LOS ANGELES – Megan Thee Stallion, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish were the big winners at the 63rd Grammy Awards on Sunday, after a year of lockdown and protests that rattled artists, fans and the music business.
The big four awards were split among some of the top women in music. Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion won for best new artist; singer-songwriter-guitarist H.E.R. took song of the year for her protest anthem “I Can’t Breathe”; Swift won the album of the year trophy for her acclaimed quarantine record “Folklore”; and Eilish, who swept last year’s top categories, repeated her victory in record of the year for her moody “Everything I Wanted.”
Beyoncé, who won four awards on Sunday, broke the all-time record for most Grammys for a female artist. Her 28th Grammy topped country-bluegrass artist Alison Krauss, who’d previously held the record with 27 wins. She also tied the legendary Quincy Jones for second on the all-time list for most Grammy wins. (Hungarian composer Sir Georg Solti won 31 Grammys.)
Beyoncé won for R&B performance, for her Juneteenth single “Black Parade”; rap song and rap performance, for her feature on fellow Houstonian Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage”; and music video, alongside her daughter Blue Ivy Carter, for “Brown Skin Girl.”
Megan Thee Stallion won three Grammys on Sunday, while Eilish took home two awards, as did Fiona Apple, for her acclaimed “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” album and its track “Shameika.” Dua Lipa, nominated for six Grammys, won for pop solo album.
The first pandemic-era Grammys arrived battered from all sides. COVID-19’s wreckage included shuttered venues, tours grounded and lifelong pros left destitute. This year’s Grammys’ “In Memoriam” segment reportedly had 800 industry veterans in consideration for inclusion alongside beloved artists Little Richard, John Prine, Kenny Rogers and dozens of others.
Add that to a dramatic change of the guard for the telecast, from the Grammys’ 40-year producer Ken Ehrlich to 39-year-old British TV executive Ben Winston. Then throw in a public reckoning over how the Recording Academy (and its tightly guarded 12,000 voters and genre committees) declined to nominate R&B/pop star the Weeknd, who in turn called the Grammys “corrupt” on social media and vowed never to allow his music to be submitted for consideration.
Given the chaos behind the scenes, the nearly four-hour show, hosted by “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah, made an effective case that music can be both a balm amid despair, and a rallying cry for the oppressed during times of racial and social upheaval.
Some Grammy favorites collected major awards. Swift won for album of the year for “Folklore,” her quarantine-embodying LP made in relative isolation that, with its lonely moods and storytelling, defined a frightful summer. She’s now tied with Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra and Paul Simon for most album of the year Grammys, and she became the only woman to win the award three times.
When last year’s Grammy darling Eilish accepted the award for record of the year, she spent most of her speech shouting out Megan Thee Stallion, who was nominated for “Savage” featuring Beyoncé.
“This is really embarrassing. Megan, you deserve this,” Eilish said. “Genuinely, this goes to her, can we just cheer for Megan?”
The pandemic-mandated reduced scale and sense of intimacy at this year’s Grammys worked in its favor.
From the start, host Noah, situated on a platform outside Staples Center with just a few masked stars at tables in front of him, acknowledged the lack of glitz. The telecast was “the biggest outdoor event of the year besides the storming of the Capitol,” he quipped. As Megan Thee Stallion — one of the night’s big winners — accepted her award for best new artist, her speech was briefly drowned out by a car speeding through downtown L.A.
With a public skeptical of the Grammys’ backroom voting processes, the ceremony argued for its more noble intentions.
Swift leaned into the cottagecore aesthetic of “Folklore” by performing in a hobbit shed with producers Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner. Eilish, Harry Styles and Haim played for one another in-the-round, which made for good-hearted reaction shots of artists looking as if they’d happily wandered into the wrong rehearsal room.
Throughout the night, the Recording Academy gave the spotlight over to Black music, which thrummed in the streets of last year’s protests against police violence.
Singer Mickey Guyton, nominated for country solo performance, played a regal and resplendent performance of “Black Like Me.” On the convention center decks, rapper Lil Baby re-created the scene outside the burning Atlanta fast-food restaurant where Rayshard Brooks was killed during his performance of “The Bigger Picture.” And H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe,” a seething yet vulnerable protest ballad, won song of the year in a major upset.
“I think people are going to think of this song when they think of Breonna Taylor, when they think of all of the people that we’re still fighting for,” H.E.R. said backstage.
“As an artist, I believe it’s my job, and all of our jobs, to reflect the times,” Beyoncé said in her acceptance speech for R&B performance. “It’s been such a difficult time. So I wanted to uplift, encourage, celebrate all of the beautiful Black queens and kings that continue to inspire me and inspire the whole world.”
Not all of the show was so weighty. The debut of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s ‘70s-soul-indebted duo Silk Sonic felt as inviting as a fine robe and a glass of brandy, and Doja Cat’s disco romp “Say So” showcased her cyborg-precise dancing. Though Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B’s live performance of their sex-positive anthem “WAP” did without its wonderfully filthy hook on broadcast TV, they had a lively go at it beneath a five-story stiletto heel.
While Grammy voters’ intentions and the telecast’s choices don’t always align, the Grammys tried to mirror pop’s borderless and language-agnostic present, giving formidable screen time to Puerto Rican movimiento star Bad Bunny (who took home his first “gringo Grammy,” for Latin pop or urban album) and to South Korean megastars BTS.
BTS lost to Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande in pop duo/group performance, but played a high-kicking set that consoled fans who vowed that BTS was already bigger than the Grammys anyway.
Many awards presentations were, rather than handoffs from fellow pop stars, delivered from the back bars of threatened clubs like the Troubadour and Hotel Cafe in L.A. and the beloved Apollo in New York City. Hearing from employees there on the highest-profile night of music was affecting and urgent.
“People don’t want to be anywhere else but [The Troubadour],” said the club’s night manager, Rachelle Erratchu.“People are going to talk about those shows 40, 50 years later.”
But if legacy was on the Recording Academy’s minds, they still must confront a structure that’s opaque at best and suspicious at worst to the superstar acts they need to keep the show relevant.
“Join in, work with us, not against us,” Recording Academy interim Chief Executive Harvey Mason Jr. said in his telecast speech. “We might not be able to get it right 100% of the time, but we will preserve music and educate the next generation and advocate for the rights of all creatives.… Our work is important because music is important.”
— August Brown, Los Angeles Times