Critic’s Notebook: The Emotional Roller Coaster of the 65th Grammy Awards

Decades of egregious snubs and exasperating exclusions have chipped away at the Grammy Awards’ reputation — so much so that the honor’s relevancy is re-litigated annually. Are the Grammys important? And if so, to whom? These questions haunt every season as the discourse circles the familiar talking points. On one side: The awards symbolize validation from peers and industry leaders. On another: Recording Academy approval doesn’t matter when their choices rarely reflect contemporary tastes or acknowledge real innovation.

Last year’s show, held in Las Vegas, was an awkward and feeble attempt to re-establish relevancy by reflecting real-world issues: Trevor Noah took the stage as host and guided viewers through a disjointed hours-long concert that included brief interludes to honor tour managers, celebrate freedom and highlight the war in Ukraine with a pre-recorded message from president Volodymyr Zelensky. The whole production, which unfolded in the aftermath of The Slap, felt cheap and desperate.

A new energy coursed through the 65th Grammy Awards, which returned to Los Angeles after three years, and watching the more than 3-hour ceremony felt like riding an emotional roller coaster. There were highs — in the performances, tributes and surprise wins — which created a level of excitement that seemed almost foreign to the ceremony. But there were also the lows: the disappointing losses and the mawkish lessons laced through the night.

The stars — dressed in their finest and seemingly adhering to an unfortunate theme of diamond trimmings — gathered in the eerily renamed Staples Center (now Crypto.com Arena). Noah returned as host to shepherd us through the evening. He was tasked with pushing the ceremony’s main thesis about music as a harbinger of unity in a divided world. “Music isn’t just the harmony of sound,” he said at one point. “It is the harmony of human beings.”

Although there is truth to the unifying power of music, the award ceremony’s messaging bordered on propaganda. In one segment created to highlight the work of the Recording Academy, a series of headlines extolled the power of music: “Protest turns into concert,” read one, accompanied by a photo of a police officer hugging a demonstrator. “Music is medicine,” read another. Then Harvey Mason Jr., the CEO of the Recording Academy, appeared on screen to tell us that these weren’t real headlines. “But they could be,” he said.

He then went on to talk about the achievements of the Recording Academy, sidestepping any tangible ways this future could be realized. On the heels of another brutal police murder, this message rang hollow and even sinister, advertising a nonexistent present and a future that can’t exist without radical change.

In another part of the show, the Recording Academy gathered fans of this year’s Album of the Year nominees and asked them to debate why their artist should win. In a discussion that resembled The Hollywood Reporter’s own roundtables, ten super fans convened to talk about their relationship with the artists. The earnest stories struck an odd tone compared to the rest of the evening; they felt less like conversation and more like stiff, hackneyed presentations.

Although it was hard to shake the awkwardness of this segment, there were other moments that promoted a more grounded optimism. In keeping with the concert vibes of last year, the evening began with an infectiously joyous performance from Bad Bunny, whose album Un Verano Sin Ti won the Best Música Urbana Album and was the first Spanish-language project to be nominated for Album of the Year. A medley of “El Apagón” and “Después de la Playa” created a degree of thrill and levity I didn’t think was possible for such a studied show or audience. With some celebrities — like Taylor Swift — jumping out of their seat to dance with the merengue band, the performance not only established a convivial mood; it also marked a hopeful change in the ceremony’s routines.  

A Motown medley performed by Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Chris Stapleton and the sons of Boyz II Men’s Wanya Morris electrified the room — and, in the words of Trevor Noah, proved to be a “phenomenal moment.” The show kept its momentum when Robinson gave Sam Smith and Kim Petras the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance award for their song “Unholy.” In a heartfelt speech, Petras, who is the first openly transgender person to win a Grammy, thanked Smith and her friend, the artist Sophie, who died in 2021.

Another sincere and profound moment occurred when Beyoncé made history: After snagging Best Dance/Electronic Music album for Renaissance, the artist now holds the record for most Grammy wins. (She has 32.) Her brief but emotional acceptance included an expression of gratitude to the queer community “for inventing the genre.”

That speech and Petras’ served as a reminder that awards ceremonies can be gratifying, even good, when they organically embody the unity message the Academy tries to manufacture. Nowhere else was that more on display than in the all-too-brief tribute honoring the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, produced by Questlove. The performance was a flashy, energetic retrospective (albeit an incomplete one) that created a thread between the genre’s beginnings and its future. Missy Elliott, Queen Latifah, Run-DMC, Lil Wayne, Big Boi, Grandmaster Flash, Method Man, Public Enemy, Salt-N-Pepa, Busta Rhymes, Lil Baby and GloRilla were among those performing.

Progress was on the mind of the Recording Academy this year — both in the awards given and the structure of the show. But there were too many contradictions and historical elisions — like dedicating an award to Dr. Dre after a night of speeches and performances by Black women underscoring safety and empowerment — to make it wholly convincing. There’s always next year.

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