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Grammys 2022 Review: Dancing Over a Low Bar

At least the show wasn't as messy as the months leading up to it

grammys 2022 review
Jon Batiste and Silk Sonic, photos by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy; BTS, photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy; Olivia Rodrigo, photo by Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images
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    The Return of Music’s Biggest Night: The stage was set for another divisive showing from the Recording Academy in the months leading up to the 64th annual Grammy Awards. Delays aside, the byproduct of rules changes led to some controversial nominations, like Marilyn Manson and DaBaby getting nods via Ye’s Donda, while more purposeful acknowledgements gave credence to the “cancel culture isn’t real” conceit. Add in the weird omission of certain shoe-in talents from their expected categories, and the 2022 Grammys were lining themselves up for the “irrelevant” reviews all over again.

    By the skin of its teeth, the awards show generally avoided that branding. There were low points, to be sure, but considering how basement-deep the bar was set in the first place (both by the previous week’s Oscars and all awards shows in the history of industry plaudits), the Grammys danced into “decent” status without outright outlandish controversy.

    While producers decided not to stick to the pandemic-induced, kinetically entertaining “in the round” format of 2021, this year’s show was still focused heavily on the music. Not awarding the music, mind you; only nine trophies were awarded during the three-and-a-half hour broadcast, with most gramophones being dolled out in the pre-show Premiere Ceremony. However, with a number of memorable performances, the Grammys earned their “Music’s Biggest Night” branding — at least early on.

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    And Now Coming to the Stage…: Opening with Silk Sonic’s performance of “777” made sense: The show was in Vegas, where Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak have been performing their residency, and the duo were essentially designed for this kind of showmanship. Interesting? Perhaps not, given how much the Academy clearly loves Mars and this project (they gave the pair stage for their live debut last year), but at least it was entertaining.

    Soon after, the year’s biggest breakout story, Olivia Rodrigo, essentially recreated her “drivers license” video, right down to the lightning design. While a bit on the nose, it showed off Rodrigo’s true vocal talents, erasing doubt that she could be just another TikTok-elevated pop blip. That said, it’s likely more discourse will come from her moment with V during BTSspy-themed “Butter” rendition than her own stage time. The K-pop megastars completely stole the night with their undeniable energy and appeal, all slick moves and impressive vocals. (Although the breathiness in the mics was probably a mark against the sound engineer/microphone placement, it proved the boys were singing live while doing those intricate dances.)

    Billie Eilish also demonstrated her strangle hold on the scene with a ferocious performance of “Happier Than Ever.” The set was classic Eilish, starting in a flooded, upside-down house and ending atop (beneath?) it alongside her brother, FINNEAS, and a drummer. After a soft opening, they turned the track into a full-blown rocker, leaving the tantalizing concept of a Billie Eilish alternative record in your head. It also served as the night’s best tribute to Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins, as Eilish’s shirt was adorned with an image of the late drummer.

    Unfortunately from a pacing perspective, those were easily the most noteworthy sets of the night. Sandwiched between them was a ho-hum appearance from J Balvin and Maria Becerra flanked by a tutting dance crew. Lil Nas X did a lot with a little for his medley performance, referencing the entire breadth of his career from controversy to immense fame without giving Fox News too much fodder (save for one microphone dick swing). H.E.R. got outshined by guest Lenny Kravitz (and of course Travis Barker was there too), Carrie Underwood stood in front of a fan for three minutes, and Justin Bieber proved why “Peaches” wasn’t meant to be a piano ballad (or performed on TV when the bleep button is so readily available).

    There were other highlights to be had, from Brandi Carlile’s jaw-dropping “Right on Time” performance to Jon Batiste’s joyous “Freedom” that ended on Eilish’s table. Even country duo Brothers Osborne’s end credits soundtracking was strong. But then there were things like Lady Gaga’s sincerely sweet but try-hard tribute to Tony Bennett, more noteworthy for the “moment” than the performance. As host Trevor Noah said early on, the Grammys are essentially “a concert where they’re giving out awards,” and when it’s a show as frontloaded as this one, it can be hard to stand for three-and-a-half hours.

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    The Host Without the Most: Speaking of Noah, he was the host. That’s about all there is to say about that. He got the Will Smith joke out of the way early, and had a decent “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” bit with Silk Sonic. Besides that, the cracks about how losing nominees still have their boundless wealth and wearing a thong under his suit felt tasteless and dull, leaving the job of master of ceremonies largely unnecessary. (Presenter Jared Leto also made a, “Hey, at least we’re all rich” joke that fell flat, noting that the nominees left the world a richer place, “especially for your agents.”)

    Where the ceremony did feel somewhat vital was in its celebration of music’s wider value. Performances from select artists were introduced by members of their touring party (production managers, tour managers, wardrobe supervisors), putting the spotlight on “those who put up that spotlight,” as Noah said. It was a nice way to salute workers who were most deeply impacted by pandemic cancelations, and a reminder that this industry wouldn’t survive without the efforts of thousands of unsung heroes.

    There was also the surprisingly political acknowledgment of the war in the Ukraine, featuring a pre-recorded appearance from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “On our land, we are fighting Russia, which brings horrible silence with its bombs. The dead silence,” Zelenskyy said from a Kyiv bunker. “Fill the silence with your music. Fill it today to tell our story.” Followed with a stirring performance of “Free” by John Legend, Ukrainian musicians Siuzanna Iglidan and Mika Newton, and poet Lyuba Yakimchuk (who had fled the country just days prior), it was a powerful message about refusing to be apolitical, itself a shot at the Oscars for denying Zelenskyy a platform. Whether it was enough to have the tearful moment and promote ForUkraine.com and #StandUpforUkraine is up for debate, but kudos are due for speaking up for what’s right.

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    Another potent moment came during the In Memoriam segment, where Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Ben Platt, and Rachel Zegler delivered a stunning Stephen Sondheim tribute. Although not nearly as cringe as the Oscars’ dance-obscured tribute, there was weirdness here as well, from the weak honoring of Hawkins to labeling Virgil Abloh a “hip hop fashion designer” (likely a way for the Academy to justify his inclusion in a music-focused in memoriam, but ridiculously reductive in practice). Grammy winner Joey Jordison, founding drummer for Slipknot, was left off entirely, another odd mark on an award show standard that just can’t seem to be as respectful as it claims to be.

    And the Grammy Goes To…: Then, of course, there were the awards themselves. Giving Louis C.K. Best Comedy Album and Tyler, the Creator Best Rap Album in the pre-show portion of the night were both head-scratching decisions for polar opposite reasons. Doja Cat’s progression from “I have never taken such a fast piss in my whole life” to genuinely tearful acceptance speech for Best Pop/Duo Group Performance (“Kiss Me More” with SZA) will go down as an all-time great, even if it did coincide with BTS being robbed once again from Grammy gold.

    Silk Sonic’s sweep (including Song and Record of the Year) and Olivia Rodrigo’s big night (collecting Best New Artist and Best Pop Vocal Album trophies) were worthy if uninteresting wins. Besides Silk Sonic’s schtick every time they got up from their seats, the victories were perhaps most noteworthy for making Bruno Mars just the second artist in history to win Record of the Year three times. Foo Fighters also swept the Rock categories, giving the band the most awards of any American band in Grammy history.

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    Most surprising was Batiste’s win for Album of the Year with We Are. A sleeper favorite for sure, the general populace was likely shocked it didn’t go to someone like Lil Nas X, Doja Cat, or Rodrigo. Yet his speech summed up why he indeed deserved the Grammy, and why it really didn’t matter:

    “I believe this to my core, there is no best musician, best artist, best dancer, best actor. The creative arts are subjective and they reach people at a point in their lives when they need it most… Every single artist that was nominated in this category I actually love and have had out-of-body experiences with your music. I honor you and this is for real artists, real musicians. Let’s just keep going. Be you. That’s it.”

    A video package from Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. towards the end of the night tried to sell the relevancy of the institution by highlighting its various charity and community organization wings, but when it comes to the Grammys, it really should be about what Batiste said: honoring real artists, real musicians. For the most part, the 2022 Grammy Awards did a fair job at that. It was long, the host was forgettable, and there were a handful of glitches in the programming and messaging. But all in all, it remained relevant enough to (however begrudgingly) warrant our attention for another year — even if it only had a low bar to dance over.

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