The 2021 Grammy Awards were bound to be different.
With no red carpet and minimal celebrities in attendance, people had low expectations. Arguably the Grammys’ greatest appeal lies in its extravagant live performances by the world’s most popular artists. Although this year’s down-sized audience offered little energy, the performances on stage were as electric as ever.
Apart from some controversial moments, the Grammys breezed through this socially distanced night, maintaining momentum throughout its almost four-hour runtime. The 2021 awards ceremony was a success comparable to previous editions. In some respects, it exceeded them.
The show, hosted by the energetic comedian, Trevor Noah, switched from a seating venue outside the Staples Centre, where celebrities adorned face masks in what looked like the most exclusive garden tea party in the world, to a stage which was watched by an intimate audience of celebrities and award nominees.
The night opened with an intimate performance of “Watermelon Sugar,” by a feather-boa’d Harry Styles. The ensuing performances ranged in themes from sci-fi cyberpunk with Doja Cat’s “Say So” and Cardi B’s “WAP,” to 1970s glam rock by Silk Sonic, to whimsical woodland fairy-tale with Swift’s medley of folklore favourites.
The big-ticket awards of the year were dispersed across the board, with many unlikely artists gaining recognition for their work. This included H.E.R winning Song of the Year for the protest anthem, “I Can’t Breathe,” and Megan Thee Stallion earning the Grammy Award for Best New Artist. Elsewhere, Taylor Swift became the first woman in Grammy history to win Album of the Year thrice with her album folklore, while Styles won the Best Pop Solo Performance for the aforementioned “Watermelon Sugar.”
The night’s biggest winner was undoubtedly Beyoncé. With her song “Black Parade,” the former Destiny’s Child won her 28th Grammy, becoming the most awarded artist in history. To make the night even more special, her nine-year-old daughter, Blue Ivy, became the second youngest winner in Grammy history for her performance in her mother’s “Brown Skin Girl” music video.
Some other highlights included a rendition of “Good Golly Miss Molly” by Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, in memory of the late influential musician, Little Richard; BTS’ Seoul-ful remote performance of “Dynamite”; Dua Lipa’s performance of “Levitating”; and Stallion’s burlesque-inspired performance of her hit tracks, “Body” and “Savage Remix.”
Breaking away from previous years, the 2021 Grammys also celebrated what many deem the “new generation” of incredibly versatile young artists, particularly women below the age of 30. Stallion headlined the list, who along with winning Best New Artist, also won the awards for Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance. Meanwhile, Billie Eilishwon Record of the Year with “Everything I Wanted,” which likewise signalled the youth were taking helm of the music industry, the Grammys finally recognizing the young artists’ roles in shaping today’s culture.
Human rights messages were also a major theme of the 2021 Grammys. Certain performances reflected the protests against Black oppression, including DaBaby’s “Rockstar,” which was updated with references to the Black Lives Matter protests, Mickey Guyton’s nominated song, “Black Like Me,” and Lil Baby’s performance of “The Bigger Picture.”
Likewise, some winners reflected the theme of Black empowerment. Beyoncé’s “Black Parade” won the Grammy for Best R&B Performance, and H.E.R.’s protest song, “I Can’t Breathe,” a reference to the fatal words of Eric Garner, George Floyd, and other Black men and women who were killed by police officers, took home one of the most coveted awards of the evening.
Despite these empowering themes, it isn’t a major award show without some controversy. The controversy here started before the lights came down, off-stage and on social media, when various artists accused the Recording Academy of corruption. In the weeks leading up to the ceremony, saw a mass boycott campaign, following The Weeknd’s condemnation of the Recording Academy for their failure to nominate some clear culture-defining artists and songs of the day.
This set off a string of condemnations, most notably by the pop artist Zayn, who took to social media to accuse the Grammys of corruption. In response to The Weeknd’s snub, many artists declined to perform, including Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande, and Beyoncé.
Similarly, while some viewed the Korean boy band BTS performance as respect for non-Western musical artists, many others criticized the Academy for being performative and not doing enough for international inclusivity.
BTS’ summer track “Dynamite” failed to nab a major category nomination, despite being an international hit and No. 1 on the Billboard Global 200 chart. The omission reflected one of the key criticisms of the Academy. It’s reignited a conversation about the nomination process, which is infamously shrouded in secrecy, and has led to calls for the increased representation for people of colour.
Despite these snubs and controversies, it’s important to note the victories of the evening. The 63rd annual Grammy Awards shifted from previous years, greater emphasizing the achievements of women and youth to the artform, and better recognizing the songs that define today’s political and social landscape. There’s still hope that one day, the Grammys will reflect the themes of the modern world—doing so honestly, transparently, and with musical flair.