Music News: Breaking down the Grammys: Highs, lows, whoas

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A powerful quintet at the 2019 Grammys.
(l-r) Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Alicia Keys, Michelle Obama, and Jennifer Lopez appear onstage at the 61st annual Grammy Awards. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images for the Recording Academy)
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Breaking down the Grammys: Highs, lows, whoas
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The 61st annual Grammys had more than their share of memorable moments, celebrating both legends and newcomers. Here are a few of the night's headlines.

A night of powerful women

The Recording Academy faced withering criticism of the gender skew of last year's awards, which had only one woman (Best New Artist Alessia Cara) accepting a trophy alone onstage and coincided with Grammys head Neil Portnow infamously saying that women needed to "step up" to be recognized for their talent. This year, women were everywhere — including in the hosting role, with Alicia Keys loose and appealing as MC. She set the evening's tone early on, introducing a quartet of her "sisters": Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Jennifer Lopez, and, yes, Michelle Obama.

Female artists completely dominated the night's biggest live performances (more on that below), and took some of the night's biggest awards. Kacey Musgraves won Best Album for the critically acclaimed Golden Hour, a record that's become emblematic of country radio's resistance to playing female artists. Cardi B claimed Best Rap Album, making her the first solo female artist to win that award. (Previously, the only prominent female artist to even share the award was Lauryn Hill of the Fugees.) Best New Artist was Dua Lipa, who made a pointed Portnow allusion in her acceptance speech.

Hip-hop's stormy relationship with the Grammys continues

Childish Gambino won both Record of the Year and Song of the Year for "This Is America," making it the first rap song ever to win those awards. Donald Glover, however, didn't even show up to collect the awards, let alone to perform. The Grammys were also reportedly turned down by Kendrick Lamar; while Drake declined to perform, he did take the stage to accept his Best Rap Song Grammy for "God's Plan." The Canadian superstar, who's had a famously ambivalent relationship with the Grammys, gave a speech that downplayed the importance of the awards.

His speech was soon cut off, which was widely seen as a brushback by the Grammys...although the Recording Academy said the music just cut in per usual when Drake paused in his speech, and said the artist later told producers he didn't have anything to add. Whether the night as a whole does anything to repair the Grammys' relationship with the most urgent and popular genre of our time remains to be seen.

Before the show: Beck, H.E.R., Kacey Musgraves win key awards

Only nine Grammys were awarded during the national telecast; most Grammys are awarded in a ceremony that's streamed before the big show. Kacey Musgraves's win for Album of the Year might have seemed less surprising if you knew she was building momentum in those early awards. Over the course of Sunday, she won the same four awards that Taylor Swift swept in 2010 with Fearless: Album of the Year, Best Country Album, Best Country Song, and Best Country Solo Performance. Another early winner who scored again during the broadcast was H.E.R., who won Best R&B Performance and then took Best R&B Album as well.

Other notable winners in the pre-televised categories included Beck, who won Best Alternative Music Album for Colors, making Björk 0 for 15 in career Grammy nominations. Two of the night's most-nominated artists, Kendrick Lamar and Brandi Carlile, also took early awards: Lamar for Best Rap Performance; and Carlile for Best Americana Album, Best American Roots Song, and Best American Roots Performance. Accepting for Best American Roots song, Carlile talked about the expansive genre that's embraced her.

Other need-to-knows include the Carters (Beyoncé and Jay-Z) winning Best Urban Contemporary Album for Everything Is Love; "This Is America" landing Best Music Video; Sting and Shaggy winning Best Reggae Album; and Jimmy Carter beating Questlove in the Best Spoken Word category. Although "Shallow" didn't land the Song and Record of the Year wins that many forecast, it did take the award for Best Song Written for Visual Media, making it even more of an Oscar shoo-in.

In the awards for behind-the-scenes work, Emily Lazar made history when Beck's Colors won for Best Engineered Album (Non-Classical), making her the first female mastering engineer ever to win that award. On the other hand, Pharrell's win for Best Producer of the Year (Non-Classical) kept nominee Linda Perry from becoming the first woman to win that award.

Unforgettable performances (and a few forgettable ones)

If it was a night for women to shine, men didn't put up much competition in the category of live performance. A collaboration between Post Malone and Red Hot Chili Peppers was mostly a reminder of the gimmicky vet-and-rookie match-ups that pervaded the Grammys for years, and an energetic performance by Travis Scott wasn't talked about as much as his lead-in, in which James Blake joined members of Earth, Wind and Fire.

By contrast, virtually every woman who performed brought down the house. Brandi Carlile may not have won any awards during the telecast, but she won legions of new fans with a powerful performance of "The Joke." Janelle Monáe delivered a typically polished and striking performance of "Make Me Feel," and H.E.R. amply demonstrated why she landed a slew of nominations this year, ripping one of the night's two best guitar solos.

The other one came from St. Vincent, whose steamy duet with Dua Lipa was immediately acclaimed as an artistic triumph. Camila Cabello opened the broadcast by practically turning her hit "Havana" into a Broadway show, with guests including Arturo Sandoval and Ricky Martin. Cardi B, never one to be upstaged, did "Money" dressed like Prince might have if Purple Rain was a vampire movie.

Two of the night's most-hyped appearances saluted living legends, and neither disappointed. Introduced by her nine-year-old grandson, Diana Ross emerged to celebrate her impending 75th birthday with a couple of ballads and a lot of life advice.

The evening's most epic spectacle, though, was the Dolly Parton tribute that saw the country star take the stage with Musgraves, Katy Perry, her goddaughter Miley Cyrus, and more for songs including "Here You Come Again," a cover of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush," and an all-star "9 to 5" singalong. (Parton was this year's MusiCares Person of the Year, and as such received an even more elaborate evening-long tribute in the run-up to the Grammys.)

The song's lyrics were appropriate, given the night's historic weight. "They let you dream/ Just a watch 'em shatter/ You're just a step on the boss man's ladder/ But you got dreams he'll never take away."


Audio sampled in podcast
Jahzzar: "Comedie" (CC BY 4.0)
Dolly Parton: "9 to 5"
Michelle Obama at the Grammys
Dua Lipa: Best New Artist Grammy acceptance speech
Drake: Best Rap Song Grammy acceptance speech
Childish Gambino: "This Is America"
Cardi B: "Money"
Brandi Carlile: Best American Roots Song Grammy acceptance speech
Diana Ross: "Reach Out And Touch (Somebody's Hand)"


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