Grammys’ Focus on Message Songs Meshes Well With Kobe-Mourning Mood: TV Review

“It’s been a hell of a week,” said Alicia Keys, moments into her hosting gig on Sunday night’s Grammys telecast. “Damn! It’s a really serious one — real talk.” No kidding. Was this the first 99.9% joke-free Grammys, in the 62-year history of the telecast?

Not that anyone should be complaining about that, exactly … not after the recent Golden Globes show, where you could’ve been offended by Ricky Gervais pooping on the entire proceedings or just affronted by the comic inertia of the interplay forced on all the presenters. None of that for Music’s Greatest Night: Choosing Alicia Keys as host augured for earnestness, even before circumstances dictated an even straighter face for the show. As the scandal at the Recording Academy went beyond nuclear, you could imagine the Grammys’ scriptwriters furiously crossing out any existing quips, for fear of seeming facetious while Rome burns. Then, in a tragic fluke reminiscent of Whitney passing away on the eve of the 2012 Grammys, Kobe died, turning his home base and the Grammys’ both, Staples Center, into a deeply haunted house.

Keys didn’t lead the audience in prayer, like LL Cool J did when he was hosting the show the year Houston died. But she did tell viewers that “we’re all feeling crazy sadness right now… standing here in the house that Kobe Bryant built. … We never imagined in a million years we would have to start the show like this. Never, never, never, never, never. But we wanted to start with something that could describe a tiny bit how we all feel right now.” The basketball great didn’t have a signature song, obviously, so there could be no repeat of something as emotional as Jennifer Hudson singing “I Will Always Love You” on a moment’s notice in 2012. But the producers did locate a suitable, singular In Memoriam song in “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday,” sung a cappella by its originators, Boyz II Men, with Keys, as spotlights shone on Bryant’s retired #8 and #24 jerseys in the arena’s rafters.

When Keys wandered out into the exclusively celebrity section of the audience, saying it was time for some of the glitterati to meet one another, it seemed like the setup to an Ellen DeGeneres-style bit. But Keys doesn’t do bits. “Let’s love each other,” she said, making sure that Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani had shaken hands with LL Cool J, “because we don’t know from minute to minute. It’s a real thing.” The night had a lot of moments like that, where the remarks from Keys and others turned grave and idealistic, and you weren’t always entirely sure if they were carefully alluding to the recent Recording Academy madness or subtweeting mortality itself.

Fortunately, the show that executive producer Ken Ehrlich already had booked had a decent amount of gravity already built into the song choices, so these carpe diem sentiments didn’t have to be shoved between booty calls. There was only one song, Tanya Tucker’s “Bring My Flowers Now,” that directly dealt with death, or the conscious anticipation of it. Others became about that on a more or less de facto basis, though. That was clearly the case with DJ Khaled and John Legend’s “Higher,” now resurrected without one of its collaborators, the late Nipsey Hussle, in tribute to him, with gospel great Kirk Franklin brought in as the presiding joyful eulogist. But even some numbers that had moment-seizing more as subtext suddenly seemed weightier. One of the first performances of the evening, the Shelton/Stefani duet “Nobody But You,” turned from a romantic near-trifle to an Affirmation Of Life. “I don’t wanna look back in 30 years and wonder who you’re married to,” they sang. “I don’t wanna live without you / I don’t wanna even breathe… / Looking in your eyes now / If I had to die now.” It felt like a musical marriage proposal as a talisman against tragedy.

Was there sex, as well as death, on the show? Yes, that, too! Although not a lot of it. The Jonas Brothers broke the seize-the-moment mood with a randy seize-the-morning tune — the unreleased “Five More Minutes,” a previously unheard song about a.m. lovemaking, excerpted as a prelude to a fuller version of their current single, “What a Man Gotta Do.” (What exactly the Jonases think they can accomplish in a mere five minutes will perhaps be explained in the song’s unheard verses.) Ariana Grande took the show into her pinkish/purplish/blueish bedroom for “7 Rings,” with a lot of lingerie-clad dancers that suggested some kind of group something might happen in or around the sack, before they disappeared and she slipped her own ring onto her own finger — alone again, naturally? — at the end of her medley’s closer, “Thank U, Next.” At a typical MTV VMAs show, these sexier numbers would have gotten lost in a flood of more outrageous carnality. Here, they were kind of a welcome respite from the seriousness of all that memorializing and all those message songs.

But the “statement” songs were the core of the evening, and there were several powerful ones. Arguably the best numbers of the evening were four that had a woman alone with nothing but a piano for accompaniment. If Ehrlich had a singular genius moment during his final telecast as the Grammys’ producer, it was in the philosophical-show-biz wisdom of directly juxtaposing Camila Cabello’s “First Man” against Tucker’s “Bring My Flowers Now” — the first a coming-of-age song, the second more of a going-of-age song — both highly emotional triumphs for a pair of women speaking powerfully to such specific, different places in their lives.

“First Man” provided an example of how performing the deep album cut can make much more of an impact than the hit single (the thing that Ehrlich was reportedly trying to convince Cabello of last year, righty or wrongly, when their negotiations went south). It’s the best song she’s written so far, a personal ballad worthy of her pal Taylor Swift, about giving thanks to Dad for raising and loving her right even as she’s telling him that, yes, she’s about to go spend the night with a love less platonic. The tune is already such a father/daughter tearjerker, as it is, that it was nearly overkill to suddenly have Cabello walk into the front rows and actually jerk tears out of her dad. Nearly, but not really. The sentiment in this track is so honest that they really couldn’t take it too far; the sight of Cabello directly serenading her pop with a song about worshipping him and establishing her independence from him at the same time spoke more to family values than a thousand speeches.

Camila Cabello, Alejandro Cabello. Camila Cabello performs "First Man" as an image of her dad Alejandro Cabello is projected on screen at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards, in Los Angeles62nd Annual Grammy Awards - Show, Los Angeles, USA - 26 Jan 2020

Segueing right from that into the song by Tucker, who’d just won her first Grammys 47 years after first being nominated, was a moment that spoke to the Grammys at their intergenerational best. As Tucker sang about wanting the love that’s due her right now and not at the funeral parlor, she was accompanied on piano by producer and co-writer Brandi Carlile, who was participating in an ongoing “pay it forward” moment after being one of the belles of the Grammy ball herself last year. Tucker had reportedly been suffering from bronchitis going into the performance, and you could see Carlile looking up seriously at her toward the beginning of the tune, as if she were checking to make sure Tucker would be able to nail it. She did, and you could see Carlile smile and relax as it became clear the veteran singer was successfully claiming her bouquets.

These two performances almost seemed like musical-comedy numbers compared to Demi Lovato’s reading of a brand new song, “Anyone.” Well, new to us, the audience. Introducing the song, presenter Greta Gerwig said that Lovato “wrote this next song last summer, just four days before an incident that almost took her life.” (Presumably she really meant the summer before last, which is when Lovato suffered a well-publicized drug overdose.) “Tonight she’s here to share her voice with all those who are battling the darkness in their lives, so they might be reminded there is light on the other side.” The singer started out the song with a tear running down her right cheek, then signaled her pianist to stop so she could start over again, more composed. What followed was a lung-buster about depression that is downright poetic in its lack of surface poeticism: “Please send me anyone / Lord is there anyone / I need someone” is not a chorus that’s going to win awards for simile and metaphor, but Lovato’s rendering of it made you glad she didn’t dress it up with any surfeit lyrical conceits. The tight close-ups of her belting the most jolting song she’ll ever write made you happy to be looking down such an unhappy larynx… and hope there’s a sequel coming.

Lovato isn’t the only one singing the blues these days, obviously. In the acceptance speech for Billie Eilish’s well-merited album of the year honor (for “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?”), her brother, Finneas, said, “We wrote an album about depression and suicidal thoughts and climate change and being the bad guy, whatever that means. We stand up here confused and grateful.” The ballad they quietly performed together on the telecast, “When the Party’s Over,” is not one of the tracks that deals with suicidal impulses, but hey, it’s sad enough. And great enough. If you saw this performance of Eilish’s and you’re still thinking that she’s just for kids and not for you or, like, actually unworthy, you should probably stop pretending to love music — any kind of music — immediately, because this is kind of a test of that, and the jig is up.

It was the year of the woman… again. Can we yawn at, and also completely celebrate, how often it’s the year of the woman? Host Keys symbolized her stepping up by having her piano turn into an airborne pedestal at the close of a new song, “Underdog,” that started out with an assist on guitar by Brittany Howard (who we would’ve liked to see more of). Stepping out of a hall of mirrors, Rosalia, the first woman to be nominated for best new artist with a non-English album, showed why the mix of flamenco sounds and TV-rattling electronic bass is going to cross over to a barely-brushed-up-on-Spanish audience soon, if not now. H.E.R. started out her second Grammys performance in a row on a piano before busting out a trademark electric guitar solo — and traded in last year’s opaque shades, another trademark, for a lighter pair that offer at least a little more window into her soul. Armed with only an acoustic guitar, Bonnie Raitt did a verse and a chorus of lifetime achievement winner John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery,” and we could’ve used more, but it was still gratifying that the Grammys made room for someone to sing “I am an old woman” so many decades after she first sang it as a young one.

And Lizzo, it turned out, was the ideal show opener for this fraught an evening. Her job, if you could consider her having one, was to be celebrative at the top of the telecast but also suggest that something serious was at stake. Her songs “Cuz I Love You” and “Truth Hurts” fit that bill: She’s heartbroken and having a blast, all at once — both qualities the Grammys needed to embody to get us through 3 hours and 43 minutes at the end of a rough day. When she and her dancers jumped up and down at the completion of her performance, you felt some of the giddiness that even freshly minted stars rarely allow themselves to show, even though it’s clear that this is a gal that can take you through the depths — and so her subsequent speech that referenced Bryant’s death in such a heartfelt fashion made Lizzo’s overall appearances the most well-rounded of a weirdly complex, mood-shifting night.

Men stepped up, too, albeit in numbers you could count on half of one hand, if we’re talking about the show’s most galvanizing moments. Gary Clark Jr. performed “This Land,” a blazing blast about race relations that sounded a whole lot less hopeful about everybody coming together to love one another than Keys’ “Underdog.” Watching it, you couldn’t help wondering if Ehrlich was using the last half-hour of his last Grammy show to give us the last extended electric guitar solo we might ever see on the show. Tyler, the Creator was joined by soul progenitors Charlie Wilson and Boyz II Men — and also joined by an army of androgynous lookalikes in similar blonde bobs — for “Earfquake” and “New Magic Wand.” It was the kind of visual freak-out you might have expected out of a St. Vincent, and rewarding to see unfolding in a rap context. Seeing him show up later with his mom to accept for best rap album, it was sweet to see Tyler in “normal,” not avant, mode — and, what’s that you say, he’s not a real platinum blonde?

So what didn’t work? Not that much. The Prince tribute, maybe somewhat surprisingly, was a long way from being a water-cooler moment, or a Grammy one, really. The main reason it fell flat was probably just that it was hard to understand its reason for being, four years after Prince’s death — except as a teaser trailer for a full-length Prince tribute CBS will film two nights after the Grammys, which is their reason enough. Usher was the sole headliner in this number (many more will sing in the forthcoming taping), and on paper he was a good choice, as someone who can do the splits, and other royal duties besides. But the problem was kind of like the issue with Lady Gaga’s tribute to David Bowie: maybe it’s better to go off the reservation and get someone who isn’t really trying to emulate the dearly departed. FKA Twigs made an impressive cameo as a pole dancer, but everyone was wondering why she was only dancing and not singing — a question she raised herself on Twitter after the show ended.

But there were ensemble numbers that gave the word “cluster” a good, non-profane name. The de facto tribute to Nipsey Hussle was one of these. If you were betting that DJ Khaled might use the Nipsey-honoring occasion to not name-check himself in the middle of a song for once, well, you bet wrong. And yes, visually as well as musically, it got a little busy. But the kitchen-sink approach feels warranted at a time when there are so many African-American heroes to celebrate and so little time. We may be in the minority in having enjoyed the Aerosmith/Run DMC reunion of “Walk This Way,” which got messy enough that you might have thought: Was Joey Kramer really not up to participating in something this un-slick? But the way the rapping devolved into shouting in the collab felt truly kind of rock ‘n’ roll in a show that, by necessity, can’t offer a lot of that anymore. Lil Nas X meeting Billy Ray meeting BTS meeting the actual Nas, on a revolving door set? Why not? Our kitchens should be lucky to have such a sink,

After the Cabello and Lovato numbers, there wasn’t too much danger of a climactic ensemble number being the emotional highlight of the show. Still, it would have been nearly impossible not to be touched by the finale, “I Sing the Body Electric,” borrowed from the climax of the 1980 movie “Fame.” Ehrlich booked some of his favorite performers for the number, and/or ones that just filled a particular role from the film well for a verse or three — Misty Copeland as the teen ballerina, Gary Clark Jr. as the teen guitar shredder, husband-and-wife duo the War and Treaty as the movie’s black kids, etc. All this, and Cyndi Lauper, Common, Ben Platt and Lang Lang, too. Throw in a bunch of student dancers and singers to represent the Grammys’ music education in schools outreach efforts, and the whole climactic thing was as wonderful and compelling as it was unabashedly corny. Ehrlich recognized in this “Fame” number a 40-year-old message that resonates today, about the intermingling of genres … even if it did end with a cutaway to 18-year-old Eilish in the audience, probably thinking, “Fame who?”

It was said early in this review that the Grammys were practically joke-free. But Eilish and Finneas had one, sort of, in their final acceptance speech, for record of the year: “Thank you,” they said in unison, and then left the stage, knowing that something this comically succinct would be the most thrilling acceptance speech anyone could offer 3 hours and 43 minutes into a show. As Finneas said in their earlier speech, we exited the Grammys feeling “confused and grateful.” But mostly the latter.


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