What were the best performances from the 2021 Grammys?

Let’s start here: That was the best Grammys show I’ve seen. And I’ve seen a lot.

I’ve been watching the Grammy Awards as a fan since I was a kid and professionally for more than a decade. There’s always a lot to enjoy — the awards, the host and most of all the performances — but I usually have a lot to say about how this thing could be better.

This year? Not as much.

The 2021 Grammys featured a different sort of telecast. The pandemic meant the whole thing had to be staged quite differently than ever, but every change made it better.

This year’s Grammy Awards also had multiple tightropes to walk: How do you pull it off? How do you have these artists here to perform and accept awards without crowding them together? How do you acknowledge the loss of so many artists? How do you acknowledge the summer’s racial justice protests and the music that flowed from them? How do you give everyday people, who have been living through a year of uncertainty, a little catharsis on a Sunday night in March?

One misstep would have meant failure, but they figured it out. All of it.

If anyone in the producer’s office at the Grammy Awards is listening, let’s do it just like this next year. And the next year. And the next. Please.

These are the best and worst moments of this year’s Grammys — the performances, the people, the production. Everything.

THE BEST

Lil Baby’s powerful performance of The Bigger Picture. Filmed on the streets of LA just down the street from the Staples Center, the performance started off with actors depicting a black man being detained by then shot by police. Then a police lineup. Then a protest. Men carrying road flares down the street. All the while Lil Baby walking down the street wearing a sequined bulletproof vest. Killer Mike performed to a lineup of microphones while flames raged in the background. Black men shouting in the faces of cops. Holy crap. That was the performance of the night.

Silk Sonic. I’ve been intrigued by this Bruno Mars/Anderson Paak project ever since it was announced, and the performance delivered. Everything about it was perfect, especially the ‘70s R&B vibe. The carpet. The spotlights. The stars. Paak’s glasses. Bruno’s mustache. It was perfect.

Megan Thee Stallion. After winning Best New Artist, she was on stage hitting every move and every word of Savage. 

Three letters: WAP. Trevor Noah said, “If you have small children in the room, just tell them it’s about giving a cat a bath.” Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s performance was technically censored (they did the radio version of the refrain) but they were able to say just about every other lyric in the charged song. They were on point during the performance, which mostly took place in, on and around a massive bed.

Black Pumas. Let’s get more of these guys, please.

This one wasn’t for your parents. Too often, they figure that the older generations aren’t going to get into this new-fangled music, which is part of the reason you have new musicians (Post Malone, Ed Sheeran, Lady Gaga) teamed up with their elders (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Herbie Hancock, Tony Bennett) during most Grammys. Not this time. The Grammys went all-in on featuring new artists and new music, which is kind of the point of The Grammys, right? Everything — the music, the presenters, the format, WAP —  was not for your parents, and that’s a very good thing.

Tribute performances from Lionel Richie, Brandi Carlile, Brittany Howard and Chris Martin. In a year when we lost  a lot of musical greats, many of them due to COVID-19, you had to nail the tribute section. And Lionel Richie sang his friend Kenny Rogers’ songs. Brandi Carlile played a poignant and perfect Prine song, saying “Thank you, John,” at the end. And Brittany Howard brought the house down with a powerful performance of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” with Coldplay’s Chris Martin on the piano. Plus the way the camera physically moved through the soundstage like it was a museum paying tribute to those we’ve lost made it feel much better than the usual slideshow.

Uh, and Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak again. They took the stage for a lightning-fast tribute medley to the late Little Richard with Paak on drums  — my goodness that guy can play — and Bruno channeling his inner Richard. It was fantastic. I could have watched them play the rest of the night.

Trevor Noah. Love or hate The Daily Show host, but he did an admirable job. It’s hard to be engaging without being over-the-top, but he pulled it off, making jokes where needed (many hilariously aimed at the music industry itself) and even putting his interview skills to good use by chatting with the artists.

Actual instruments. I’ve never seen so many instruments played at The Grammys before. Haim and Black Pumas played as full bands, and even Da Baby had a violin player.

Music won over celebrity and manufactured moments. One of my biggest criticisms about past Grammy telecasts has been a desire to manufacture memorable moments rather than focusing on the task at hand: Honoring the best music of the year. To that end, the 2021 show featured more actual nominees than ever rather than forced “Grammy moments” that some producer hoped would be big on YouTube. Perhaps it was the pandemic that forced producers to not stick as many artists onstage as they possibly could. (It was subtle, but social distancing onstage was definitely a thing.) But whatever the reason, it worked quite well.

The indie venue presenters. Saluting independent music venues was cool, especially letting their staffers present major awards. Normally those presenters are stars of a CBS sitcom, and I think we can all agree we’d rather see a Nashville venue who needs the publicity get a salute than some guy whose show will be canceled after one season.

It didn’t feel like it was on a soundstage. Normally, the Grammys are done at LA’s Staples Center in front of a massive live audience. Not this show. The pandemic won’t allow that many people so close to one another, so the performances were filmed on a plain old soundstage. Meanwhile, the awards were presented on a small outdoors stage with distanced tables where nominees could gather when it was their turn. It worked… exceedingly well. Heck, I liked the format so much that I’d be fine with seeing it in the future. It meant the performances could be more controlled (and, frankly, sounded a lot better) while the awards presentation felt more intimate and simultaneously informal. I loved it.

A statement about women in country. As former Billboard editor Bill Werde pointed out on Twitter, The Academy of Country Music Awards announced nominees that included five men for entertainer of the year. Look over at the Grammys and notice anything different? All country performers were women. All the big country noms were women, too. The people in the country biz need to figure out that men aren’t driving this thing any more, and the Recording Academy’s statement about

THE WORST

The show’s pacing was all off. The performances were largely fantastic or at least decent, but smashing two performers up against each other almost never feels right. Pick one. Please. I beg you. The Grammys don’t need to be as long as they are, and trimming the fat by having one performance rather than slamming two unrelated performers up against each other would be a start.

The documentary features on Record of the Year nominees. The concept was cool: Give you the stories behind the year’s best/biggest singles. But they didn’t work particularly well. I didn’t learn anything new, and they messed up the show’s pacing. They felt more like something I’d find on The Grammys’ Twitter account and not something needed in the show. (Except for The Apollo. That one was fantastic, mostly due to the guest, Billy Mitchell, who then presented the award for best rap song.)

Not honoring songwriters. Seconds after Trevor Noah said that the Recording Academy is adding a songwriters and composers wing to better advocate for and represent songwriters and composers, the song of the year nominees were read. Oh, well the song titles were. Not the songwriters. It was a small oversight, but seriously? Name the people!

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