The 2020 Grammys Had a Confusing Energy

The celebration of indulgence contended with Deborah Dugan’s firing and Kobe Bryant’s tragic death.

Last night’s 62nd Annual Grammy Awards were an eerie affair. The week building up to the festivities was ripe with controversy for the Recording Academy: newly appointed CEO Deborah Dugan was dismissed after filing complaints about sexual harassment and corruption within the organization. Then, several hours before the awards were set to begin, basketball legend Kobe Bryant died. The music industry’s elite were preparing themselves for the red carpet when the news came that Bryant had perished in a freak helicopter accident along with his daughter Gianna and seven others. The cultural icon felt ubiquitous inside the Staples Center where the ceremony was held—as hostess Alicia Keys said of the venue, it’s “the house that Kobe Bryant built.” 

The 2020 Grammys became a dismal meeting of loss and chaos. Kobe’s passing left not only many friends and admirers in mourning, but also in varying states of shock. With scant hours for the tragedy to sink in, the artists scheduled to perform felt nestled beneath a layer of depressive smog. It was an unhinged evening, celebrating artists under the name of an institution that continues to lose its credibility, a cultural gravesite of sorts. 

“An evening celebrating artists under the name of an institution that continues to lose its credibility, a cultural gravesite of sorts.”

The confusing energy and sobering context made most of the performances feel either unbearably heavy or debaucherous by contrast. Aside from Tyler, the Creator’s roaring showcase—during which we bore witness to a suburban hell and a dozen Igor minions—and Lizzo’s fine rendition of the 2017 track she’s still championing (“Truth Hurts”), the ballad reigned almost suffocatingly supreme. Billie Eilish sang alongside producer (and brother) Finneas about heartbreak on “when the party’s over,” Demi Lovato chillingly recounted hopelessness and isolation on her new single “Anyone,” and the GOAT Rosalía lamented her imprisoned lover. On any other night, Camila Cabello’s loving (if sappy) tribute to her father would have gone right over my head; but while listening last night, I couldn’t shake the images of Kobe and Gigi that had been flooding my feed all night. 

All of these tender moments contributed to the evening’s apparent theme of ephemerality and mortality. Even the empty hedonism of Aerosmith and Run DMC’s performance and Lil Nas X’s dizzying amalgamation of collaborators felt like rebellion—to an extent. They seemed to mirror the purposelessness and inanity that has injected this new decade just one month in. And when Ariana Grande tiptoed from her dreamy cloud-nine single “Imagine” into the indulgent “7 Rings,” she found solace in totems of pleasure. She briefly detoured into the Sound of Music’s “My Favorite Things” (her song samples it) and reminded us that self-indulgence can be an act of survival. 

The Grammys have become less of an awards ceremony than a cultural marker. The four-hour show captured what felt like 2019’s rollover dissolution. Although the winners sort of made sense—a best new artist actually won Best New Artist (Billie Eilish)—the same undercurrents of sexism and racism remained.

FKA Twigs didn’t even sing, but pole-danced magnificently alongside Usher while he did a random Prince tribute. Tyler, The Creator made some choice comments about his Grammy win, noting that his rap nomination felt like “a back-handed compliment,” and the Recording Academy always places guys that look like him in the rap and urban categories regardless of whether their music fits there; “I don’t like that ‘urban’ word—it’s just a politically correct way to say the n-word to me,” as he put it. Overall, here we are in “2019 2”: new tragedies, but the same old problems. 

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