Voters still seem remarkably and sadly uneasy about awarding rap and hip-hop in the top categories
It’s hardly Taylor Swift‘s fault, but her win for Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards might have deserved another one of those “Imma let you finish” onstage interruptions.
Swift’s “1989,” after all, was a fine album and a huge hit, an impressive work by a 26-year-old who is now the first woman to win the Album of the Year Grammy twice. But in a year marked by cries for more diversity in the entertainment industry — and specifically in entertainment awards — it happened to beat Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” a landmark recording by any measure.
And so, just as she was at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, when Kayne West interrupted her acceptance speech after her “You Belong With Me” video beat Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” video, Swift is once again the safe white artist who beat the more challenging, more celebrated black artist.
She’s been here before at the Grammys, particularly in 2010 when her first Album of the Year win came at the expense of Beyonce, among others.
And that difference was displayed starkly in their Grammy-show performances — Swift’s skilled but fairly routine, Lamar’s bold and incendiary.
Judging by the beeline Swift made for Lamar after she won, it’s easy to imagine that she felt a little bad about the win, too, though the message of female empowerment she delivered in her acceptance speech made the best of her moment.
She doesn’t deserve scorn for making a strong album that connected with the voters, just as she didn’t deserve the crude Kayne West lyrics that she may have indirectly mentioned in her speech. But those voters do deserve some skeptical questions about why they keep playing the same old song in the Grammys’ marquee category, whose only hip-hop winner ever was OutKast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” in 2004.
This being the Grammys, though, diversity is a given. So even though the voters still seem remarkably and sadly uneasy about awarding rap and hip-hop in the top categories, they did give the Record of the Year award to “Uptown Funk,” Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ slice of multi-racial, hip-hop inflected R&B that proved too irresistible to ignore.
The “Uptown Funk” win was another loss for Lamar, who had to settle for sweeping all four rap categories and delivering what was clearly the performance of the night.
Overall, it was a Grammy show that offered few if any surprises. “Hamilton” won for musical show, Alabama Shakes won in the rock and alternative categories, Swift and “Uptown Funk” won in the pop categories, D’Angelo and the Weeknd won in R&B, Chris Stapleton and “Girl Crush” won in country, and so on – including, in the kind of juxtaposition you can only find at the Grammys, former President Jimmy Carter defeating punk icon Patti Smith in the Best Spoken Word Album category.
Ed Sheeran’s Song of the Year victory for “Thinking Out Loud” may have been a slight surprise in a field that also included Swift’s “Blank Space” and Lamar’s “Alright,” but it demonstrated that voters still go for traditional songcraft in the category.
And in the Best New Artist category, Meghan Trainor wasn’t the odds-on favorite to win – but that category is always a confusing one, and Trainor is the best-known of the nominees to Grammy voters, who nominated her song “All About the Bass” for Record of the Year and Song of the Year last year.
(How exactly that leaves her qualified for the Best New Artist category this year is best left to the often quirky Grammy rules-keepers.)
But maybe griping about or charting wins and losses is beside the point at the Grammys, because it’s certainly beside the point to the Grammy show. With 75 of the 83 categories handed out before the telecast even began, viewers who weren’t streaming the pre-show all afternoon missed Sheeran and Justin Bieber winning their first Grammys, John Legend winning his 10th and Tony Bennett winning his 18th.
And the show itself, as it has been for years, was a big concert briefly interrupted by awards. (An average of one every 26 minutes, if you were keeping track.)
The Grammys’ water-cooler moments are always the performances, not the acceptance speeches; when it comes to the telecast, those envelopes are little but a distraction from the true business of staging elaborate production numbers, reaching for dazzling moments and, oh yeah, promoting new music.
The bottom line is that on Monday the Grammys found room to celebrate African diva Angelique Kidjo, banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, bluesmaster Buddy Guy, ace songwriter Jason Isbell, Latin icon Ruben Blades, legendary gospel group the Fairfield Four, jazz bassist Christian McBride, arranger Maria Schneider, “Birdman” composer Antonio Sanchez, contemporary classical composer Stephen Paulus, Bob Dylan‘s deluxe “Basement Tapes” box set, a monumental collection from the jazz and blues Paramount Records label, and lots more that were eminently deserving.
And then, when the cameras were on, the voters once again grew more timid and conservative than they should be. And even Taylor Swift probably knows that.