Billie Eilish won big, Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. made a glorious mess, and the show faced the challenge of having to respond quickly to Kobe Bryant’s death.
In the end, the Grammys were Billie Eilish’s night.Credit...Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
The 62nd annual Grammy Awards on Sunday were going to take place in the shadow of a scandal: the removal of the Recording Academy chief Deborah Dugan 10 days before the event and the stinging allegations of misconduct at the nonprofit that oversees the awards that she outlined in a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Instead, they took place in the aftermath of tragedy: the death of Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash at 41. The host Alicia Keys was tasked with responding to the basketball star’s death on air; she chose to make a statement about “respect” after what she called “a hell of a week,” too.
It’s been a long time since a phenomenon as talented, authentic, complex and delightfully of the moment as Billie Eilish took over the Grammys. She turned five of her six nominations into wins, victorious in all four major categories (album, song and record of the year, plus best new artist), becoming the first artist to sweep since Christopher Cross in 1981. At 18, she’s the youngest person to win album of the year. It is all richly deserved: “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” redefines teen-pop stardom, as Jon Pareles wrote in his review of the album. Eilish (working with her producer brother, Finneas O’Connell) digs her shapely talons into the conflicts that throb in our minds like her meticulously constructed tracks: anxiety and confidence, love and terror, fairy tales and reality. She is a genuine melting pot of pop history — goths, rappers, confessional singer-songwriters, all tucked into baggy clothes that defy all kinds of stereotypes. “Why,” she cried into the microphone as she accepted her first televised award, for song of the year. “Aye yi yi,” she started her second, for best new artist. “Please don’t be me,” she mouthed as album of the year was being announced. Finneas spoke up during their speech for the LP: “We wrote an album about depression and suicidal thoughts and climate change and being the ‘Bad Guy,’ whatever that means,” he said, “and we stand up here confused and grateful.” It was simply proof that sometimes the music industry does get it right. CARYN GANZ
Best Flown-in Flute: Lizzo
Ever the savvy trouper, Lizzo maximized her opening slot. “Tonight is for Kobe!” she proclaimed at the start, then launched into her screaming, rasping, sobbing, pealing “Cuz I Love You,” in a monumental black dress. An orchestral interlude threatened to turn “Truth Hurts” into Grammy kitsch, but it was just long enough for a costume change — then Lizzo was back with rhymes, skintight sequins, dancers and kiss-off sass. A flute descended on a plastic tray; she played just enough showy trills and runs, then growled harder to finish the song. If a prime-time network audience hadn’t already known who Lizzo is, they knew now. JON PARELES
It’s conventional wisdom at this point that the Grammys are more of a concert special than an awards show, but presenting the trophy for best comedy album on a night where only nine awards were given over nearly four hours was absurd. On Sunday, that insult to musicians was compounded when Dave Chappelle won for the third straight year in the category — it’s not like they were giving a new face some shine — and then compounded once again by the fact that Chappelle, who might’ve at least given a speech to remember, did not even show up. (Poor Jim Gaffigan, and also every smaller artist in a genre category whose life would’ve been made by accepting a Grammy onstage.) Tanya Tucker accepted on Chappelle’s behalf, giving a halfhearted “I’m sure he thanks y’all.” Right. Sure. JOE COSCARELLI
Best Call to Arms: Sean (Diddy) Combs
There were only the faintest hints of skepticism at the Grammys on Sunday, only the mildest acknowledgment of the controversies that have been engulfing the Recording Academy for the past two weeks, and really, the past two years. Saturday night, however, Sean Combs received the Salute to Industry Icons Award at the Clive Davis and Recording Academy’s Pre-Grammy Gala, and Diddy did not mince words. “Truth be told, hip-hop has never been respected by the Grammys. Black music has never been respected by the Grammys to the point that it should be,” he said. “For years we’ve allowed institutions that have never had our best interests at heart to judge us. And that stops right now.” He issued a challenge to the Recording Academy to make radical changes in the next year, and urged his fellow artists and executives to be part of the evolution. And if things don’t change, Diddy’s predictions were dire: “We have the power. We decide what’s hot. If we don’t go, nobody goes. We don’t support, nobody supports.” JON CARAMANICA
Best Example of Someone Coming to Play: Tyler, the Creator
Taking the Grammys seriously is usually a fool’s task, yet there was something extremely endearing about the way Tyler, the Creator rose to the occasion, and beyond it. His red carpet look was crisp bellhop. His performance, of “Earfquake” and “New Magic Wand,” was fully engaged and rowdy. His best rap album acceptance speech was pointedly warm. And his backstage pressroom interview was frank. He received a lot from the Grammys last night, but he gave much more. CARAMANICA
Best Rock ’n’ Roll Mess: Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C.
It was not technically good. But it didn’t have to be good: It had to be insane, and on that point, it delivered. Steven Tyler side-skedaddled over to Joe Perry and dragged his scarf-draped mic stand around the Staples Center. Run-D.M.C. broke through a wall of bricks that looked like a prop from a middle school play. Everyone seemed to be yelling, record-scratching and guitar-soloing in the wrong key, at the wrong tempo, in the wrong decade. But the crowd was grinning and dancing, swept up in some magical blend of nostalgia and Tyler’s frontman charisma. (Two younger women in the front row were literally swept up by the latter. Cringe.) This was the party the Grammys have been trying, and failing, to capture for several years: the power of rock ’n’ roll lunacy, compressed into seven minutes of riffing, screaming and nonsense. GANZ
Worst Self-Cover Version: Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C.
Television cameras and headphone listening were merciless to Aerosmith, who paired up with Run-D.M.C. to recreate their shared 1986 remake of “Walk This Way,” which recharged Aerosmith’s career and introduced hip-hop to many rock fans. That was a long time ago. After Aerosmith plodded through “Livin’ on the Edge” — though Tyler playfully dragooned Lizzo for an impromptu audience singalong — Joe Perry fumbled his indelible opening riff for “Walk This Way.” Run-D.M.C. joined in for colliding vocals, overenthusiastic turntable scratching, incoherent solos from Perry and audience-participation high jinks from Tyler. It looked like fun, anyway. PARELES
Best Internet Fever Dream: Lil Nas X and Co.’s ‘Old Town Road’ Medley
Like most of what Lil Nas X has accomplished in the last year, his epic performance of “Old Town Road” at the Grammys was not primarily about the music. Instead, he attempted the magic act of making memeability translate to network television, and he more or less pulled it off, relying on an intricate rotating set where each door led to another layer of winks and smirks: BTS, underutilized but still electric, did its “(Seoul Town Road Remix)”; Mason Ramsey and Billy Ray Cyrus kept their SEO alive; and Diplo pretended to play a banjo, adding about as much as he did to the success of “Old Town Road” in the first place. For the close-watchers and “Road” completists, there was the empty chamber, featuring a green slimy skull, where Young Thug should have been, and rather than detracting from the unity, his absence just gave us all a chance to breathe amid the MDMA explosion. COSCARELLI
Worst Silencing: The Prince Tribute
FKA twigs learned pole dancing to make her video for “Cellophane,” adding it to an already impressive movement vocabulary. She is also, however, a songwriter and singer who explores complex intersections of carnality, power and devotion — as Prince did. So she was an intriguing choice to join a tribute to Prince, billed alongside Usher and Sheila E. But Prince’s music remained a man’s world on Grammy night, with a three-song medley that was a teaser for a full-length Prince tribute planned by the Recording Academy. The band added Vegas embellishments to the basics of Prince’s arrangements, Usher did the lead singing and some Prince moves, Sheila E. added percussion and FKA twigs only danced: lithe and precise, but merely ornamental. “Of course I wanted to sing,” she wrote on Twitter, but she took what she could get. PARELES
Best Combination of People Who Actually Know One Another: The Nipsey Hussle Tribute
In a show that included no shortage of tear-jerking and maybe too many musical/visual/emotional whiplash moments, the tribute to the Los Angeles rapper Nipsey Hussle, who was killed last year, at least had coherence on its side. Meek Mill started things off with a crisp verse that led seamlessly into an appearance by Roddy Ricch, a surging talent from Nipsey’s own neighborhood, before John Legend did his instant-gravitas thing. DJ Khaled shouted some aphorisms, YG showed off his impeccable style and some local inter-gang unity and then the gospel-crossover king Kirk Franklin brought the wave of emotion home with a choir in white and gold. Above the stage, a portrait of Nipsey was set next to one of Kobe Bryant, another hometown hero. All of these things make sense together, which is more than can be said for a lot of Grammys moments. COSCARELLI
Worst Sense of Pacing: Everyone Who Performed a Slow Song
I’ve complained before about the preponderance of ballads at the Grammys and this year was no exception. We get it: you’re a real musician whose songs are sturdy enough to be played on a grand piano. It’s not that, in isolation, any of these belted slow songs were especially bad, but between Camila Cabello, Billie Eilish, Demi Lovato, H.E.R., Tanya Tucker and Alicia Keys, the repeated down moments were just too down for a show that can already feel interminable. And at least half of those women are capable of lighting the place on fire à la Tyler, the Creator, so to see them stick with safety just feels like a missed opportunity, while also preventing any one minimalist performance from being truly showstopping. On the other hand, if ballads are the key to keeping CBS viewers tuned in, skipping over album of the year nominee Lana Del Rey, whose “Norman ___ Rockwell!” was full of modern-day, lightly subversive torch songs, was extra foolish. COSCARELLI
Best Simplicity: Tanya Tucker
The Grammys love their ballads overmuch — see above — but Tanya Tucker’s “Bring My Flowers Now” needed only her leathery twang and co-writer Brandi Carlile’s piano chords and vocal harmony to tell its story. After 20 years between albums, Carlile and collaborators convinced Tucker, now 61, to record again. The song greets looming mortality with pragmatism. “Don’t you spend time, tears or money/On my old breathless body,” she sang, her voice lived-in and completely convincing. PARELES
Worst (and Worst-Timed) Statement of Emotional Fidelity: Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani
The rictus ran heavy throughout “Nobody But You” by the real-life couple Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani. A country singer and a flexible pop singer, they don’t have any natural musical chemistry, and this performance was dry and awkward. That it was the first music played following the musical tribute to Kobe Bryant only made it grimmer. CARAMANICA
Best Guitar Heroics: Gary Clark Jr. and H.E.R.
“This Land,” by the Texas blues-rocker Gary Clark Jr., confronts hostile neighbors with property rights. Backed by the Roots, Clark blasted its blues-reggae riff, snarled the lyrics and played the kind of overdriven solo that drew screams from the audience. It’s what he’s known for; he was back for the show’s “Fame” finale. But it was H.E.R. — a recent Grammy darling for her old-school musicianship — who made the surprise attack. Her song “Sometimes” started, like so many others on the show, as an unadorned piano ballad about overcoming obstacles; a mini-orchestra joined her. But as the song built, suddenly H.E.R. had a guitar in hand and she was making it wail and shred. It was just eight bars, but it made its point completely. PARELES
Worst Encapsulation of the Way It Used to Be (and Hopefully No Longer Will Be): ‘I Sing the Body Electric’
This is the final year of Ken Ehrlich’s 40-year run as the show’s executive producer, which means this might be the final time we see a precision-executed, umpteen-minute-long so-called Grammy Moment that scrambles together rappers, singers, dancers, Grammy stalwarts (Lang Lang! Gary Clark Jr.!) and music students … and that would be just fine. CARAMANICA