The Unbearable Tameness of This Year’s Grammys

Every year, the Recording Academy tries to make #GrammyMoments a thing. The hashtag never catches on, but there’s usually at least something that qualifies as one of those moments. Maybe it’s a Kendrick Lamar performance, maybe it’s a Taylor Swift dig at Kanye West. That was before the 2016 election, though, and all of its ensuing controversy; as last night’s awards ceremony grew nearer, it seemed the Academy would finally get its wish. Yet, despite occurring during the Trump administration’s tempestuous first 100 days–and in a room filled with people who had not only backed Hillary Clinton, but campaigned actively on her behalf–the night’s biggest shock was that, in a room full of outspoken artists, hardly anyone said a thing.

There were political overtones throughout the night, if muted: host James Corden extolled the inclusiveness of George Michael’s music; Paris Jackson shouted out #NoDAPL. Given how charged other 2017 awards shows like the Golden Globes and SAG Awards had been, though–not to mention that the Grammys traditionally boast a more diverse slate of nominees than other shows–the telecast felt underutilized as a platform, especially in an industry that celebrates art that critiques those in power. (Getting shown up by SAG? SAD!) Of all the musicians to appear during the ceremony, in fact, the most vocal was an artist who was only there to deliver a guest verse.

“I just want to thank President Agent Orange for perpetuating all of the evil that you’ve been perpetuating throughout the United States,” Busta Rhymes said, taking the stage with A Tribe Called Quest to perform “We the People”. “I wanna thank President Agent Orange for your unsuccessful attempt at the Muslim ban. When we come together, we the people!” It was a powerful message, succinct and sharp, that popped the evening’s bubble of protection from the outside world, one furthered by Q-Tip’s chants of “resist!” at the performance’s close.

Katy Perry, a champion of Clinton throughout her campaign, debuted her new single “Chained to the Rhythm,” a song that asks if the world has become tone deaf to the problems plaguing society. But the spectacle itself did little to capitalize on the politics at hand. Her armband read “Persist”–a nod to the backlash to Elizabeth Warren’s censure on the Senate floor–but in the end it felt more like style than substance.

Across the ceremony, the political snipes came across more like snippets. Michael Jackson’s daughter, Paris, introduced The Weeknd’s limp performance with Daft Punk with the exhortation, “We can really use this kind of excitement at a pipeline protest, guys!” Beyonce accepted her Grammy for Best Urban Contemporary Album with a fortune-cookie platitude–“I feel it’s vital that we learn from the past and recognize our tendencies to repeat our mistakes”–that could have been about plumbing as easily as politics. Actress Laverne Cox encouraged viewers to Google transgender teen Gavin Grimm, whose case to use a bathroom that corresponds to his gender will go to the Supreme Court; the sentiment was admirable, but the request for supplemental research less so. Elsewhere, Jennifer Lopez quoted Toni Morrison saying “this is precisely the time when artists go to work,” and Corden made his stand for unity during an awkward introductory rap.

The most explicitly political move, in fact, came on the other side of the political spectrum, where singer Joy Villa stood alone, wearing a dress with Trump’s logo “Make America Great Again” embroidered down the front. It was a bold move to make in an industry that had largely rebuffed the Trump administration’s requests to perform at the inauguration, and a stunt that became a hot-button topic on social media throughout the evening.

But it was perplexing that the Grammys, a live event, lacked a Soy Bomb moment, or a great political moment at all beyond Rhymes and Perry. (The most notable event was Adele saying “fuck” and restarting her tribute to George Michael.) It’s even more baffling that artists like Chance the Rapper, who actually walked Chicago voters to the polls, took the stage to accept awards and said nothing about what was going on in the country outside of the Staples Center.

When Trump was elected president, many speculated that it would help art: Divisive times, the thinking goes, evoke potent and creative reactions. But with few exceptions, music has backed off from taking a stand, with performers seemingly silencing themselves to appeal to a wider fan base. Artistic responsibility is dicey territory, as is expecting pop stars to speak out simply because they’re in the public eye. But it says something when, in the midst of all the protests and discord in America, the Grammy Awards ceremony isn’t the place musicians went to address reality–it’s the place they went to shy away from it.


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