Musgraves, Gambino lead rejuvenated Grammys

Sunday's Grammys telecast was a giant leap forward. And then there was J. Lo's Motown tribute

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Drake got cut off, J. Lo paid tribute to Motown, and the biggest ovation of the night went to Michelle Obama. 

It was an odd but invigorating Grammy show on Sunday evening, as the Recording Academy set out to right past wrongs and usher the show forcibly into the now.

Despite a handful of technical gaffes that made it seem like the show was being made up on the fly, it worked resoundingly well, with the show placing a pronounced emphasis on women and especially women of color.

Artists like H.E.R., Janelle Monae, Chloe x Halle, Cardi B, St. Vincent and Best New Artist winner Dua Lipa took the stage and shook up the show, giving the whole Grammy enterprise a youthful, forward-thinking makeover.   

The Grammys didn't arrive at this moment on their own, and it came not without speed bumps. Critiques of last year's male-dominated show and nominee field led Recording Academy CEO Neil Portnow to say if women wanted to be better represented in the show's top categories, they should "step up" and make it happen for themselves. 

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That went over about as well as J. Lo's tribute to Motown — we'll get to that in a bit — and eventually led to Portnow stepping down from his post, but not before he was the tribute of a glowing send-off on Sunday's show. (A cutaway to a stoic-faced Kacey Musgraves during his speech summed up the moment for many.)

Musgraves herself won four awards, including Album of the Year, for her widely acclaimed "Golden Hour." Childish Gambino also won four awards, including Record and Song of the Year for "This is America," his critique of the materialism and violence in our culture. Both those wins marked the first time a rap song has won either category.

But Sunday's show was not about awards, which producers made clear by pulling the plug on anyone who dared to pause to collect their thoughts while accepting an award. Nowhere was this more egregious than with Drake, who while accepting Best Rap Song honors questioned the value of Grammys and the "opinion based sport" of doling out awards to artists. He abruptly found his mic cut as the show went to commercial while he was still talking.

That's what he gets for showing up. Others high profile artists boycotted the show — Jay-Z and Beyonce were nowhere to be seen, nor were Childish Gambino, Kendrick Lamar or Ariana Grande — leaving the show in a pickle. How do you celebrate music's biggest night without music's biggest artists?

But the show recovered and even thrived in their absence, substituting the star power of those acts for a sense of discovery on younger talents who, given an opportunity to shine, stepped up and delivered. 

Brandi Carlile wowed with her showstopper ballad "The Joke," and H.E.R. seized her moment by tearing up "Hard Place," backed by a choir and a wall of reverb. 

Monae channeled James Brown, Prince, Robert Palmer and even Michael Jackson — yeah, we saw that moonwalk — in her funked-up performance of "Make Me Feel," while Cardi B pulled off a huge set-piece with "Money," complete with a diamond-studded piano, a set that resembled the VIP lounge of a posh club and an outfit augmented with what looked like peacock feathers. "Maybe I need to start smoking weed," Cardi said while accepting the Best Rap Album trophy, explaining her nerves. 

Host Alicia Keys dialed into relaxed, all-positive-vibes mode, speaking to the audience like she was leading a class in self-rejuvenation at a health spa. Whatever new age spirituality she was channeling, it worked, and the show shilled less for itself than it did under past hosts James Corden and LL Cool J, who always seemed like they were trying to sell you on the value of hashtags. 

Other performance highlights included Musgraves, backed by only a piano, who turned in a lovely rendition of "Rainbow" in the night's most straightforward performance. Lady Gaga gave a physical, metal-fied performance of her "A Star is Born" standout "Shallow," which came after she shared a stage earlier in the night with the evening's biggest rock star, Michelle Obama. Obama's presence alone caused such a frenzy that she had to repeat her speech about the power of music so it could be heard over the din of the crowd. 

Dolly Parton, meanwhile, stole her own tribute out from under guest artists Miley Cyrus, Maren Morris and an outclassed Katy Perry by singing a new song, "I Remember," and proving that Dolly doesn't need anyone to throw a party for her, she's fine on her own. 

A loopy Diana Ross threw a birthday party for herself during her flat two-song performance of "The Best Years of My Life" and "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)." "Happy birthday to me!" she beamed, celebrating her 75th birthday a full 44 days early (her actual birthday is not until March 26th, but don't bother telling her that), and proving that she's still the sole resident of her own orbit. 

Ross may have fared better in the show's tribute to Motown's 60th anniversary, but those duties for some reason fell to Jennifer Lopez, a bizarre choice on a night that was otherwise smartly booked. (That's excluding the the drab bro-rock segment that wasted Post Malone by pairing him with Red Hot Chili Peppers, who inexplicably chose to perform "Dark Necessities," a single from 2016, and a performance from Travis Scott that caged him inside something out of Nine Inch Nails' video for "Wish.") 

There have been plenty of Motown tributes before and there are plenty more to come, including the special that tapes in Los Angeles on Tuesday and airs on CBS in April. And since Motown is Detroit's gift to the world, Detroit connections aren't imperative when paying homage to the label.

But not even an assist from Smokey Robinson and frequent cuts to Berry Gordy looking on from the audience could make sense of J. Lo's run through of "Dancing in the Streets," "Please Mr. Postman," "Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance)," "My Girl" and more, which came off soulless and with no connection to the music's roots.

A tribute to Aretha Franklin, which closed out the In Memoriam segment and found Yolanda Adams and Andra Day singing — and Fantasia belting — "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," fared better. Past Grammy shows would have spent much more time memorializing Franklin, but this was not the Grammys of old. This was a fresh, driven, cool Grammys show that, while flawed, celebrated music in a way that felt authentic.

In a way, Portnow's challenge was answered, just not in the way he intended. The Grammys stepped up. And it was better for it.