COVID-19 gives Grammys a fresh format

The awards show, often criticized for its tone-deafness, caught up with the times for 2021.

By Anna Kochman

The 2020 Grammy Awards, one of the last big events before the coronavirus pandemic, was a wash for nearly everyone but Billie Eilish, who swept the four big awards — Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best New Artist.

Then, everything changed. And so did the Grammys.

The 2021 Grammys opened with ever-charismatic host Trevor Noah wandering into the Los Angeles Convention Center, where he was surrounded by a nebulous circle of stages. He introduced Harry Styles with a simple, throaty version of “Watermelon Sugar,” and they were off to the races. The cameras rotated to each stage throughout the show, allowing for uninterrupted back-to-back performances.

That rapid pacing helped combat the tiring three-and-a-half-hour length of the show. And without a live audience, at-home viewers were never forced to watch gratuitous shots of the crowd. Instead, we got 19 energetic performances from the year’s most popular artists. Maybe it’s just the excitement of watching a live event during the pandemic, but I was thrilled to watch a Grammys show that didn’t feel like it dragged on.

Artists seemed to get that memo, too. Award presenters and winners kept their speeches short, focused and impactful, as if they understood the gravity of having an in-person ceremony during this time and wanted to keep the extravagance to a minimum.

But the fashion was certainly not subdued (re: Taylor Swift’s flower bouquet of a dress, and Megan Thee Stallion’s massive orange bow). Designer face masks flooded the red carpet, yet another hallmark of the strangeness of the past year, and added to stars’ ostentatious outfits.

This year’s performances were a combination of pre-recorded sets and live shots. This format, along with the lack of an audience, let the Grammys get creative. Bad Bunny and Jhay Cortez performed their rendition of “Dákiti” from a massive circle of blue spikes emerging from the floor. Cardi B’s “Up” featured heavily stylized projections and graphics, and her transition into “WAP” with Megan Thee Stallion saw the two rappers wandering through giant high heels and a larger-than-life bed.

Taylor Swift’s performance was expected to match the subdued energy of her 2020 releases “folklore” and “evermore,” of course. But despite the woodsy cabin set and timeless feel of her three-song medley, it was underwhelming. Swift rarely makes a deep connection with the audience — she maintains a degree of professional separation, which came through in her polished and emotionally distant performance.

BTS, despite being snubbed for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, delivered a brilliantly energetic production of their earworm “Dynamite” that raced through multiple different backdrops, all from home in South Korea. Other standouts included Megan Thee Stallion’s “Body” and “Savage,” styled with Gatsby-esque 1920s glamour and glitter, and DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s powerful choral version of “Rockstar.”

The Grammy winners were different this year too. Despite a stellar debut with “WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?” last year, Billie Eilish herself acknowledged that some of the big four awards in 2020 should have gone to other artists. This year, they did. Two of the four went to Black women — Best New Artist was awarded to Megan Thee Stallion, and Song of the Year went to H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe,” a testament to the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Eilish collected Record of the Year for “everything i wanted,” and Taylor Swift unexpectedly snagged Album of the Year for “folklore.” Rounding out the awards were winners like Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia” for Best Pop Vocal Album and Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” for Best Pop Solo Performance.

Beyoncé shared the stage with Megan Thee Stallion for Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance for their collaboration on “Savage Remix,” and picked up two other Grammys of her own. Her four wins this year set a record, making her the most-decorated woman in Grammys history.

The show was tied together by host Trevor Noah, whose jokes mostly landed even without applause from an audience. The Grammys were a more intimate experience this year. The limited capacity gave the ceremony a more focused feel. Because viewers largely watch the Grammys on TV and via streaming services, a live audience didn’t even seem necessary.

Should we still be critical of the Grammys and the Recording Academy? Absolutely. They have historically snubbed artists of color and women countless times. Were the 2021 Grammys a polished, upbeat step in the right direction? Definitely.

Edited by Chloe Konrad | ckonrad@themaneater.com

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