There was no clear sweep at the Grammys on Sunday night, fitting for a show that has publicly struggled to address its issues with diversity. The 61st Grammys, held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, handed awards to a range of genre-bending musical, logging several notable firsts in the process.
A breathless Cardi B became the first solo woman to win best rap album for Invasion of Privacy, while Childish Gambino’s This Is America marks the first time a rap song won for song of the year and record of the year. The night’s biggest prize, album of the year, went to country artist Kacey Musgraves for her spare, clear-eyed Golden Hour.
Musgraves also swept the country awards, though those were announced before the telecast along with most of the Grammys. Only nine awards made the telecast; British import Dua Lipa won best new artist, while fellow new artist nominee H.E.R. took home best R&B album (although “it’s not an album. It’s an EP,” she said of her eponymous project). Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper won best pop duo performance for Shallow, the true star of A Star Is Born, and Drake won best rap song for God’s Plan.
That a woman took home the night’s signature award capped a night in which female performers proudly took up space on the stage, starting with host Alicia Keys. One year after the Recording Academy’s president Neil Portnow said women artists needed to “step up” in order to be recognized – only one woman was nominated in the four major categories last year – Keys opened the show by asking: “Can I get some of my sisters in here tonight?” as Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Michelle Obama and Jennifer Lopez joined her on stage.
The women each stated a bleeding-heart take on what seemed to be the official theme of the evening: music as the universal language; music as, perhaps, one of the few forces able to, as a newspaper prop from Camila Cabello, Ricky Martin and J Balvin’s opening performance said, “build bridges, not walls”. Music “told me not to listen to them”, said Gaga of her earlier critics, and has “always been the one place we can be truly free”, said Lopez.
Obama shouted out the “Who Run the World Song that fueled me through this last decade”, in reference to an absent Beyoncé and her anthem Who Run the World (Girls).
“How honored I am to be nominated alongside so many incredible female artists this year,” Dua Lipa later said when accepting best new artist. “I guess this year we really stepped up?”
Portnow addressed the shift in messaging later in the broadcast. “This past year, I’ve been reminded that if coming face-to-face with an issue opens your eyes wide enough, it makes you more committed than ever to help address those issues”, he said. In all, 31 women took home awards Sunday night – up from 17 the year before.
At three and a half hours, the Grammys were more concert than award show – and the emotional high point fittingly arrived in self-tributes to two iconic female artists, country icon and bouffant legend Dolly Parton, and ultimate 70s diva Diana Ross.
Parton, 73 and with as much stage presence as ever, took the stage with her god-daughter Miley Cyrus, Little Big Town, Katy Perry, Kacey Musgraves and Maren Morris for a medley of hits – Here You Come Again, Jolene, After the Gold Rush and a bouncing rendition of the working-women anthem 9 to 5.
Ross, resplendent in a scarlet gown, celebrated her upcoming 75th birthday with an uplifting tour through her catalog, with added inflections of “together we have no limits”, “All is possible with music and with you”, and birthday diva staple “happy birthday to me!”
For all the celebration, however, the Grammys could not escape its prominent detractors – the biggest elephant in the room Sunday night was who wasn’t actually in the room. Multi-nominees Childish Gambino, Kendrick Lamar and Drake reportedly declined to perform – further evidence of that “the fact of the matter is, we continue to have a problem in the hip-hop world”, as Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich told the New York Times. Ariana Grande, whose album Thank U, Next, is currently dominating world streams, contentiously pulled out after producers refused to let her perform her hit 7 Rings.
However, in a surprise twist, Drake hopped on stage to accept his award for best rap song, though not before taking a veiled jab at the Grammys.
“We play an opinion-based sport, not a factual-based sport,” he told aspiring artists. “This is a business where sometimes, it’s up to a bunch of people who might not understand what a mixed-race kid in Canada has to say, or a fly Spanish girl from New York or anybody else.”
“The point is, you’ve already won if you have people who are singing your songs word for word.” If you have people with regular jobs coming to your shows, then “you don’t need this right here. I promise you, you already won,” he said before the show cut him off.
“Beautifully said,” Grande replied in a since-deleted tweet.
Also pointedly absent on Sunday was 21 Savage, who was reportedly set to perform his hit Rockstar with Post Malone until he was detained by Ice for overstaying an immigration visa in his youth. The rapper remains in custody, as a small group protesters outside the Grammys museum and a #Free21Savage hashtag spreading on Twitter reminded.
Twitter watchers also found plenty of material in perhaps the night’s biggest and most confusing bungle: Jennifer Lopez’s tribute to the hits of Motown. Though joined by Keys, Smokey Robinson and Ne-Yo, the performance was more cavorting Vegas revue than authentic homage to the legendary Detroit record label of almost exclusively black artists.