It’s just hours after the credits rolled on the 59th Annual Grammys this Sunday (Feb. 12), and it’s already tempting to wonder how this year’s show is going to be looked at a decade from now. Will it be the Grammys where a handful of ascendant artists offered career-best national performances that cemented them as part of the pop elite? Will it be the one where messaging took center stage, with artists offering statements small and large about the divisive political climate? Will it be the one where a couple of the greatest tribute performances in recent memory went down, including one that needed a virtually unprecedented second take to properly connect? Or will it just be the one where Adele beat Beyonce for the night’s top honors, a choice questioned by many (and none so loudly as the winner herself)?
It’s hard to say exactly how the 2017 Grammys are going to be remembered. But one thing is for sure: They will be remembered, and pretty vividly at that. And that’s not something that any award show can ever take for granted.
In fact, it’s hard to recall an award show of recent years that managed such a confluence of stunning performances, controversial award winners (and acceptance speeches) and real-world relevance — the three biggest factors in making a Grammy night more than just a future Wikipedia summary, aside from the presence of Kanye, a stage-crasher, or a stage-crashing Kanye. (As previously reported, ‘Ye was a no-show, though host James Corden got some mid-show juice out of a belabored tease of West’s surprise appearance, which turned out to just be a fake-out intro of Neil Portnow.)
First and foremost, pop music simply represented at the 2017 Grammys. The Weeknd, offered spiritual assistance by his new robot pals in Daft Punk, gave the most assured national performance of his career with new single “I Feel It Coming.” Ed Sheeran has never looked more like a star than he did playing his chart-topping “Shape of You” as a one-man band in a Hoax T-shirt, his heartthrob status feeling less unlikely every day. Chance the Rapper cemented his journey from cult hero to national icon with two major wins (including one as the first non-Macklemore MC to take Best New Artist this century) and a gospel-fueled rendition of “All We Got” that seemed to lift the entire Staples Center several feet off the ground. Even the often disastrous cross-genre mishmashes — Lady Gaga and Metallica, Maren Morris and Alicia Keys — congealed nicely thanks to the gameness and the malleability of their performers.
There might not have been a better way to see the quality level of this year’s performances than via the centerpiece gig from the reigning greatest award-show performer of this decade, Beyonce. Her two-song mini-gig of Lemonade deep cuts “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles” was a beautifully presented, immaculately delivered and personally affecting performance that proved singular to this moment in Bey’s personal life, something few artists make the point of doing with every performance as she does. It’ll quickly prove iconic, no doubt, but it didn’t tower over the rest of the show: Unlike some other award shows of recent years, where Beyonce airlifts to the Twitter winners’ circle and everyone else performs like they’re already thinking about the after-party, there were plenty of performers willing to compete with The Queen this time out, and some of ’em actually put up a pretty good fight.
But as tremendous as much of that was, anyone who lived through 2016 knew that the ’17 Grammys could only feel like an appropriate encapsulation of the previous year if they addressed two things: politics and dead legends. The night started out relatively tame on the former front — aside from a punchline or two from host James Corden — but ramped up with a Katy Perry rendition of new woke-pop anthem “Chained to the Rhythm,” symbolically hiding behind a picket fence with a “Persist” armband, and absolutely exploded with the climactic performance from reunited rap greats A Tribe Called Quest. Performing a three-song medley that began with their ’90s classic “Award Tour,” the group gradually raised the temperature up to an absolutely incendiary “We the People,” beginning with guest rapper Busta Rhymes loudly decrying “President Agent Orange” and ending with frontman Q-Tip bellowing “RESIST! RESIST!” It was a moment that reverberated loudly enough to spook Tomi Lahren, and that’s about all the activism you can ask for from an award show in 2017.
And of course, the Tribe performance also packed the double-whammy of paying homage to the group’s exalted late second-in-command, Phife Dog, one of a trio of fantastic tributes to late greats of 2016. Bruno Mars whipped out the eyeliner and his six string for a shredding performance of “Let’s Go Crazy” with the Prince-founded group The Time in tow — who also ran through their own Purple Rain classics in “Jungle Love” and “The Bird” — in a salute that did The Purple One proud with every phallic guitar slide. And despite getting off to a false start — which she actually had the grit to call timeout on, and run it back to the beginning — Adele’s tear-stained reinvention of George Michael’s mid-’90s dance-pop hit “Fastlove” as a crushing torch song was a triumph, an interpretation that showcased both Adele’s generational vocal mightiness and Michael’s peerless songwriting transmutability.
With all that came before it, it’s something of a shame that the evening’s final moment may reduce the entire night’s proceedings to the simple question: How did Beyonce lose again? The answer is a complicated one that factors in decades of historical precedents and contemporary industry voter demographics, but at its core, it’s also a very simple one: Bad timing.
Though many will undoubtedly feel that Adele’s 25 was a less-relevant, less-progressive and ultimately less-worthy album of the year than Beyonce’s Lemonade — Ms. Adkins herself was so apologetic and reverential towards Bey during her acceptance speech that she seemed milliseconds away from walking off the stage and literally handing her the statue — sometimes, it just comes down to the numbers. Fact is, 25 put up Barry Bonds stats in the music world’s equivalent to the dead-ball era; which, combined with her classically Grammy-friendly sound and esteemed industry stature, may have simply made her undeniable. A non-Adele year and Beyonce likely struts to the podium, but all the timeliness in the world couldn’t give Lemonade the edge over an uncontroversial commercial behemoth like 25.
But really, such an ending only amplifies the unusual amount of raw feeling produced by the entirety of this year’s Grammys — the excitement, the righteous fury, even the brief moments of humiliation which made these ceremonies so gripping. It was the rare award show that actually didn’t need to pump up its coming attractions with “The moment everyone will be talking about tomorrow!” hype, because a perfectly acceptable water-cooler discussion for Monday would simply be “Hey, did you see the Grammys last night?” There should be more than enough to work with from there.
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