White People Win the Grammys

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Jan. 27 2014 1:13 PM

The Same Loves

White people win again at the Grammys.

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Singer Kacey Musgraves performs onstage during the 56th Grammy Awards on January 26, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.
Kacey Musgraves, accompanied by neon cacti.

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Meanwhile, along with all the other pastily complexioned artists the event was toasting, it was disproportionately devoted to the permanently redundant task of celebrating the Beatles—or rather, to stirring up promotional buzz for the Grammys’ own upcoming Beatles 50th-anniversary TV tribute. It wasn’t enough for Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr to play a middling new Macca song, but Ringo had to do endless choruses of one of his few solo hits, “Photograph,” while he bobbed about like Lawrence Welk in a haze of champagne bubbles and Peter Frampton strummed along.

The other excuse for Sir Paul’s presence was his nomination and subsequent win for Best Rock Song with the surviving members of Nirvana for a song they revealed they’d tossed off in two hours in the studio. Meanwhile, the winner of Best Rock Album was a Led Zeppelin live disc recorded in 2007, and Trent Reznor was apparently furious when his closing set with Josh Homme, Dave Grohl, and Lindsey Buckingham was cut off midway through to credit hotel and airline sponsors. In sum, this does not speak positively to the health of rock as a mainstream genre in 2014.*

The place that classic-rock sounds do still thrive commercially is on country radio, as a briefly thrilling electric-guitar duel between Keith Urban and new-bluesman Gary Clarke Jr. testified. It was good to see country get its due on this year’s Grammys, considering that it’s one of the few segments of the biz that still sells records, and the grizzled-outlaw jamboree of Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Kris Kristofferson (with contemporary star Blake Shelton) was particularly welcome. But younger talent was done a disservice when the upset winner of Country Album of the Year, Kacey Musgraves, was shuttled out between neon cacti to try and follow Kendrick Lamar’s barrage of noise and verbiage without any kind of transition. Musgraves is an urbane, smart-mouthed maverick who’s butted cheerfully up against country orthodoxies—it takes a pretty ham-handed production team to set her up like Molly Milquetoast.

Though she didn’t win any trophies, the night was also a bit of a landmark for Taylor Swift, who conquered all comers (there were too many) for the night’s best piano ballad. In the past, Swift’s award-show performances have been an Achilles’ heel, nervous and pitchy in ways that abet those who would dismiss her. This year she sat down to perform her album Red’s centerpiece number “All Too Well” and nailed it with the aplomb of a maturing artist who routinely plays to packed stadiums around the world. What I’ll remember well are the shivers that ran up my neck from some of the song’s most emotionally precise images and phrases, and wondering where she picked up her new Ani DiFranco-esque vocal trill/growl—not the usual insta-GIF’d cheap shots about Swift’s hair-whipping or offstage facial expressions.

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An even younger female singer-songwriter, Lorde, also consolidated her reputation Sunday by scoring several awards and doing a stripped-down version of her hit “Royals,” perhaps in part to foil any skeptical back talk. Her acceptance speeches were jewels of adolescent awkwardness that made me hope, probably vainly, that she wasn’t striking up any celebrity friendships backstage, but would hustle home to her nourishing New Zealand posse and preserve her perspective.

Overall, though, the aftertaste was more sour than sweet. It was especially hard not to react cynically to all the actors dropping by to gird up their awards-season campaigns, most of all Jared Leto being permitted to deliver a middle-school-public-speaking-contest rendition of “Walk on the Wild Side,” seemingly less to mourn Lou Reed than to remind us of his role as a transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club.* (Jordan Catalano, why are you like this … like, how you are?)

But rather than tally further grievances, I’ll close my eyes and think of the Grammys’ superb Lifetime Achievement picks (including Kris Kristofferson, the Isley Brothers, Kraftwerk, and zydeco titan Clifton Chenier), which were reminders that eventually the Grammys get some things right, along with my favorite Pharrell’s-hat tweet (“Please be Gryffindor, please be Gryffindor”), and hope for better next year.

Correction, Jan. 27 2014: This article previously described Jared Leto's role in Dallas Buyers Club as being a transvestite. He played a transgender woman. (Return.) Additionally, the article misspelled Lindsey Buckingham's first name. (Return.)

Carl Wilson is Slate's music critic.