The Grammy stage is America’s Buckingham Palace, and the crowns belong to Prince Harry Styles and Queen Megan Thee Stallion. A small, elite group of royals draped in Dolce & Gabbana and Gucci celebrate, grieve, gossip and carouse in their annual kingdom. The scandal in the air is tangible. What were exes Taylor Swift and Harry Styles discussing during Doja Cat’s performance? Should John Mayer have attended, given his history of racist and sexist remarks? Why was Billie Eilish awarded Record of the Year over the more obvious choices? America’s eyes were glued to our royals: Beyoncé, Bruno, Billie, Taylor, Doja, Harry, Megan, Dua, future princess Blue Ivy … the list goes on. The show is an aesthetic feast of red carpets, flashy costumes and beautiful people, but behind the cameras and curtains looms a history of racism and sexism. Nevertheless, it’s the Grammys, music’s most regal event, and fans across the world tuned in March 14, 2021 with excitement for a show that ostentatiously centered the Black Lives Matter movement alongside a healthy serving of feminist spectacle.
Despite the Recording Academy’s historic tendency to favor white men, this year’s ceremony was a groundbreaking night for women and artists of color, especially Black women. Beyoncé casually earned her 28th Grammy, breaking bluegrass legend Alison Krauss’ record and becoming the most awarded female artist in Grammy history. And of course, Queen Bey’s daughter, Blue Ivy, became the second-youngest ever Grammy winner at nine years old for her writing contribution to “Brown Skin Girl.” KAYTRANADA became the first Black artist to win Best Dance/Electronic album for “BUBBA,” and Megan Thee Stallion took home three well-deserved Grammys for Best New Artist, Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song. H.E.R. was awarded Song of the Year for her Black Lives Matter anthem, “I Can’t Breathe,” and Best R&B Song for “Better Than I Imagined.” And, unsurprisingly, Taylor Swift became the first woman to win Album of the Year three times.
The domination of female artists in both the rock and country categories, which are typically boys clubs, was a refreshing reversal. For Best Country Album, bands with female lead singers and female solo artists made up all five of the nominations. Notably, Mickey Guyton made history as the first Black woman to receive a nomination for Best Country Solo Performance for her moving ballad, “Black Like Me.” For Best Rock Performance, all six nominees were also women or bands with female lead singers. Were the Grammys trying to perform emergency surgery on their reputation and prove how woke they are? It’s a possibility, but regardless of motive, it’s high time female artists were shown some recognition in these genres.
As snubs go, The Recording Academy avoided major controversy for the most part, which was a welcome change of pace from the usual programming. Fans were skeptical as to why The Weeknd, Halsey and Selena Gomez (all people of color) were absent from the list of nominees. However, only two of the awards given out during the show seemed suspicious; Best Pop Solo Performance went to Harry Styles for “Watermelon Sugar,” and Record of the Year went to Billie Eilish for “Everything I Wanted.” While Styles’ and Eilish’s respective tracks are masterful pop ear candy, these categories were stacked with more deserving heavy-hitters. Dua Lipa should have earned Pop Solo Performance for “Don’t Start Now,” given the song’s astronomical performance on TikTok, streaming services and radio over the past year, not to mention its tremendous cultural impact—Lipa single handedly revived ’80s disco and brought the club to everyone’s bedrooms. Taylor Swift’s game-changing “Cardigan” would have also been a more suitable choice for this category.
Record of the Year belonged to either Dua Lipa or Megan Thee Stallion for “Don’t Start Now” or “Savage,” respectively. No disrespect to Eillish, who is one of the most inventive artists in the pop scene; “Everything I Wanted” just wasn’t the record of the year. When music fans think back on 2020, they’ll think of their failed attempts to learn the TikTok dances for “Don’t Start Now” and “Savage.” To Eilish’s credit, her acceptance speech was endearing. “This is really embarrassing for me,” she laughed, “Megan, girl…I was gonna write a speech about how you deserve this but then I was like there’s no way they’re gonna choose me.” She was visibly shocked and uncomfortable as she continued: “You are a queen. I wanna cry thinking about how much I love you.” The moment was yet another notch in the cringey let’s-give-the-award-to-the-white-person Grammy belt; viewers may recall Macklemore winning over Kendrick Lamar in 2014 and Adele beating out Beyoncé in 2017.
A meaningful highlight of the show for women, and especially Black women, was when Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé won an otherwise all-male category for Best Rap Song, and took the stage together for a warm and fuzzy acceptance speech. In her dazzling burnt orange gown, Megan stood momentarily speechless next to Beyoncé, whose proud maternal energy radiated through the TV screen. Between joyful tears and overwhelmed laughter, Megan accepted the award: “If you know me, you have to know that ever since I was little I was like, ‘You know what? One day, I’mma grow up and I’mma be like, the rap Beyoncé…I’m always like…what would Beyoncé do but make it a little ratchet.’” In real time, we witnessed a solidifying of Megan’s icon status, and the younger Black woman from Texas taking her place as Gen Z’s very own rap Beyoncé.
Taylor Swift, Dua Lipa and Megan Thee Stallion were the leading ladies of music in 2020 and it showed in their performances. Swift sang a medley of “Cardigan” and “August” from “Folklore” as well as “Willow” from “Evermore,” the sister album to “Folklore.” She brought the otherworldly aesthetic of the twin albums to life, crooning from a small cottage in the midst of an eerie forest right out of “Harry Potter.” Dua Lipa also transported viewers to a far-off land: a dreamy, purple planet in the galaxy of “Future Nostalgia.” She opened with her massive hit “Levitating” in a magenta pink gown fit for a princess and finished off with the bop of the year “Don’t Start Now” owning cutesy choreography like the bonafide pop supernova she is. Megan Thee Stallion put on a formidable spectacle, showcasing her chart-topping rapping while infusing elements of Broadway, the ’50s, jazz and tap dancing. She opened with a snippet of “Body” off her latest album, “Good News,” before transitioning into TikTok hit, “Savage,” effortlessly conquering splits and complex choreography in an ethereal gold bodysuit.
Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, HAIM, Mickey Guyton, Silk Sonic and Lil Baby also gave noteworthy performances. The unmatched “WAP” rap duo and iconic pop rock band of Jewish sisters behind “The Steps” brought some serious badass lady energy to the stage. Guyton performed an impassioned, Gospel-infused rendition of her nominated anthem, “Black Like Me,” shining a light on the barriers Black women face in country music and their everyday lives. Silk Sonic, the new R&B megastar duo of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, lived up to the hype as they sang their debut single, “Leave The Door Open” in matching russet colored ’70s style suits. The two legends also smashed a tribute for Little Richard later in the show with .Paak on the drums and Mars belting out his signature vocal gymnastics into a vintage mic. Lil Baby made perhaps the most emphatic political statement of the night with a performance of his nominated single, “The Bigger Picture,” which included a choreographed re-enactment of the shooting of Rayshard Brooks. Evidently, the Wendy’s in Atlanta where Brooks was killed played a significant role in the rapper’s childhood. Lil Baby explained, “I feel like I’m serving my purpose…to speak on stuff that I know people in my culture go through.”
Overall, the performance lineup and major award categories of the 63rd Grammys helped to strategically fabricate an illusion that the glass ceiling has been broken and we’re on a high-speed rail to some kind of utopia. The Recording Academy made Megan Thee Stallion the main character of the show, repeatedly emphasized Beyoncé’s exciting new record and packed traditionally male-dominated categories with women. If you don’t know much about the Grammys, you might buy into the seductive progressive fantasy. The truth? Over the last nine years, only 13 percent of Grammy nominees were women, and this year’s “women-dominated” event was comprised of an oh-so-generous 28 percent female nominees. Black artists are, to this day, confined to Black music categories and shut out from nominations and wins in the big four Grammys: Record Of The Year, Album Of The Year, Song Of The Year and Best New Artist.
The facade of inclusive recognition of marginalized groups is just that: a facade. Although there were faint signs of change and equity in the Grammys air this year, The Recording Academy still has work to do. I look forward to the day when artists who are gender and racial minorities are fully appreciated as masters of their craft, deserving of the highest honors in music. The day when the Grammys crown the musicians that women and people of color worship everyday in their headphones.