The 66th Grammy Awards appeared to go exactly as planned Sunday, despite arriving during the biggest storm of the year. And that was exactly the problem.
There were few noticeable flubs, outbursts or bleep-laden speeches during the live broadcast from downtown L.A.’s Crypto.com Arena. Performances by Dua Lipa, SZA and Travis Scott went off without a hitch. Four-time host Trevor Noah had his emcee routine down so pat that the unpredictable comedian proved predictable. As expected, Taylor Swift won album of the year — again.
So, though some might call it a conspiracy that Swift took home the top prize, breaking the record she shared with Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder for most ever wins in that category, there’s no point in blaming the Pentagon or the NFL. The shortcomings of the 2024 Grammys fall squarely on the Recording Academy, which, in its love affair with the safe and familiar, always seems to put the pressure on the performances and winners to surprise us. And this year, producers had little such luck.
Save for a bold speech by Jay-Z and a moving Joni Mitchell performance — her first ever at the Grammys — things went so smoothly during the three-plus-hour ceremony that I found myself longing for the messiness of Grammys past, with their rambling speeches, flawed production concepts, political shout-outs and impassioned yet sloppy sets. There’s a reason that ODB and then Kanye crashing the stage made history. Or that you remember Lizzo whipping out a flask and taking a huge swig after losing song of the year, only to win album if the year minutes later. They were moments that embodied the rebellion and impulsiveness that fuels the best popular music — be it hip-hop, rock, dance. That spontaneity was largely missing Sunday despite all the formidable talent in the room.
Don’t get me wrong. Tracy Chapman singing “Fast Car” with nominee Luke Combs was beautiful. So was Billie Eilish’s performance of “What Was I Made For?,” her single from the movie “Barbie,” which won song of the year. But those moments alone weren’t enough to pump adrenaline into the show.
Jay-Z managed to interrupt regularly scheduled programming when he accepted the Dr. Dre Global Impact Award, an honor for Black music creators who’ve elevated the art form. He broke with protocol by calling out the Recording Academy itself for continually snubbing Black artists: He remembered how, in 1989, Will Smith and musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff boycotted the awards when they found out the new category of rap performance wouldn’t be televised. He added that when he was nominated for rap album in 1998, he “took a page out of their book” and chose not to attend when the rapper DMX didn’t receive any nominations.
“We want y’all to get it right,” he said from the stage Sunday, accompanied by daughter Blue Ivy. “We love y’all. At least get it close to right.” Then he spoke of his wife, Beyoncé, as she looked on from the audience. “She has more Grammys than everybody and never won album of the year. So even by your own metrics, that doesn’t work. Think about that: The most Grammys. Never won album of the year. That doesn’t work. Some of you are going to go home and feel like you’ve been robbed. Some of you may get robbed. Some of you don’t belong in the category.” Some in the crowd gasped.
“When I get nervous,” he acknowledged, “I tell the truth.”
And, as Sunday’s Grammys proved in the end, he did: No matter what you think of Beyoncé’s work, Jay-Z underscored how difficult it’s been — historically and presently — for the Recording Academy to embrace the work of Black and female artists.
That’s what made this year’s overwhelming number of female nominees in the major categories, many of them women of color, so exciting. Including seven of the eight nominees for album of the year: SZA’s “SOS,” Miley Cyrus’ “Endless Summer Vacation,” Lana Del Rey’s “Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd,” “the record” by boygenius, “The Age Of Pleasure” by Janelle Monáe, “Guts” by Olivia Rodrigo and Swift’s “Midnights.”
There were other moments of truth beside Jay-Z’s — Joni Mitchell’s quiet, stirring rendition of “Both Sides Now,” with the 80-year-old mother of all confessional singers accompanied by Brandi Carlile on guitar; Billy Joel unveiling his first new song in 30 years; Celine Dion, amid her struggle with stiff person syndrome, appearing to present the final award.
For the most part, though, the ceremony failed to communicate the same exhilarating picture of music’s future as the varied crop of nominees. Instead, it was often as stale as Noah’s jokes about the L.A. weather, or asking Dr. Dre for a prescription for Ozempic. When even the host seems bored, a little chaos can go a long way.