If you had to pinpoint a moment at which it was completely clear that the Grammys would be a much happier experience than the Oscars a week ago, ironically, it was during the saddest moment of the show. That would be the traditional In Memoriam segment, which, at the Academy Awards, wound up being one of the most WTF moments on a pretty much WTF night. The Oscars’ producers decided that the traditionally solemn parade of the dearly departed should have, as score, “Spirit in the Sky,” an irreverent rock oldie that has always been understood as highly whimsical, if not sarcastic. Huh? Meanwhile, the Grammys went with a moving medley of wistful Stephen Sondheim classics sung by Rachel Zegler, Cynthia Erivo, Ben Platt and Leslie Odom Jr.
Oh, how the tables have turned, when a show based in the wild and wooly pop music of the moment manages to feel more respectful and traditional than film’s biggest night. It’s not that the Grammys were the model of perfect decorum across the show’s full three and a half hours — not when you have Lil Nas X and Jack Harlow wagging their microphones and engaging in mutual pretend-penis play. But by and large, the Grammys played it surprisingly old-school and safe, to the show’s ultimate benefit. Just seven days after the Oscars made a play to be provocative to a fault, this show trusted that merely having really talented people put their talent on display in bulk would be electricity enough for a long block of prime-time. If that made the Grammys short on water-cooler moments, so be it; we’ll take that in trade for the general lack of PTSD, and the ability to feel good about music as a medium in the morning.
When Ben Winston took over at the helm with last year’s Grammys, there was a general feeling that, for better or worse, he might try to make the show a lot hipper. And we’ve all seen how wrong that can go in recent years at the Oscars. But maybe that was never really Winston’s intent after all, or maybe the pandemic — and the failures of the Academy Awards — put into starker relief which direction things should go. The 2021 show, which incorporated a host of novel aspects to make up for the lack of a real live audience, was hard to judge, as a quarantine-era one-off. This year felt like the truer test of how things might go under a new regime, with Raj Kapoor taking over primary showrunner duties for Winston’s Fulwell 73. And the biggest surprise was… how unsurprising it was. Trevor Noah wore a tux, no one ordered out for pizza from the stage, and the show was not reconfigured into a series of TikTik moments. It kind of felt, actually, like an old-school Ehrlich production, the only thing super-demonstrably different from that era being the notable absence of the “Grammy moment” duets Ehrlich made famous.
The 2022 show was low-concept in primarily consisting just of today’s top performers doing their top hits. If there’s been a resistance to making it that simple in the past, it was party out of fear of turning the Grammys into the American Music Awards, which no one needs two of. And in some years, it could be a creative disaster to just rely on the whims of where the Recording Academy’s voters went. But in a year that had Silk Sonic, Jon Batiste, Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo, Brandi Carlile, Lil Nas X and a Lady Gaga/Tony Bennett combo among those coming out tops in the nominations — and BTS’ lone nomination also offering an excuse for a typically dazzling production number — there was some real luck of the draw happening in being able to turn on that jukebox. Not to slight the skill involved in executing that playlist, with a good number of terrific setpieces coming into play Sunday night and the cameras always feeling like they were in the right place under the schooled direction of Hamish Hamilton.
Silk Sonic set the energy level at the top of the show, momentarily making the high camp of a 1970s pastiche feel like a get-on-up good thing. There is an irony, of course, in the Fulwell 73 camp banishing the veteran acts that Ehrlich would often put on the show… and then devoting the top of the show to a ’70s homage that goes on to sweep all its categories, in spite of or because of being a completely nostalgically driven thing. Would it have been cool to see Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak share the stage with one of the older artists that overly inspired them? Yes. Was it OK that they had the stage all to themselves? Also, yes.
Sharing honors for the most brilliant choreography of the night was J Balvin’s early number. The Latin music king had 64 dancers (if we’re doing our math right) seated and doing every bit of their lockstep dancing without any steps at all, but rather doing all the movement with their glow-in-the-dark arms, giving white-glove treatment a good name. That honor went down as a share, though, after BTS pulled off what might have been its most lavishly impressive production number in a career full of them, this one being a spy-movie homage set to “Butter,” involving card tricks and conjoined-jacket magic on top of the Bond-ian and “Mission: Impossible”-ian antics, because why not. There was evidence that the BTS choreography was designed fairly recently, because much of it involved only six of the seven members, the sextet design probably reflecting the fact that Jungkook was recently sidelined with COVID and had just returned to the fold. He was flown in and got his moment, even if the solo turn viewers might remember most is V’s utterly uncomplicated flirtation with Rodrigo.
But the Grammys did just as well when the choreography amounted to nothing much more than Eilish banging her head to the chaotic climax of “Happier Than Ever” in a Taylor Hawkins T-shirt in a rainstorm. That was about all the rock ‘n roll the show got after the Foo Fighters’ performance was inevitably canceled due to Hawkins’ tragic death. But Carlile and the Hanseroth twins managed to turn her big diva ballad, “Right on Time,” into more of a rocker than it was on record with a louder coda, too. It was not so loud that it erased the memory of her hitting that impossible high note several times, as if she were paying implicit homage to her own breakthrough, roof-raising performance of “The Joke” on the Grammys three years ago.
Is there much higher of a compliment you could pay to a 210-minute music awards show than “clunkerless”? Possibly there is, but it was hard to think of one when the epic length of Sunday’s Grammys passed with as few obligatory watch-checks as it did. Surely it would have been nice to devote even a few more minutes of the show to actual awards than were given (only two were given out in the entire first hour). Noah said the quiet part out loud when he said, at the top of the evening, “Don’t even think of it as an awards show. This is a concert where we’re giving out awards.” That’s a good dog whistle for a home audience awaiting any excuse to tune out; not so great for the members of the actual music industry that might deserve a moment in the spotlight. And must we do away altogether with shots of the nominees in the audience as their names are announced, versus devoting those seconds to music-video clips? The show’s biggest misstep might have been relegating the best traditional pop album category to the pre-telecast, robbing Lady Gaga of the chance to give a galvanizing speech in honor of the absent Bennett in prime time. (Maybe producers assumed, like a lot of prognosticators did, that Gaga and Bennett were sentimental frontrunners for album of the year, which ultimately went to Batiste.)
But the show was hardly underserved by Gaga, even if she didn’t get in a speech. Her medley of Bennett-associated songs was a grand advertisement for her Las Vegas “Jazz & Piano” show, which in a just universe would run for a hundred years. And the singular optic of the show, if it had one, would have to be the climactic one in which, with a photo of Bennett touching her shoulder on the overhead screen, Gaga placed her own hand on that shoulder. Mix a chef’s kiss with a tear for that heartbreakingly beautiful final image.
As hosts go, again, the contrast between the Grammys and last week’s Oscars could hardly be starker, with Noah avoiding doing any joke that would come within a Vegas Strip mile of being considered controversial, versus the barbs laid out by the trio of Oscar hosts and presenters like, obviously, Chris Rock. Maybe the healthiest approach would have been for either to veer at least slightly more toward a middle road. The material given the Oscars’ frontwomen veered between hilarious and mean, whereas Noah just went with agreeably corny for the most part. He’d told Variety in an interview that he doesn’t really think of himself as an “edgy” comic, and he kind of proved it at the Grammys, as if he were auditioning for a post-“Daily Show” career in which he wants to make sure it’s not just Democrats showing up. And yet nearly the entire show had such a sweet spirit to it that it was hard to begrudge the host too much for keeping things 100% friendly.
The post-Oscars timing made the overriding niceness, which otherwise could have felt toothless, feel like a tonic. That extends to Batiste being the Grammy king, with five wins out of his 11 nods, and a jazz-pop-R&B straddling medley that embodied the old-school “music will save us all” spirit better than any well-intended Recording Academy CEO speech ever has. He was a hell of a mascot on a night when viewers were likely in the mood to just see some of the better artists in the business do what they do without having to check trending Twitter every five minutes for Cliff Notes on columny. The night was, as Brandi Carlile would say, right on time.