music in my bedroom. For all the kids who make music in their bedroom, keep doing it — you’ll get one of these.”

Finneas would take it even further after winning Album of the Year, telling the Staples Center, “We didn’t write this to win a Grammy. We wrote an album about depression and suicidal thoughts and climate change. We stand up here confused and very grateful.”

And Eilish, who would flee the stage speechless, acknowledged accepting Best New Artist, “The fans have not been talked about enough tonight … and they’re the reason we’re all here.”

The fans
. For many of the label folks, they’re the scans or streams needed to stay employed. Data points, demographic samples. But in reality, these artists are the fans’ life’s blood. Indeed, watching Lil Nas X cheering Eilish’s win; seeing Rosalia stun the crowd with her flamenco turn; Demi Lovato’s life-baring ballad that was – like Kesha last year – all truth, pain and resolve; Camilla Cabello’s straightforward pop sung to and for her father; experiencing Tyler, the Creator’s sense of not belonging after a performance that moved from classic slow jam soul with Charlie Wilson to a fiery stop/start hardcore on a stage filled with Tyler clones showed how artists draw on each other. 

A community built by music, forged in emotions that save us, crush us, transform or thrill us, the show – longtime producer Ken Ehrlich’s last – delivered the one thing that can’t be bought or scripted. If, once upon a time, a Grammy could inject momentum into the touring career of John Prine, Lyle Lovett or Mary Chapin Carpenter, it could broaden the world for Ricky Martin or tame vitriol thrown at Eminen after a duet with Elton John on “Stan,” the impact was more than a gold sticker for your CD.

A Grammy opened doors for touring, helped get you into PAC Centers, concert series, larger rooms. It gave people confidence to check you out, to pique their curiosity and perhaps spend the money on something they might not because it was Grammy quality.

Bonnie Raitt
(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

Bonnie Raitt performs “Angel from Montgomery” to honor John Prine’s Lifetime Achievement Grammy at Staples Center on Jan. 26, 2020 in Los Angeles.

Indeed, Bonnie Raitt’s career was ignited when the Don Was-produced Nick of Time, recorded after being dropped from longtime label Warner Brothers, swept, taking her from small halls to major amphitheaters, gold to multiplatinum. Given that, it was poignant to see her sing a piece of “Angel from Montgomery” to honor perennial fan-favorite songwriter/artist Prine’s Lifetime Achievement Grammy.

For country music, it was intriguing to see Brandi Carlile, who’s never been played on country radio, referred to as a country artist; though her Highwmen girl group of instrumentalist Amanda Shires, songwriter Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris, as well as her incredible championing/writing/co-producing Tanya Tucker’s Best Country Album (While I’m Living) and Song (“Bring Me My Flowers While I’m Living”) give her footing in this space.

For Tucker, who’s been nominated 14 times, this was her first win. The 61-year old mother of three told the pre-telecast audience, “No matter how young or old you are, never quit following your dreams.”

We can talk about gender/racial/even sexual orientation equality, secret committees, conflicts of interest – and those things need to be addressed. But in the end, watching these artists come together, celebrate each other, find a place in their heart where music drives and the fans matter, it’s what the future should be built on.

Whether H.E.R.’s almost genre-agnostic musicianship and songwriting, Ariana Grande’s vintage pop into a silky post-modern girly slumber party production or Lil Nas X taking taking “Old Town Road” with BTS, Billy Ray Cyrus, Diplo, Mason Ramsey, Nas and Young Thug, there was a common thread of wanting to share and create that hasn’t always been present. More than a competition, it was a celebration – and that’s the spirit that invites fans into the music, out to the shows and into the clubs, sheds, arenas and stadiums.

It’s easy to be cynical and miss that, but that would be a shame. On a day when one of the greatest athletes of our time was killed, the artists transcended the egos of executives and reminded people about the joy of making music.