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Scaled-down Grammys may have revived the awards show

  • "The Grammys were expected to be another COVID-era awards show disaster, much like last month’s Golden Globes," says Lorraine Ali. "Then something incredible happened: When music’s biggest night was forced to go small on Sunday, the 63rd Grammy Awards delivered its best telecast in modern memory. In a year when little else has worked particularly well, if at all — the strange, surprising Emmys perhaps excepted — the Recording Academy’s annual celebration found its long-lost groove, defying its disappointing recent history and a pandemic that’s disrupted every other time-honored tradition, television and otherwise.The overblown dance numbers, pyrotechnics and packed arena audiences of Grammys past gave way to an intimate and charming night at the club with America’s favorite artists, where songs rather than spectacle took center stage. The uneven performances, terrible acoustics and forced pairings of stars that had become commonplace during the ceremony were replaced by compelling sets. Of relevant artists. Doing their own songs! ...It was a refreshing departure from the 'Zoom screen' style that has been used to bring other live events to life since the pandemic started and it forced the Grammys to reevaluate their traditional approach, which has often been mocked as 'tired' and 'out of touch.' And with The Late Late Show executive producer Ben Winston taking over from Ken Ehrlich, who had been producing the show since 1980, Sunday’s telecast marked a significant tonal shift from a 'really-big-show' aesthetic to a tighter, if not necessarily niche-ier, event. Another major difference from past Grammys was that a number of the sets were pre-recorded rather than performed live. Previously on music’s biggest night, most everything was played live, which is why bum notes were to the Grammys what soused speeches are to the Golden Globes. (If airing pre-recorded pop feels like cheating, remember what a horrible year it’s been and that we deserve to be pampered.)"


    • The Grammys ceremony was especially refreshing after the Golden Globes debacle: "It's only been two weeks since the Golden Globes mounted a pandemic-impacted telecast in which they were unable to successfully hook up a Zoom call — much less think of any way to refresh the stale format sufficiently to stop the post-show conversation from being about the embarrassing organization giving the award," says Daniel Fienberg. "Since that's where the bar was coming into Sunday (March 14) night's 63rd Grammy Awards, it's not enough to just say that CBS and producer Ben Winston put on a spectacularly smooth show punctuated by strong, relevant performances with just enough reminders of our precarious current moment to add poignancy. This was perhaps the most consistent Grammys telecast I can remember. The Grammys often try to take big swings, to produce unlikely pairings, daring musical mashups and unlikely tributes to legends; those big swings frequently result in indelible moments discussed for years to come, and they just as often lead to fiascos. This year, the big swing was putting on the show at all, much less staging over a dozen performances in multiple venues, giving out a handful of awards in another venue and doing it all without jaw-dropping technical gaffes or running overtime. Ok, fine, the Grammys telecast failed at the latter part, going a solid 15 minutes over on a show that was already slated for 3-and-a-half hours."
    • Against all odds, the Grammys pulled off an entertaining show: "Of all this pandemic’s big live shows, the Grammys were arguably in the worst position to make that argument," says Constance Grady and Aja Romano. "The Grammys, after all, are traditionally a giant concert with a few awards presentations squeezed in between live numbers; without a giant hall crammed full of every big musician in the industry jamming out to each other’s songs, what’s the point? And yet somehow, against the odds, the Grammys kind of pulled off a successful, satisfying, pretty entertaining show. Under host Trevor Noah’s affably poised patter, the night cut back and forth between the exterior of the Staples Center, where A-listers lounged at distanced tables like they were at the world’s chicest garden party, and the stage inside, where A-listers performed to tiny crowds of other A-listers grooving on the sidelines, like they were at the world’s coolest club. It shouldn’t have worked! It kind of did! The whole thing felt fresh, unpretentious, and not nearly as lengthy or self-serious as the Grammys usually are. Even if they were scheduled to run for three and a half hours and still went 15 minutes over."
    • After a year of shoddy live award shows, the Grammys managed to deliver something unique: "To be honest, the first 20 minutes or so did not fill my heart with promise; Harry Styles' black leather said sex and danger, but the oddly subdued vibe of that opening roundelay was more 'Please enjoy the crudité, and remember there's a two-drink minimum,'" says Leah Greenblatt. "And Megan having her Best New Artist moment highjacked by what sounded like a passing catering truck was not ideal. But you could feel the energy shift into a higher gear with DaBaby's performance, and I would very much like one of those eyeball Gravitron things Bad Bunny was singing from for my living room. Dua Lipa also gave us the first sort of pure pop moment, and not at all the last. (She may not do advanced choreo, but the girl can body roll.) I loved that as it went on the ceremony only felt more and more about the artists and the unseen players of the industry, and not just the usual self-congratulatory pomp and filler. The mix of celebrity presenters (Ringo! Lizzo! All the o-o's!) with workers from shuttered music venues across the country wasn't just a nice gesture, it was genuinely moving. (Special shout out to the Apollo's Billy Mitchell, a sunbeam in human form.) I did not love that almost no one seemed to be singing live."
    • This was the most compelling and watchable Grammys in years: "All the awkward pauses and bum notes that usually plague the ceremony were gone," says Mark Savage. "Instead, we got to see Harry Styles walk through an incredibly relaxed rendition of Watermelon Sugar, and Danielle Haim thrash the living daylights out of her drums on a spirited version of The Steps. Of course, the producers were forced into this set-up. Pandemic restrictions meant they couldn't have thousands of dancers or those trademark "Grammy moments" where 25 people sing an inexplicable tribute to The Kids From Fame (this actually happened last year). Instead, bands were arranged in a circle of stages inside LA's Convention Center, watching each other play at a safe distance. Every 45 minutes or so, new artists were shuffled in, from Lionel Richie to Miranda Lambert to Doja Cat. It made the show feel intimate and fresh - something it has needed for a long time."
    • Trevor Noah's comedy was the opposite of edgy: "Something that didn’t work so well: the extremely tight leash that Noah was kept on as host," says Chris Willman. "He was an amiable enough presence that you’d hope he will be invited back… with better material. 'This is the rare awards show where the white stuff going up people’s noses is cotton swabs…. There’s more tension than a family reunion at Buckingham Palace…' These are not the punchlines that would lead anyone to suspect the guy uttering them hosts a show full of trenchant topical comedy on a regular basis. Producers are no doubt scared to death of the Trump votership taking any excuse to tune out, but toothlessness that extreme is a reason to disengage, too. Here’s to a 2022 show, then, in which weak COVID gags won’t even be an option. There are plenty of things to find about the 2021 edition to criticize, and not just the edgelessness of the comedy. You could knock it for how close the show sometimes felt, during some of those larger-scale numbers, to a Dick Clark Production — which, like it or not, is just a different brand from the Grammys. You could wish we didn’t have to spend even a moment wondering what was in the can and what was on the spot. You could be dismayed that Phoebe Bridgers got neither an award (which the producers couldn’t control) or an appearance (which they could’ve; it wouldn’t have been such a terrible sop to indie rockers or singer-songwriters to throw them a bone). You could suppose that you don’t really need to give Post Malone a performance slot, no matter how popular he is, if no one has figured out anything for him to do. You could also argue that the show seemed too eager to imagine that we are already at the light of the end of the COVID tunnel, at the expense of a bit more sobriety about the year we just went through. And you could have hoped Doja Cat would win something, just so there’d be some suspense over whether she’d suffer a wardrobe malfunction on the way from her seat to the stage. But, compared to the relative fiasco that was the Globes, this felt like the Citizen Kane of pandemic-era awards shows."
    • Grammys' reinvented the In Memoriam segment, making it more exciting: "Awards shows 'In Memoriam' segments can be a snooze sometimes," says Justin Curto and Zoë Haylock. "But not tonight! Bruno Mars and the Free Nationals kicked it off honoring Little Richard with an explosive 'Good Golly Miss Molly,' with Mars serving his best Little Richard down to the pencil mustache. After Lionel Richie toned things down with Kenny Rogers’s 'Lady,' Brandi Carlile made us all tear up with a performance of John Prine’s final, now Grammy-winning song, 'I Remember Everything.' And Brittany Howard brought it all home honoring Gerry Marsden with a simply stunning 'You’ll Never Walk Alone.'"
    • Selena fans felt baited and switched, asking: “Where was the Selena tribute?”: "In the Academy’s defense, it’s not customary to honor each Lifetime Achievement honoree with a performance," says Suzy Exposito. "(Although it’s not clear why, or why the Grammys gives out such big awards with so little fanfare: Many of the artists honored Sunday night would be worthy prompts for a star-packed medley.) But given the Academy’s persistent lip service to diversity and inclusion, both leading up to and during the telecast, this was a wasted opportunity for the Recording Academy to work on its relationship with the Latinx community."
    • Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion performed a toned-down "safe-for-work" version of their hit single "WAP"
    • Glee fans are upset Naya Rivera was left out of the In Memoriam segment

    TOPICS: The Grammy Awards, CBS, Ben Winston, Naya Rivera, Selena Quintanilla, Trevor Noah, Award Shows, Coronavirus, Golden Globe Awards