Grammys 2021: Music’s Biggest Night Finally Makes Music the Focus

A new "in the round" format made for a seamless night of live performances

HAIM Grammys
HAIM perform at Grammys, photo via Columbia Records
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The 2021 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles and the pop culture landscape both look vastly different from years past. The show, which has often overlooked contributions from women and people of color, is working on course correction, and this year’s program certainly reflected these efforts. While band-aids on gaping wounds aren’t always enough, the choice to focus on the reason for gathering — the music — was a wise one and paid off due in part to the “in the round” stage setups that recalled Jools Holland’s BBC format. Executive producer Ben Winston pulled off one of the cleanest, smoothest awards shows of this era, working to create some of the moments that make shows like this memorable.

As always, though, the Grammys are a frustrating paradox. They correctly spotlighted some of the best artists working right now, only to turn and leave many other empty-handed (Phoebe Bridgers going 0 for 4 is painful). Billie Eilish won Record of the Year and spent most of her speech apologizing to Megan Thee Stallion in a moment that recalled Adele tearfully accepting her win without breaking apologetic eye contact with Beyoncé four years ago. The Grammys, like any awards show, are not reflective of all the great art happening right now, yet they still mark the final step of critical success for many artists.

Past, Present, and Future Nostalgia: Many of the great performances of the night were connected by a cozy sheen of nostalgia — appropriately, quite a few of the best-performing records of the year were born of a place of escapism. (Chromatica sounds like a lovely place to visit this time of year.) Dua Lipa’s fantastic disco-pop album, Future Nostalgia, yielded performances of “Levitating” and viral hit “Don’t Stop Now” draped in glitter and soft choreo. (Go girl! Give us a lil something!) Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak debuted as Silk Sonic, also serving nothing but smooth ‘70s energy, playfully charming with truly stellar vocals to boot. BTS, who refuse to ever give anything less than 115%, recreated the entire Grammys set in Seoul and delivered another perfect, disco-overloaded performance of “Dynamite”. (These boys deserved so much more than three minutes and a single nomination, but that’s a different conversation.)

The in-person setup in Los Angeles gave the show a tactile, kinetic energy. The design, which consisted of multiple stages situated in a round, allowed for a natural flow from one performance to the next. As a result, everything felt just a bit more personal than the typical affair in the massive Staples Center, and this kind of arrangement wouldn’t be a terrible thing to keep in the future. The charming, confident opener from Grammy-winner Harry Styles performing “Watermelon Sugar” led seamlessly into visually stunning moments from Billie Eilish (singing “Everything I Wanted” atop a sunken car) and HAIM (prowling around their stage setup before taking on “The Steps”). Where many artists leaned into that “writer’s round” energy, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, never known to play by the rules, instead opted for a complete spectacle fitting for both artists and their (heavily censored) songs. That, of course, included debuting their chart-crushing hit “WAP” atop a giant bed and beneath, of all things, a giant stripper heel.

A Sign of the Times: This era has been so tumultuous, so dark, and so difficult that sometimes it’s hard to find words. Lil Baby let his visceral performance of “The Bigger Picture” speak for itself, harnessing imagery of the past year — riot gear, tear gas and all. A spotlight on struggling venues, currently sitting empty in Nashville, Los Angeles, and New York, served as a reminder that it’s not just arenas like the Staples Center waiting for a return to the communal experience of live music. As the official one-year mark of the pandemic has come and gone, it’s easier than ever to consider where we all were just before the world shifted: the last concert, the last worry-free meal in a restaurant, the last casual flight on an airplane. Until live music is safely possible again, performances that strive to reach through a screen and foster something close to that same feeling of connection are the ones that become memorable.

Similarly, after a collective year of overwhelming loss, any in memoriam sequence was inevitably a tough challenge to tackle. The choice of tribute songs for some of the departed artists, led by Bruno Mars, Anderson .Paak, and Brandi Carlile, lifted the lengthy sequence into bittersweet territory, capturing the joy and sadness of bodies of work left behind by artists like John Prine, Kenny Rogers, and Little Richard.

Representing Nashville, Miranda Lambert, Mickey Guyton, and Maren Morris (backed by John Mayer on guitar) showed out on behalf of country music, with Guyton in particular soaring. Again, aesthetic fixes are not enough to repair a crumbling foundation, and country music has its own problems to work through when it comes to its treatment of women, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to have had a country category entirely composed of female artists.

Meanwhile, if there’s one thing Taylor Swift is going to do, it’s put on a fairytale dress and perform a petite medley in a cabin that looks like it was stolen from the set of Into the Woods. Swift, who later took home Album of the Year for folklore, used her time to weave through some of the stories that tied the record to its follow-up, evermore, flanked by collaborators Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner.

Hollywood Is Burning: No program could possibly capture all of the exciting things happening in music, which isn’t the fault of the Grammys. So many gems are tucked into the pre-show categories, and even more great artists will never receive the kind of mainstage attention the Grammys offer.

Empty platitudes, however, like the screen that showed up towards the end of the program denouncing racism and sexism, don’t mean much when so many problems persist. If the successes of the night said anything, though, it’s that (much like the institution of the Grammys itself) the awards don’t matter. The music does.

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