I had a moment of alarm during last night’s Grammy Awards when one of the freshest voices in rap, Kendrick Lamar, appeared on stage in a white hoodie surrounded by the also-white-clad semi-rock group Imagine Dragons. It wasn’t just because of the gross injustice of Lamar being forced to perform with one of the most anodyne ensembles of this or any other century, although I did momentarily want to fly to Los Angeles and march around the Staples Center with a “Free Kendrick!” placard. (Miraculously, he crushed it anyway.)
No, it was because the all-white costumes suddenly made me wonder whether the Grammys were openly acknowledging that “White People” was this year’s official theme. The rap categories were swept by the cuddly pale indies Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. (They also won Best New Artist, though even Macklemore said that Lamar should have won.) And not only was Lamar shut out (despite his seven nominations), but the most provocative and influential hip-hop album-maker of the year, Kanye West, got only two nominations and wasn’t invited to perform or present. He apparently wasn’t even on the premises. Given the rest of this year’s ceremonies, I assume his crime was being too exciting.
I’m not as irritated by Macklemore as a lot of rap fans are, but the Grammys mirrored the troubling fact that, as my colleague Chris Molanphy first reported in Slate’s end-of-year Music Club, 2013 was the first year (in 55) that not a single song led by a black artist topped the Billboard singles charts. Aside from one win for Jay Z (for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration), that pattern held on Sunday night.
Granted, the Grammys have always been too white and too old, but there has been a concerted effort to liven up the TV show, reducing award announcements and emphasizing more of-the-moment performers. In fact, it’s now almost as popular a broadcast as the Academy Awards. The Grammys have never threatened to take over the scandal-generating role of the Video Music Awards. There, Robin Thicke sang “Blurred Lines” while Miley Cyrus twerked lasciviously and, arguably, racially insensitively; on the Grammys, Thicke sings “Blurred Lines” as a medley with Chicago’s greatest hits. (For those under 35, Chicago were … no, you really don’t need to know.) But they have been striving not to be a total snooze.
But this year the proceedings seemed to be coasting on that success, and were pervaded by a general slackness. The show was like a poorly sequenced four-hour mixtape in which highlights are sporadic and jarringly juxtaposed.
The evening started strong, with a wet-haired, cat-suited Beyoncé doing a bootylicious chair dance before being joined by a suave Jay Z to seduce the world with their latest connubial-bliss duet “Drunk in Love,” which established the couple as the real hosts of the party (and First Couple of pop nation, if there were any doubt).
Daft Punk’s jam on “Get Lucky” with (Producer of the Year winner) Pharrell, guitarist Nile Rodgers, and Stevie Wonder (which weaved in Rodgers’ former band Chic’s “Le Freak,” the robots’ own “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” and Wonder’s “Another Star”) was another peak. The French duo became the night’s biggest winners, taking home both Record and Album of the Year. But while this was a relatively progressive choice by Grammys standards, and “Get Lucky” is a monster single, it still amounted to anointing a veteran white group playing retro-styled black dance music, with African-Americans as side musicians.
In that context I found it hard to be moved by the show’s structural climax, in which Macklemore and Lewis, their collaborator Mary Lambert, Queen Latifah, and Madonna performed, simultaneously, their pro-gay-marriage anthem “Same Love,” Madonna’s “Open Your Heart,” and an actual, apparently legal wedding ceremony for 34 couples of various genders. (Was the wedding theme the real reason for all the white outfits?)
The foremost complaint about “Same Love” is that it’s more concerned about affirming how terrific straight people are to be tolerant than about understanding gay experience. Usually I find that an unfairly harsh reading of a song of solidarity that can provide an entry to the issue for young Macklemore fans. But in the self-congratulatory atmosphere of the Grammys, with the weddings of 68 people reduced to liberal-kitsch window-dressing and Ryan Lewis at one moment physically pushing Latifah out of the way of Madonna’s entrance (I guess it’s white ladies first?)—well, it was hard not to see the critics’ point.