Grammys 2019: The Ladies Step UpRolling Stone — Rob Sheffield
Dua Lipa had the funniest line at this year’s Grammys, right after she won the award for Best New Artist. After noting all her fellow female nominees, Dua quipped, “I guess this year we’ve really stepped up!” It was the first time all night anyone dared to mention last year’s big controversy, when Grammy president Neil Portnow suggested women in the music world needed to “step up” to get on his level. There was something deliciously sadistic about the way Dua twisted the knife. But last night’s Grammy bash turned into a celebration of female artists all over the musical map, from Album of the Year winner Kacey Musgraves to legends like Diana Ross and Dolly Parton. As host Alicia Keys asked Michelle Obama at the start, “Who runs the world?”
No, Beyoncé didn’t show up. Neither did Ariana Grande, who pulled out of the Grammys last week, or Lorde, who didn’t get the chance to sing last year. Neither did Taylor Swift, who had last year’s top-selling album with Reputation, yet got exactly as many Grammy nominations as the Grateful Dead or the Alan Parsons Project, and wisely ditched this clambake to hang out in London and play American queen at a different award show. But the Grammys belonged to Dolly and Cardi and Camilla and Kacey and Gaga and Dua and Janelle and Miss Ross.
The night was full of memorable music moments, which is what the Grammys are all about. Yeah, I know you like getting self-righteous every year about who wins the trophies, but I know for a fact you won’t remember or care next week, whereas we will all go to our graves remembering Lady Gaga’s triumphant freakout on “Shallow.” She went all the way glam-punk, strutting and kicking in an absurd glitter catsuit, going way past the edge of glory and diving into the deep end. Damn, I missed this Gaga. Instead of letting some dude sing the Bradley Cooper intro, Gaga just bellowed away in her Jo Calderone voice, ending with that sicko-mode leer into the camera. As Halsey would say, “How great!”
And for comedy, there was Jennifer Lopez, who gave one of the absolute rock-bottom worst performances in Grammy history. Her Motown medley triggered horrific flashbacks of Sanjaya on American Idol’s Diana Ross Week. Seeing a Jackson Maine-size disaster like that at the Grammys made you pray Andrew Dice Clay would come onstage to carry her into a cold shower. How did this happen? Diana Ross was in the room. So was Smokey Robinson. So were Ashanti and Bob Newhart and Weird Al Yankovic, all of whom were better equipped to sing “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” on live TV. What a way to treat the greatest of American songbooks. (Guess you could call it a “tribute,” kinda like the Roman Empire’s tribute to Carthage.) Smokey deserves a do-over. But give J. Lo credit — it’s an achievement to win the Most Vocally Challenged honors in a show that includes a Red Hot Chili Peppers jam with Post Malone.
Alicia Keys rose to the occasion like a one-woman army of stoner moms, in a very Rhoda Morgenstern ensemble. Alicia came on dazed and confused, especially when she sat at the piano and said, “I wanna welcome you to Club Keys.” She did a rambling medley of her favorites — “I wish I wrote ‘em” — from standards (“Killing Me Softly,” “Unforgettable”) to Coldplay’s “Clocks,” Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody” and Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up.” Unfortunately, she ended with the smarmiest song she’ll ever write, the “concrete jungle wet dream tomato” one, but the medley proved she’s the new Billy Crystal — maybe next year the whole show will be six hours of Club Keys?
Dolly Parton stole the night — but how would she not? Every second of the Dolly tribute was choice. BTS in the audience, dancing and singing along to “Jolene.” Kacey Musgraves belting “Here You Come Again” in her fab Loretta-circa-1975 wig. Miley Cyrus and Maren Morris joining Dolly for a gorgeously breathtaking version of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” censoring the “getting high” lyric (not a very Miley edit, but she’s just being Miley) in what felt like an elegy for the late, great Pegi Young.
Diana Ross did a none-more-diva medley of two ballads nobody seemed to recognize, wandering into the crowd to sing directly to her old Motown mentor Berry Gordy, giving a Diana-lanche of inspirational speeches. “Together we have no limits! No limits! There’s only success ahead — and you can lead the way! Learn! Dream! Unlock new doors! All is possible with music and with youuuu!” At the end, she yelled, “Happy birthday to me! Happy birthday to meeee!” Miss Ross’ birthday is 43 days away (on March 26th). Bow down. I plan to spend Diana Ross’ birthday writing her a letter of apology on behalf of the American people for letting that J. Lo medley happen on our watch. We failed Miss Ross, everyone.
Travis Scott performed wearing a Rush tour T-shirt, proving that he’s a New World Man whose mind is not for rent by any god or government. Is this the closest Rush has ever gotten to an actual Grammy? Quite possibly — here’s to glittering prizes and endless compromises that shatter the illusion of integrity. Travis performed in a cage — inevitably evocative of 21 Savage, although it looked more like the mise-en-scene of the Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane” video. Travis did “Stop Trying to Be God” (with James Blake and Earth Wind & Fire) before blasting into “No Bystanders.”“Sicko Mode” always reminds me of “Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres,” but perhaps Travis is an even bigger Geddy-head than anyone thought.
People like to complain about the Grammys’ trademark surprise collabos, just because we need things to grouse about, but it’ll be tough to keep making those complaints after the Dua Lipa/St. Vincent throwdown, a brilliant coup for both artists, and one that could have happened only at the Grammys. They did Vincent’s “Masseducation” and Dua’s “One Kiss,” along with a snippet of Aretha’s “Respect.” It was a grrrl-punk edition of David Bowie fellating Mick Ronson’s guitar. Somewhere out there, Bowie was weeping tears of joy.
Kacey sang “Rainbow” in Sesame Street mode — not necessarily a highlight of Golden Hour, her well-deserved Album of the Year winner, but then songs about rainbows tend to evoke frogs. Camila Cabello did a lavish “Havana,” bringing in Young Thug, J. Balvin and Ricky Martin, who became an overnight sensation 20 years ago when he stole the 1999 Grammys with “La Copa de la Vida.” Cardi B did a fantastic “Money,” dolled up like Prince in Under the Cherry Moon. When she won Best Rap Album, she joked, “Maybe I need to start smoking weed.” (Perhaps Alicia could hook you up?) Brandi Carlile did “The Joke,” the show’s most touchingly Springsteen-esque moment, while Janelle Monae rocked “Make Me Feel.”
21 Savage somehow went all but unmentioned, which was kind of shocking — especially since he appeared on the Record and Song of the Year, Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” 21 was scheduled to play the Grammys up until a week ago, when he got thrown into a hellhole ICE detention center in Georgia. But his fellow artists didn’t say his name, not even in the speeches where people babbled, “I don’t know what to say.” Not even his buddy Drake. The exception was Childish’s Swedish producer, Ludwig Göransson, who simply said “21 Savage should be here right now” — and got cut off by the exit music.
Ariana might have refused to appear, but her new album kept popping up in the TV ads, so she got to Statler and Waldorf the show all night from afar. Kevin Richardson of the Backstreet Boys was in the house. Eve and Swizz Beatz co-presented, a touching reunion for the Ruff Ryders class of ’99, though unfortunately neither remembered to shout out to DMX, who just got back on the streets a free man after serving a year for tax fraud. (Get at me, dog!) Black Sabbath and George Clinton got lifetime achievement awards — too bad we didn’t get to hear J. Lo sing “Symptom of the Universe.” Neil Portnow, Mr. Punks Step Up to Get Beat Down, gave himself a retirement tribute that lasted six times longer than Smokey Robinson got to sing, complete with tearful video testimonials. Hey, he must be a swell guy — has Celine Dion ever been wrong?
The In Memorian loop was poignant, even if they forgot the Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley. (Damn, I didn’t know about Otis Rush or the Crystals’ Barbara Alston — R.I.P. to both.) The great Wah Wah Watson was evoked by the sound of his guitar on“Love’s Theme,” by Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra, the most scandalous wah-wah creaking-mattress sex noise of the disco era. The In Memoriam segment ended, of course, with Aretha Franklin. At the 1998 Grammys, when Pavarotti got a sore throat and couldn’t sing, Aretha went on in his place and sang the Puccini aria “Nessun Dorma” — on 20 minutes notice. No rehearsal, no warm-up, no problem. That’s a legend who will go on inspiring artists and fans forever. Who runs the world?