The best way to describe the 2021 Grammys would have to be with the words that most of the world is sick of hearing: unprecedented and historic. The Grammys left “the house that Kobe built,” as coined by last year’s host Alicia Keys, and went outside, just across the street. This year’s ceremony took place in a tent equally suited for a socially-distanced wedding and artists had to shout their acceptance speeches over racing cars and jets. It was a Grammys unlike any other in a time like no other.
This year’s Grammys were pushed back from January when the United States––and Los Angeles in particular––had a massive surge in COVID-19 cases. There was reason to believe that this year’s Grammys would be a mess of epic proportions as award shows have struggled to find a way to translate the glitz and glamour to Zoom. However, there were no award show speeches from living rooms at the ceremony and in fact, the idea of holding a trophy seemed to take a backseat to the music itself.
To begin, host Trevor Noah––a Grammy winner himself for the audiobook recording of his memoir, Born A Crime––took the viewer from the performance space to the aforementioned wedding tent where nominees waited. Performances were played in a room with five stages and each one functioned as the artist’s own sort of habitat. Taylor Swift performed a medley of songs from her 2020 albums “Folklore” and “Evermore” in a full-out cottagecore dream. Silk Sonic’s [Anderson Paak and Bruno Mars] debut performance took on a ’70s nostalgia complete with choreographed mic dancing. While it was a bit awkward seeing celebrities finish their set, then sit down and wait, it was exciting to finally see performances from beyond a singer’s bedroom. K-Pop supergroup BTS performed from a rooftop in Seoul and Lil Baby did a performance beside the Los Angeles Convention Center. His song “The Bigger Picture” was written in the weeks following George Floyd’s murder and confronts the topic of police brutality. The performance was a chilling depiction of a Black Lives Matter protest in response to the murder of a Black man, acting as a reminder of the change needed in this world.
It was impossible to avoid the pandemic during the show: It was present in the masks coordinated with red carpet outfits, the punchlines of Noah’s jokes and the especially long “In Memoriam” section. To show how the pandemic has affected the music industry, the Grammys turned to independent music venues who have suffered from the lack of live performances over the past year. In place of forced banter between celebrities, owners of these venues read out the nominees and opened the winner cards. Thanks to the new “Zoom era” of award shows, owners of these venues tuned in from Hollywood, Nashville and New York without having to fly in for the event (Nashville and New York were digital and the owner of the Troubadour was physically present).
Yes, this year’s Grammys was music’s biggest night, but it was really Beyonce’s night. After going up to accept an award for Best Rap Performance with Megan Thee Stallion, she was promptly stopped from coming down the stairs by Noah. Noah explained that Grammy history had just been made as Beyonce tied the record for most Grammy wins ever by a female artist and by any singer, male or female. In true Beyonce style, later that night, she broke that record with a win for Best R&B performance for her song “Black Parade.” Swift, fresh off the heels of two new albums and about to release her re-recording of “Fearless” (2009), also set a Grammy record, joining Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon as a three-time “album of the year” Grammy winner. Swift becomes the first woman to join the club after winning for “Fearless’' in 2010, “1989” in 2016 and “Folklore” in 2021.
Of course, like any award show, this year’s Grammys weren’t pitch-perfect. There were claims of snubs and oversights expressed on social media. Twitter erupted at Billie Eilish winning Record of the Year for “Everything I Wanted” over Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage’' remix, viewers were angry that BTS’s “Dynamite” lost to Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s “Rain on Me” for Best Pop/Group Performance and accusations that the Grammys used the group’s performance to boost ratings instead of legitimately considering the group for the award. However, one of the largest outcries was over the late Selena Quintanilla Perez’s lack of proper tribute after being honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award. The Tejano singer won just one Grammy during her short life; however, her music has lived on beyond the Latin music charts. Her popularity has only skyrocketed with the release of a limited series and the Jennifer Lopez film “Selena” which came out in 1997, two years after the singer died.
Music has been a salve to the soul for many over the past year. It has been a friend, a confidante and something to talk about in the awkward moments before Zoom meetings. The Grammys worked to honor that in the best way possible. It was not perfect, but it was a strong tribute to the power of music that has only been emphasized in the past year.