The Best and Worst of the Grammys

The 61st annual Grammy Awards on Sunday labored to proper the wrongs of the previous few years’ ceremonies, the place the main narrative was stress over a scarcity of variety and poor illustration for the most influential younger artists in music. Big stars nonetheless stayed residence — and one of the greatest bought reduce off mid-speech — however the present corralled a former first woman and delivered many messages of inspirational uplift. Here are the highlights and lowlights as we noticed them:

Drake, who pointedly did not perform on Sunday night, claimed just his fourth Grammy in 42 tries — best rap song for “God’s Plan” — and he deigned to show up to accept it, taking the winner’s podium for the first time. (His previous awards were not televised, and he’s even clowned the show for giving “Hotline Bling” the best rap song trophy in 2017 “maybe because I’ve rapped in the past or because I’m black,” he said.) This time, he pulled a Fiona Apple and told the world it didn’t matter: “We play in an opinion-based sport, not a factual-based sport,” he said, seemingly legitimately nervous. “This is a business where sometimes it’s up to a bunch of people that might not understand, you know, what a mixed-race kid from Canada has to say, or a fly Spanish girl from New York, or anybody else, or a brother from Houston.”

It was part motivational speech, part rebuke of gatekeepers, and all Drake, the most famous guidance counselor in the universe. “The point is, you’ve already won if you have people who are singing your songs word for word, if you’re a hero in your hometown,” he added. “You don’t need this right here, I promise you.” But when he gathered his breath to finish the sentiment, the show cut to commercial. Drake was not seen at the Grammys again, and given how hard it was to get him there in the first place, he might not be for a while. JOE COSCARELLI

[Want to be heard during the Grammys? Maybe stay home, our critic writes.]

Flanked by younger admirers for a patchwork tribute, Dolly Parton easily held her own, with her voice still twangy, feathery and persuasive. The start was shaky: Kacey Musgraves too tentative and Katy Perry too vehement before Parton righted the tone of “Here You Come Again.” Miley Cyrus made an admiring rival in “Jolene,” and Cyrus shared three-part a cappella harmony with Parton and Maren Morris in “After the Gold Rush,” a Neil Young song Parton has recorded with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. Little Big Town gave Parton an arena-country buildup in the story-song “Red Shoes,” from the 2018 “Dumplin’” soundtrack, before the female-solidarity finale, “9 to 5,” in which Parton made sure to praise her recent songwriting collaborator and producer, Linda Perry, who was leading the band. Parton was all smiles, and all gumption. JON PARELES

“Welcome to the Grammys,” Cardi B proclaimed one hour and 28 minutes into the Grammys, luxuriating atop a jewel-encrusted piano that would make Liberace blink. She started her performance of “Money” in a dramatic cape like a sexy vampire leopard, and ended it sporting a ring of feathers like the baddest peacock on the block. Her set of plush banquets evoked vintage glitz, but 20 dancers doing floor work, four more waving large fans and a flamboyant pianist — Chloe Flower — couldn’t steal attention from the main attraction. When she returned to the stage to accept the award for best rap album, she had switched modes: from swagger to heart. “I can’t breathe,” she said, struggling for a brief moment to organize her thoughts. An entire arena was ready to offer up their lungs. GANZ

During the 19-second fingerpicked introduction to the power ballad “Shallow,” Lady Gaga executed two full body hair flips, one side kick and seven exaggerated stabbing motions with her left arm, each punctuating plucks of Mark Ronson’s acoustic guitar. As she sang the verses to the song, the standout from “A Star Is Born,” she acted out seemingly the entire arc of rock stardom: drinking, doing cocaine and torturing a microphone stand. Lady Gaga is one of our most gloriously talented pop stars, and one of the most nerve-racking, because you never know when her tango with good taste will dip into disaster. In her attempt to make this performance of “Shallow” the most everything, she ended up with less. GANZ

H.E.R., the shades-wearing singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who won the Grammy for best R&B album, summoned echoes of Prince and “Purple Rain” with reverberating chords from her electric guitar as she sang “Hard Place.” Singers and a string section gathered onstage as the song moved into a gospel-charged crescendo and H.E.R. let loose more expansive, ever more soulful melismas. She wasn’t done until she had flaunted some wailing lead guitar and then eased the song back down, with poised dynamics at every moment — the kind of real-time musicianship the Grammys still hope to reward. PARELES

Let’s say up front that Jennifer Lopez is a genuinely versatile talent — a spectacular dancer, an underrated actress, a person who sings. There are numerous ways she could have enlivened any number of parts of the Grammys this year, or any other year. Fronting a Motown tribute, however — yeah, how about no? Lopez did not appear to be singing live at any point during her six-minute-plus performance, to the chagrin of many online, and perhaps also to any of the dozens of R&B singers who could have handled these songs with verve and power. While the dance routines were strong, turning the music of Motown — which featured some of the most vital, urgent vocals in pop music history — into a Busby Berkeley routine was a swing and a miss. CARAMANICA

Miley Cyrus has never won a Grammy. She was not up for one this year. She’s only been nominated once ever. And yet! Cyrus came to play on Sunday, joining Shawn Mendes to make an unnecessary (sleeveless) duet a true power ballad, and then appearing again for a tribute to her godmother, Dolly Parton. Cyrus was loose, but focused; impactful, but not scenery-chewing, and, knowing her nonstop-ness, she probably wanted more. She could’ve torn up that cage with Travis Scott! She could’ve kept “Shallow” earthbound! She could’ve hosted! Bless her. COSCARELLI

Some Grammy performances have little to do with music in itself. The recording business owes a lot to Diana Ross, who had dozens of No. 1 hits, turns 75 in March and is still touring this year. What she never got, with the Supremes or solo, was a competitive Grammy award; the Recording Academy came up with a Lifetime Achievement award in 2012. So when she arrived onstage in a regal, gauzy red gown, after being introduced by her grandson, her presence was enough. She got through the retrospective gratitude of “The Best Years of My Life” (despite an ill-advised upward key change) and an arm-waving singalong of “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” as she strolled through the audience. “Learn, dream, unlock new doors,” she exhorted. “All is possible.” The standing ovation was a cumulative appreciation. PARELES

Between a 2014 Super Bowl appearance with Bruno Mars and this Grammy Awards duet with Post Malone, Red Hot Chili Peppers have made themselves symbolic elder statesmen of excess. Excess was the thematic link for a three-part Grammy medley: Post Malone’s acoustic-guitar-strumming ballad “Stay” (recalling a lovers’ quarrel while he was “too drunk to talk”) followed by his singsong, self-censored boasts of overindulgence in “Rockstar” and then the Chili Peppers’ 2016 song “Dark Necessities,” which hints at addiction and self-destructive impulses. Post Malone’s self-satisfied self-pity coupled with the Chili Peppers’ we-can-still-do-this athleticism — the singer Anthony Kiedis ended up shirtless — all played like unintentional parody. PARELES

Janelle Monáe has extensive ideas about cybernetic control vs. sensual abandon; she also has old-school showbiz razzle-dazzle. She combined them all to perform “Make Me Feel,” a song that harks back to the Minneapolis funk of Prince and prime Janet Jackson. Flanked by dancers who were costumed as shiny automatons, she swaggered through the song with robotic twitches, hip-pumping carnality and even some moonwalking, adding a snippet of her gynocentric song “Pynk” and the admonition, “Let the vagina have a monologue!” She earned the mic drop that ended the song. PARELES

The Grammys, structurally, still look like they could be filmed in the 1970s. The camera setups are fairly flat, and the performances are tightly controlled. So credit Travis Scott for taking a much-needed wrecking ball to the format. He began his performance with a coolly tempered “Stop Trying to Be God,” backed by James Blake duetting with Philip Bailey (of Earth, Wind and Fire). But then the scene switched: Scott reappeared inside a tall cage rapping “No Bystanders,” and was swarmed by dozens of ecstatic revelers, some of whom began scaling the cage walls. Eventually Scott climbed up, hopped over the top and landed on the outstretched arms of his faithful. For a show that likes to pretend music moves in one direction — from the stage outward — this was a welcome reminder that it can also go up, down, around, and explode in plain sight. CARAMANICA

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