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Megan Thee Stallion, Taylor Swift win big on Grammy night that felt tastefully small

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The big show usually opens with a big song, but not this year. Instead, Sunday night's Grammy Awards began with the evening's host, comedian Trevor Noah, strolling onto a cozy sound stage, trading hellos with the night's performers as if introducing guests at a house party. Then, heartthrob-turned-lust-object Harry Styles gave an intimate rendition of a huge hit, "Watermelon Sugar," wearing a leather jacket and a boa made of Muppet that felt close enough to touch.

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Pandemic or not, these 63rd annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles were destined to feel different: the telecast's previous producer, Ken Ehrlich, retired last year after 40 long years at the helm, giving the new kids a massive opportunity to reimagine the shape and feel of what used to be called "music's biggest night."

Wisely they went small, stitching together a patchwork of performances that sounded warm and close - partially because the songs were not forced to clang across the cavernous Staples Center, partially because the audience was not umpteen-thousand music-biz professionals. Instead, musicians performed for other musicians, sizing one another up and nodding along. It was as if pop's A-list had convened for a battle of the bands at the local high school.

Largely absent were the legends and legacy acts that have been clogging up Grammy night for decades, allowing viewers to actually hear what's happening in contemporary music. That meant hearing the rock trio Haim sing in telepathic sibling harmony. It meant dancing alongside Bad Bunny in his futuristic chain mail sweater. It meant being invited to Dua Lipa's disco slumber party. Even the "in memoriam" section felt fresh, swinging from raucous (Bruno Mars screaming Little Richard songs) to delicate (Brandi Carlile gently strumming a John Prine tune). It made for the most coherent, purposeful, hospitable, gratifying Grammy night of the past 20 years, far and away.

All of those performances happened indoors, though. Late in the show, out on the streets of downtown Los Angeles, a camera followed Georgia rapper Lil Baby as he staged an cinematic rendition of "The Bigger Picture," the contemplative Black Lives Matter anthem that should have been nominated for record and song of the year. Lil Baby delivered it with ice water in his veins, rapping directly into the camera while a team of extras surrounding him acted out a police shooting of a Black motorist. It felt surreal, then shocking, then sobering. Things like this never happen at the Grammys. How many times has something like this happened on the streets of Los Angeles?

The telecast itself might have been the night's big winner, but there were trophies, too. Record of the year - the prize that recognizes a recorded song's performer, writer, producer and more - was reframed as the night's most desirable award through a series of interstitial mini-documentaries introducing viewers to the artists hoping to win it. No more squinting at your television, asking, "Who are these people?" Now you know.

But if you watched her triumph at last year's Grammys, you already knew Billie Eilish. The teenage balladeer won her record of the year on Sunday, for "Everything I Wanted," besting Beyoncé, who still managed to have a record-setting night. Beyoncé became the winningest performer in Grammy history, having collected prizes for best R&B performance, best rap performance, best rap song and best music video, bringing her lifetime hardware count up to 28 golden gramophones.

Taylor Swift made the history books, too, winning album of the year for her made-in-quarantine opus "Folklore." It was Swift's third album-of-the-year win, putting her in the company of Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder. Highlighting the world's strange relationship to what might be her greatest album, Swift thanked her listeners and her collaborators, including Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, whom she said she was looking forward to meeting in real life someday.

As for the night's two other biggies, song of the year went to "I Can't Breathe" by the graceful soul singer H.E.R., while best new artist went to the agile Texas rapper Megan Thee Stallion, the first woman rap artist to win it (unless you count singer Lauryn Hill as a rapper, too).

"I don't want to cry," Megan said while accepting the honor on an outdoor dais, perhaps flashing back to the pre-telecast ceremony a few hours earlier. Having won best rap performance for "Savage," a duet with Beyoncé, Megan screamed four times before beginning her speech, which included a thank-you to her late mother and ended in tears. If you've wept with family on Zoom anytime over the past year, you recognized the heft of this moment.

More than 70 of the 84 trophies presented at this year's Grammys were handed out virtually during that premiere ceremony, which streamed online Sunday afternoon. Hosted by singer and album-of-the-year nominee Jhene Aiko, the pre-telecast unfolded on an anonymous stage seemingly designed to resemble the shards of a broken disco ball. The socially distanced program ran quite smoothly, with artists using videoconferencing programs to deliver quick acceptance speeches from the comfort of their homes.

This made for big fun. When Nigerian superstar Burna Boy won best global music album, an arena-level roar erupted from the off-screen crowd assembled in his living room. Ledisi's husband poured his wife a glass of wine as she accepted the prize for best traditional R&B performance. The Strokes went with beer, spraying one another with foamy cans after winning best rock album (somehow the first Grammy nomination and victory in the band's 23-year run). After winning best progressive R&B album, Los Angeles bassist Thundercat thanked his mother from his sofa, then turned 90 degrees to smooch her on the cheek.

The day was not without its flubs and oversights. The most egregious blunders of the pre-telecast came during the distribution of prizes for rap music - this century's dominant pop tradition, yet one that the Academy barely even tries to understand. Album of the year has only been awarded to rap music once (OutKast, in 2003), which means that Kanye West has never won the big one. So, on Sunday, "Jesus is King," the messiest album of West's especially messy career, won best contemporary Christian album. Meanwhile, best rap album went to Nas, a veteran now decades past his prime.

Rap illiteracy is just one of the Grammys' enduring problems. The Academy itself is still coasting on interim leadership after being plagued last year with allegations of vote-rigging and sexual misconduct at its highest levels. Big changes - for more transparency in the nomination process, for more inclusion on the nominee slate - were promised, but this year's nominees in the four big, genre-blind categories were finalized by a closed-door committee and many of today's brightest rap stars remain conspicuously absent. Let that stand as a reminder, once again, that the Grammys does not reflect how popular music resonates in our world. It reflects how the music industry wants to see itself.

As for one of the evening's most flagrant snubs, it came with two consolation prizes. "Fetch the Bolt Cutters," the highly inventive and deeply evocative 2020 album from Fiona Apple, seemed like a zero-brainer candidate for album of the year. Instead, the Academy chose to recognize it as a container for the best rock performance (the song "Shameika"), as well as the best alternative music album - a category that feels beyond obsolete in 2021. With the endless choices offered in today's streaming world, isn't everything an alternative to everything else?

Apple did not materialize on screen for any speechifying, but earlier in the day she posted her own video on social media to explain her virtual absence, criticizing the Academy's lack of voting transparency - but she'd ultimately logged on to ask fans to sign a petition to allow virtual court watching to continue during the pandemic. "What really, really is undeniably important is the transparency in actual courtrooms," Apple said.

She was making an important political point in her own space, on her own terms. "Best alternative" for real.
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The list of winners from the 63rd Grammy Awards:

Album of the year

"Folklore," Taylor Swift

Record of the year

"Everything I Wanted," Billie Eilish

Song of the year

"I Can't Breathe," H.E.R.

Best new artist

Megan Thee Stallion

Best rap performance

"Savage," Megan Thee Stallion featuring Beyoncé

Best rap song

"Savage," Megan Thee Stallion featuring Beyoncé

Best rap album

"King's Disease," Nas

Best melodic rap performance

"Lockdown," Anderson .Paak

Best R&B album

"Bigger Love," John Legend

Best R&B song

"Better Than I Imagined," Robert Glasper Featuring H.E.R. & Meshell Ndegeocello

Best progressive R&B album

"It Is What It Is," Thundercat

Best R&B performance

"Black Parade," Beyoncé

Best pop vocal album

"Future Nostalgia," Dua Lipa

Best pop solo performance

"Watermelon Sugar," Harry Styles

Best pop duo/group performance

"Rain On Me," Lady Gaga with Ariana Grande

Best traditional pop vocal album

"American Standard," James Taylor

Best pop duo/group performance

"Rain On Me," Lady Gaga with Ariana Grande

Best rock album

"The New Abnormal," The Strokes

Best rock song

"Stay High," Brittany Howard

Best rock performance

"Shameika," Fiona Apple

Best alternative album

"Fetch The Bolt Cutters," Fiona Apple

Best country album

"Wildcard," Miranda Lambert

Best country song

"Crowded Table," The Highwomen

Best country solo performance

"When My Amy Prays," Vince Gill

Best country duo/group performance

"10,000 Hours," Dan + Shay & Justin Bieber

Best dance recording

"10%," Kaytranada featuring Kali Uchis

Best dance/electronic album

"Bubba," Kaytranada

Best contemporary instrumental album

"Live at the Royal Albert Hall," Snarky Puppy

Best metal performance

"Bum-Rush," Body Count

Best traditional R&B performance

"Anything For You," Ledisi

Best new age album

"More Guitar Stories," Jim "Kimo" West

Best improvised jazz solo

"All Blues," Chick Corea

Best jazz vocal album

"Secrets Are The Best Stories," Kurt Elling featuring Danilo Pérez

Best jazz instrumental album

"Trilogy 2," Chick Corea, Christian McBride & Brian Blade

Best large jazz ensemble

"Data Lords," Maria Schneider Orchestra

Best latin jazz album

"Four Questions," Arturo O'Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra

Best gospel performance/song

"Movin' On," Jonathan McReynolds & Mali Music

Best contemporary Christian music performance/song

"There Was Jesus," Zach Williams and Dolly Parton

Best gospel album

"Gospel According to PJ," PJ Morton

Best contemporary Christian music album

"Jesus Is King," Kanye West

Best roots gospel album

"Celebrating Fisk! (The 150th Anniversary Album)," Fish Jubilee Singers

Best Latin pop or urban album

"YHLQMDLG," Bad Bunny

Best Latin rock or alternative album

"La Conquista Del Espacio," Fito Paez

Best regional Mexican music album (including Tejano)

"Un Canto Por México, Vol. 1," Natalia Lafourcade

Best tropical Latin album

"40," Grupo Niche

Best American roots performance

"I Remember Everything," John Prine

Best American roots song

"I Remember Everything," John Prine

Best Americana album

"World On The Ground," Sarah Jarosz

Best bluegrass album

"Home," Billy Strings

Best traditional blues album

"Rawer Than Raw," Bobby Rush

Best contemporary blues album

"Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?", Fantastic Negrito

Best folk album

"All The Good Times," Gillian Welch and David Rawlings

Best regional roots music album

"Atmosphere," New Orleans Nightcrawlers

Best reggae album

"Got To Be Tough," Toots & The Maytals

Best global music album

"Twice As Tall," Burna Boy

Best children's music album

"All The Ladies," Joanie Leeds

Best spoken word album (includes poetry, audio books & storytelling)

"Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, And The Richest, Most Destructive Industry On Earth," Rachel Maddow

Best comedy album

"Black Mitzvah," Tiffany Haddish

Best musical theater album

"Jagged Little Pill," origianal Broadway cast

Best compilation soundtrack for visual media

"Jojo Rabbit"

Best score soundtrack for visual media

"Joker," Hildur Guðnadóttir

Best song written for visual media

"No Time To Die," Billie Eilish

Best instrumental composition

"Sputnik," Maria Schneider

Best arrangement, instrumental or a cappella

"Donna Lee," John Beasley

Best arrangement, instruments and vocals

"He Won't Hold You," Jacob Collier featuring Radsody

Best recording package

"Vols. 11 & 12," Desert Sessions

Best boxed or special limited edition package

"Ode To Joy," Wilco

Best album notes

"Dead Man's Pop," The Replacements

Best historical album

"It's Such A Good Feeling: The Best of Mister Rogers," Mister Rogers

Best engineered album, non-classical

"Hyperspace," Beck

Producer of the year, non-classical

Andrew Watt

Best remixed recording

"Roses (Imanbek Remix)," Saint Jhn

Best engineered album, classical

"Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13, 'Babi Yar'," Riccardo Muti & Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Producer of the year, classical

David Frost

Best orchestral performance

"Ives: Complete Symphonies," Gustavo DudamelBest opera recording

"Gershwin: Porgy and Bess," David Robertson, Eric Owens & Angel Blue

Best choral performance

"Danielpour: The Passion Of Yeshua," JoAnn Falletta, James K. Bass & Adam Luebke

Best chamber music/small ensemble performance

"Contemporary Voices," Pacifica Quartet

Best classical instrumental solo

"Theofanidis: Concerto For Viola And Chamber Orchestra," Richard O'Neill

Best classical solo vocal album

"Smyth: The Prison," Sarah Brailey & Dashon Burton

Best classical compendium

"Thomas, M.T.: From The Diary Of Anne Frank & Meditations On Rilke," Michael Tilson Thomas

Best contemporary classical composition

"Rouse: Symphony No. 5," Giancarlo Guerrero & Nashville Symphony

Best music video

"Brown Skin Girl," Beyoncé, Blue Ivy & Wizkid

Best music film

"Linda Rondstadt: The Sound of My Voice," Linda Ronstadt

Published : March 15, 2021

By : Chris Richards The Washington Post ·