The Grammy Awards giveth, and the Grammy Awards taketh away.
When the Recording Academy announced nominations in November for music’s most prestigious prizes, the notoriously fusty industry group raised the tantalizing prospect that its members finally got it.
With multiple nods for the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z and the Puerto Rican duo of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee (whose song “Despacito” was 2017’s biggest), the academy seemed to be acknowledging that, in a rapidly changing world, great pop should strive to embody new values instead of merely upholding the old ones.
Well, maybe next time.
At Sunday night’s 60th Grammys, broadcast live on CBS from New York’s Madison Square Garden, the major winners — and many of the performances — largely reflected a reversion to type.
Instead of Lamar or Jay-Z taking album of the year with one of his bold works about race and masculinity, Bruno Mars won the flagship prize with “24K Magic,” his impeccably realized homage to the funk and soul music of several decades ago.
And instead of record of the year going to “Despacito” — a Spanish-language love song that became something of an anthem in the face of President Trump’s harsh rhetoric regarding immigrants — the trophy went to Mars again for his album’s throwback title track.
In fact, Mars swept the Grammys’ highest-profile categories with a win in song of the year for “That’s What I Like.” The achievement called to mind a similar sweep in 2017, when Adele, the proudly traditional British singer, beat the more adventurous Beyoncé for album of the year.
Or maybe it reminded you of 2016, when Taylor Swift’s “1989” won over Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Or 2015, when Beyoncé also lost, in that case to Beck.
You get the picture.
Mars wasn’t the only talented but undaring artist who rode a familiar approach to Grammy glory on Sunday. Alessia Cara, the friendly Canadian pop singer, beat SZA and Lil Uzi Vert for the new artist award.
And Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” won pop solo performance over Kesha’s “Praying,” a stark piano ballad about abuse that has found resonance with the #MeToo movement.
When Sheeran’s name was called instead of Kesha’s, the energy in the room seemed to drain away, as though an opportunity for a moment had just been lost.
A few awards captured that sense of possibility, as when Lamar won rap album with “Damn” and rap/sung performance with “Loyalty,” his fierce but sensual duet with Rihanna. Accepting the latter, Lamar stepped aside at the microphone to let his collaborator take the lead — an encouraging sight at a moment of increasing respect for women’s voices.
And the show was hardly free of powerful performances.
Lamar opened the program with a stunning medley built around his song “XXX” that had him surrounded by dancers in combat fatigues and assisted by comedian Dave Chappelle, who told the audience that “the only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America is being an honest black man in America.”
Kesha pushed her voice to the breaking point to do “Praying” with help from several other female pop stars, including Cyndi Lauper, Camila Cabello and Andra Day.
And though the song’s lyric happily chooses nostalgia over engagement, Mars and Cardi B’s exuberant run through “Finesse” had so much positive energy that it became a kind of showcase of black and brown joy — a beautiful thing on a weekend when Trump’s Twitter fight with Jay-Z illustrated how contentious race relations in America remain.
Lively and luscious performances of “Despacito” and “Wild Thoughts,” the latter by the trio of Rihanna, DJ Khaled and Bryson Tiller, put across similar ideas.
Still, the Grammys gave too much time to veterans like Sting (who turned up on no fewer than three occasions) and Elton John, whose “Tiny Dancer” with Miley Cyrus was handsome but had nothing to do with music in 2018 — unless you count the fact that the Recording Academy is putting on an elaborate tribute concert to him later this week.
Indeed, several parts of the show — including a lengthy Broadway sequence and an unfunny attempt by host James Corden to transfer his popular “Carpool Karaoke” bit to the subway — felt crassly promotional, as though they’d been arranged in cahoots with New York City tourism officials.
So the Grammys were back in New York for the first time since 2003. Big deal. Mention it once and move on.
Then again, how could we expect the academy to resist any chance to look back?
It’s what these folks do best.