Heading into the 2019 Grammys, the Recording Academy found itself in a precarious place. Last year, a dearth of women winners in televised categories inspired criticism in the form of the #GrammySoMale hashtag — and outgoing Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow only dug a deeper hole with his infamous comments about how women needed to “step up” if they wanted to see themselves better represented.
And then there was the Academy’s relationship with hip-hop, which has been complicated for some time but appeared to a reach nadir when Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar, who had the most nominations with eight and seven, respectively, lost out in the major categories. Lamar still took home a few rap-specific trophies, but Jay-Z went home empty-handed, which inspired the diss heard ‘round the world on his and Beyoncé’s Everything Is Love LP: “Tell the Grammys fuck that 0-for-8 shit.” Neither the Carters, Lamar nor Childish Gambino attended this year’s ceremony.
So it’s hard to imagine things going much better for the Grammys’ reputation than what happened tonight: Kacey Musgraves took home album of the year for Golden Hour, whose success is likely all the more meaningful given the well-documented obstacles facing women in country music. Dua Lipa won best new artist and even referenced last year’s controversies in her speech, saying, “I guess we’ve really stepped up.” And then there was Childish Gambino, whose chart-topping, internet-breaking track “This Is America” became the first rap song to win song of the year as well as the first rap song to win record of the year; Gambino, aka Donald Glover, now joins an elite class of artists, including Adele and Amy Winehouse, who have won both categories for the same song in a single year. Sure, a Cardi B win for album of the year may have been the ultimate symbol of the Grammys answering last year’s wake-up call, but Cardi still made her mark with a showstopping, showgirl-inspired performance of “Money” (somehow it felt appropriate that she declared “Welcome to the Grammys!” about 90 minutes into the telecast) and a historic best rap album win for Invasion of Privacy (she’s the first solo woman to win the category).
It’s hard to say how much those big wins are the result of some of the organizational changes the Academy has made in the post year, which include expanding the number of nominees in the Big Four categories from five to eight and taking steps to diversify its membership. But that sense of progress that so many Grammys critics and spectators were looking for went beyond just the major categories or even the awards themselves. That was clear from the jump: The one-two punch of the show’s Latin-music extravaganza — starring Camila Cabello, Ricky Martin, J Balvin, Arturo Sandoval and Young Thug — and host Alicia Keys’ girl-power summit — featuring Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Jennifer Lopez and Michelle Obama — set the tone for the evening.
The most memorable performances of the night all came from women: Janelle Monáe, clad in a latex, Klaus Nomi-esque outfit, pulled off both guitar duty and a mesmerizing dance breakdown during a performance of “Make Me Feel” that also saw her throw in a choice line from her song “Django Jane”: “Let the vagina have a monologue.” H.E.R., Musgraves and Brandi Carlile let their music do the talking with more subtle, straightforward performances that put their commanding musicianship on display. And veterans Dolly Parton and Diana Ross flexed their icon status with retrospective medleys: Parton shared the stage with Katy Perry, Kacey Musgraves, Miley Cyrus, Maren Morris and Little Big Town as they sang some of her biggest hits, while a solo Ross turned a performance of “The Best Years of My Life” and “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” into both a life-coach session (“There’s only success ahead, and you can lead the way,” she said) and an aerobics class (“Put your hand back in the air, don’t be lazy”).
In genre-specific categories, women also dominated: Kacey Musgraves won three of the four country awards; Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande took home three of the four pop awards between them. H.E.R. won two awards in the R&B categories, which also saw wins from Ella Mai (“Boo’d Up” snagged best R&B song) and Beyoncé (Everything Is Love won best urban contemporary album).
That doesn’t mean the night was free of missteps: Post Malone’s team-up with the Red Hot Chili Peppers felt like an uninspired redux of Posty’s collaboration with Aerosmith at last year’s VMAs. The choice to have Jennifer Lopez lead a tribute to Motown received so much criticism that Smokey Robinson, who introduced the performance, was already defending it as of a few days ago; the actual performance hardly won over skeptics. (As writer Roxane Gay put it on Twitter, “I am absolutely baffled. How does J Lo, pop dance queen get tapped to lead a Motown tribute when black women exist?”) And a video tribute to Neil Portnow followed by a speech in which he touched on the importance of diversity in music fell somewhere between a premature back-pat and awkward bow on his remarks last year.
Drake, who’s been critical of the Grammys in the past, showed up to collect the best rap song award for “God’s Plan,” but his speech essentially functioned as subtweet of the Recording Academy, describing the music industry as “an opinion-based sport” where gatekeepers might not understand or reward the innovators in front of them: “You’ve already won if you have people singing your songs,” he said. The speech got a notable co-sign from Ariana Grande on Twitter, who had her own issues with the Academy this past week. She chose not to attend the ceremony following an apparent disagreement about a potential performance; Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich said there wasn’t enough time to pull something together, a claim Grande disputed in a series of tweets. (“I’ve kept my mouth shut but now you’re lying about me,” she wrote. “i can pull together a performance over night and you know that, Ken. it was when my creativity & self expression was stifled by you.”)
As much of a step in the right direction as this year’s Grammys seemed, those behind-the-scenes details of went what wrong or what could have been hint at how much stronger the night could have been — and how much more star wattage the show that bills itself as “music’s biggest night” could have pulled in. In an interview with The New York Times earlier this week, Ehrlich revealed that he had also offered Drake, Kendrick and Childish Gambino performance slots, but they all declined. Their reasons for doing so, whatever they are, are probably understandable. Yet with practically backlash-free winners in the major categories tonight, a future in which music’s most essential artists don’t sit out the Grammys in protest seems closer than it has in years.