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Last Night, the Grammys Turned Back Into an Awards Show

There were some incredible moments, from the hip-hop medley to a nearly perfect In Memorium segment. But with too much shtick and not enough music, the 2023 Grammys missed the high mark of recent editions


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“Don’t even think of it as an awards show,” Trevor Noah said at the Grammys last year. “This is a concert where we give out awards!” That was the Grammy-night game plan for the past two years — emphasizing live music, letting the performers run wild, cutting out all the dead weight that makes award shows boring. That’s why the 2021 and 2022 bashes were the best ever for Music’s Biggest Night, by an absurd margin. But this year, the Grammys turned back into an awards show — too much shtick, not enough music. Beyoncé didn’t sing. Neither did Olivia or Adele. Neither did Taylor Swift, although her dance moves made her the life of the party.

Bonnie Raitt was the MVP of the night, just for her shocked WTF face when she won Song of the Year. As Bonnie would say, the award selections all night were definitely designed to give people something to talk about. Most controversially, this was the third time in a row Beyoncé teed up an unmissable Album of the Year and the Grammy voters managed to kick themselves in the forehead. “Beyoncé’s album Renaissance was better than anything from the actual Renaissance, in my opinion,” Noah quipped early on. “The Renaissance was just pictures of grapes and stuff.” That’s not to slight the night’s big winners — any of them — but just a reminder that you go to the Grammys for music, not the actual awards.

Beyoncé made a fittingly regal entrance, after a long delay where she was stuck in traffic. She made history when she became the biggest winner in Grammy history, winning a record-breaking 32nd award, making her the undisputed Grammy champion of all time. Nobody’s ever won as many Grammys as Bey, and nobody ever will. She’s one of one, she’s number one, she’s the only one. And — typically — when she won her record-breaking award for Best Dance/Electronic Album for Renaissance, she used the moment to reach out, saying, “I’d like to thank the queer community for your love and for inventing this genre.”

Like most Grammy ceremonies, this one had a Motown medley, though it’s only been three years since the last one, where Lopez controversially did the singing. This time was officially a tribute to Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy, as this year’s MusiCares honorees, but it got off to a clumsily bungled start. (Billy Crystal’s floundering intro didn’t help.) Chris Stapleton joined Stevie Wonder on “Higher Ground.” It’s insane how Smokey Robinson looks, sounds, and moves so great at 82 — he will always be the most dashing and seductive gentleman in any room, even when Harry Styles is in the room. Always bet on a guy with the nerve to call his new album Gasms.

Kim Petras and Sam Smith won for “Unholy.” “Sam graciously wanted me to accept this award because I’m the first transgender woman to win this award,” Petras said. Smith stepping back was a most eloquent gesture of solidarity, as she said, “I just want to thank all the incredible transgender legends before me who kicked these doors open for me so I could be here tonight.” She shouted out Madonna for her years of pro-queer activism. “And Sophie especially, my friend who passed away two years ago,” Petras said. “Thank you so much for your inspiration, Sophie. I adore you and your inspiration will always be in my music.” It was an elegiac yet intensely poignant moment.

The greatest performance of the night — one of the most astounding live performances in Grammy history — was the 15-minute tribute to hip-hop, in honor of the music’s 50th anniversary, curated by Questlove. As LL Cool J declared, it was “multigenerational, 50 years, from the Bronx to TikTok to the whole world!” It was a high-speed celebration of solidarity, innovation, collaboration, and community. The pass-the-mic spirit was electrifying — no egos, no star trips, just an all-star team of geniuses and legends telling the story.

GloRilla and Lil Uzi Vert repped the new school, just happy to be there. But the whole goddamn thing was a triumph. The crowd rose to the occasion, too — who can forget Lizzo and Adele on their feet, bringing the noise when Public Enemy came on? But by the end everybody onstage gave off a sense of exhilaration, both artistic and cultural — all these artists knew they’d just made something impossible happen. What a tribute. And what an inspiration.

Styles did a glorious version of “As It Was,” from his epochal Album of the Year winner Harry’s House, decked out in tinsel like Bob Mackie just designed Cher’s Christmas tree. His dancing in the break was loose, spontaneous, expressive, exuberantly alive, with an impulsive energy that was welcome on a night that needed it. Also loved the affectionate tribute from his longtime collaborator Kid Harpoon, who (as Rolling Stone readers know well) likes to call him “Gary.”

In a touching moment of Grammy Magic [TM], Ben Affleck was pronounced alive halfway through the show by a team of medics who’d been called in to remove his body. It turns out Ben was just kinda bored, looking at the camera with an array of hostage-video faces. Fortunately, Ben’s status was clarified just in time to keep him out of the In Memoriam montage. (Hang in there, Ben! We need you!)

Sam Smith and Kim Petras did “Unholy” as an unwitting tribute to early-Eighties hair metal, from the days when ladies in cages and ooky-spooky devil horns were the essence of youth gone wild. So somebody please let W.A.S.P. and the Scorpions know they’re edgy again, OK?

Brandi Carlile did a rousing country-rock version of “Broken Horses,” with Shooter Jennings on piano. Willie Nelson won Best Country Album, but didn’t show, maybe because he saddled up his horse and rode off to pick up Beyoncé from her traffic jam. (No fan could forget the joy of seeing Bey jump up and rock out at the 2014 Grammys when Willie sang “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”)

The Best New Artist award usually comes early in the show, hopefully with some performances to let viewers sample this year’s rookies. But weirdly, none of the Best New Artist nominees’ music got heard, not even in the winner, jazz sensation Samara Joy. The show could have used more youthful energy, especially since there were so many proven crowd-killers in the house — Joy, bluegrass picker Molly Tuttle, stars like Omar Apollo and Latto and Anitta, rock upstarts like Wet Leg and Turnstile.

Lizzo did gorgeously churched-up versions of “About Damn Time” and “Special,” but her speech was a work of art in itself, with her tearful shouts to Prince and Beyoncé. “When we lost Prince,” Lizzo said, “I decided to dedicate my life to making positive music.” Thank U for Lizzo, Prince. Steve Lacy vamped through “Bad Habit,” standing tall as one of the show’s few guitar heroes. Mary J. Blige brought down the house with “Good Morning Gorgeous.” Luke Combs did “Going, Going, Gone,” with a charming intro from his old bar boss, describing what a lousy bouncer Luke was. Kendrick Lamar won Best Rap Album, and paused on his way to the podium to salute Nile Rodgers (passing a conspicuously sitting-down Megan Fox).

Bonnie Raitt won Best Song for “Just Like That,” a song that most of the audience had no idea existed until tonight. Bonnie has been quite the Grammys presence the past couple of years — doing “Angel From Montgomery” in tribute to John Prine, or hanging out with Joni Mitchell at last year’s show, where Bonnie also happened to win a Lifetime Achievement Award. Nobody on Earth really thinks it was the best song written last year, but hey, nobody doesn’t worship Bonnie. Unless you can look in the mirror and swear you’ve never felt bone-chills at hearing “I Can’t Make You Love Me” after midnight, which honestly just means you’re a virgin who can’t drive.

The In Memoriam montage was one of the most touching ever, getting so many of the tiniest details right. Kacey Musgraves did so right by the late Loretta Lynn, playing “Coal Miner’s Daughter” on Miss Loretta’s own guitar, in a fancy red gown with bare feet. Quavo did a heartbreaking tribute to his cousin and comrade Takeoff, still a loss that seems unthinkable. Quavo did his personal eulogy “Without You,” backed by gospel choir Maverick City Music, beside an empty chair with Takeoff’s chain. It was a heavy, soulful, and painfully beautiful moment.

Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt, and Mick Fleetwood did a pained farewell to Christine McVie, with “Songbird.” Fleetwood, not usually the humble type, did a valiant job of making this all about McVie, banging his drum and doffing his hat at the end. For once, even this man was at a loss for words.

From Rolling Stone US