Over the weekend, the 61st annual Grammy Awards seemed more at risk of being notable for its controversies over performances and who wasn’t showing up than for the actual ceremony. Ariana Grande very publicly backed out of performing on this year’s broadcast and called Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich a liar, after Ehrlich told the press Grande “felt it was too late for her to pull something together” for the Grammys. According to Grande, who has one of the most popular songs in the world at the moment, she was told that she couldn’t just sing it, but needed to do a medley with other songs chosen by Grammy officials, which is reminiscent of reports from last year that Album of the Year nominee Lorde was told she couldn’t perform her own music, but could appear if she sang “American Girl” in tribute to Tom Petty. This sort of baffling out-of-touch mindset on the part of Grammy officials is part of the reason why artists like Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and Childish Gambino have refused either to appear or to perform at the Grammys.
But only a year after the Grammys came under blistering criticism for the lack of women represented in major categories (e.g., just one woman won a solo award during last year’s telecast), as well as for how they were treating female performers; and after a sexist response from the outgoing head of the Recording Academy, who said women needed to “step up” if they wanted to rise in the industry, the powers that be seemed to want a course correction—at least on the surface.
Alicia Keys hosted a broadcast in which women and people of color were highlighted as presenters, performers, and winners throughout the ceremony, and which included some help from a certain former First Lady of the United States. Similar to some of the steps the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has taken to quell criticisms of the Oscars, the Recording Academy also expanded the number of nominees in its top categories—album, record and song of the year, and best new artist—from five to eight in order to include a more diverse slate of nominees. In truth, the Grammys are usually remembered more for the performances and quirky moments than for who won what. But there were significant moments and wins last night.
There were tributes to both Diana Ross and Dolly Parton. Quincy Jones’ win for Quincy in the category of Best Music Film was his 28th award, giving him the record for most Grammys won by any living artist. Cardi B became the first solo woman ever to win Best Rap Album. Lady Gaga won the first award of the broadcast, Best Pop Duo/Group performance, for “Shallow,” her duet with Bradley Cooper from their movie A Star Is Born, and gave a heartfelt speech about mental health and what the film has meant to her. After deciding to attend and winning for Best Rap Song with “God’s Plan,” Drake was cut off mid-speech while saying the music industry is “a business where sometimes it’s up to a bunch of people that might not understand what a mixed-race kid from Canada has to say, or a fly Spanish girl from New York.” And Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” took home both Record of the Year and Song of the Year, the first hip-hop song to win either award. However, illustrating some of the aforementioned issues, Donald Glover was not in attendance to accept either award.