The 63rd annual Grammy Awards struck an intimate tone in a difficult year on Sunday, with natural-feeling, leisurely-paced live and pre-taped performances joining moving tributes in an evening that departed from the glossy, celebrity-fueled shows of yore and showcased women artists, who swept the major awards.
Taylor Swift won the night’s most coveted award, album of the year, for “Folklore,” becoming the first female artist to notch three such wins in her career. (She joins Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon, and previously won for 2008’s “Fearless” and 2014’s “1989.”)
Megan Thee Stallion won the award for best new artist. She is the first female rapper to win this award since Lauryn Hill in 1999—in a big moment for hip-hop and female rappers. In a surprise, Billie Eilish won record of the year, devoted to a song’s performers, producers and engineers, for “Everything I Wanted.” During her acceptance speech, she said Megan Thee Stallion deserved the award over her: “You had a year that was untoppable,” the alternative-pop artist said. “Can we just cheer for Megan Thee Stallion?” (Megan Thee Stallion also won awards for best rap song and best rap performance.)
R&B singer-songwriter H.E.R. won song of the year, which recognizes songwriters and composers, for “I Can’t Breathe,” a song about police killings of unarmed Black people. The winners of the ceremony’s four biggest awards were all women—the second time that’s happened in two years (Billie Eilish swept all four categories last year.) Topping it off, Beyoncé broke the record for total career-spanning Grammy wins for a female artist.
Pop-rock star Harry Styles, dressed in a black leather jacket and green feather boa, kicked off the night’s festivities with a performance of his hit “Watermelon Sugar”—with other artists watching him—showing how the ceremony would go on amid the coronavirus pandemic. The performance took place in a room with five stages that faced one another. Ms. Eilish and rock sister-trio Haim also performed.
The ceremony was planned as a combination of live and pre-taped performances. British pop singer Dua Lipa surprised fans with an energetic, elaborate production featuring recent hits. Cardi B performed an upbeat take on her chart-topper “WAP.” Taylor Swift, by contrast, used a grassy, woodland scene, including a cabin and fireflies, to convey intimacy. Lil Baby and Brandi Carlile also provided stirring performances. While Grammy performances can historically feel forced, this year, performances by artists such as Bad Bunny won praise from music fans and experts online. “Wow, that felt exactly like I was back in the club,” this year’s host, comedian Trevor Noah from “The Daily Show,” said after Bad Bunny’s performance.
Earlier on Sunday, acclaimed singer-songwriters Fiona Apple and the late John Prine scored wins during the pre-televised portion of the awards ceremony.
Among the lower-profile awards given out: Fiona Apple won best rock performance for her song “Shameika” and best alternative music album for “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” one of last year’s most critically-adored albums. Meanwhile, the late John Prine won two American roots awards for his last recorded song, “I Remember Everything,” along with a lifetime achievement award.
One of the biggest surprises this year was that pop-R&B star The Weeknd did not receive a single nomination despite releasing one of 2020’s most praised albums, yet little-known names like British music prodigy Jacob Collier and retro-soul duo Black Pumas garnered high-profile album of the year nominations.
The Grammys, which were originally scheduled for January, come at a difficult time for the music industry. For a year now, nearly all major concerts have been cancelled or postponed—slamming concert promoters, mothballing music venues, throwing artists in limbo and eliminating the livelihood of thousands of workers, from bartenders in clubs to festival food-truck employees. As vaccinations pick up pace, live-music executives now expect a gradual return—with outdoor amphitheater shows in mid-summer—but routing large tours could still prove tricky.
In a salute to struggling live-music industry workers, the Grammys had staffers from various venues such as The Troubadour in Los Angeles present awards. “Better days lie ahead,” Harvey Mason Jr., the interim CEO and president of the Recording Academy, which runs the Grammys, said in remarks during the night’s pre-show proceedings.
There were some sound issues online in the pre-telecast portion, when many of the night’s awards are doled out. However, this sometimes prompted moments of levity, such as when the rock band The Strokes quizzically said “Did we win?” a few times after winning best rock album for their record “The New Abnormal.” After a funny delay, they celebrated. “I feel like we could have won based on the name [of the album] alone,” singer Julian Casablancas quipped.
But the Grammys still faced criticism that its voting practices disadvantage Black artists, especially in hip-hop & R&B.
The Weeknd said this past week that he would no longer submit his music for consideration because of the Grammys’ nomination-review committees. These committees narrow the initial votes by the Recording Academy’s more than 11,000 voting members—musicians, producers and the like—down to five or eight nominees for the majority of awards. Committee members are kept secret to protect them from being lobbied—but this has fueled speculation about voting improprieties.
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