For the biggest night in music, the Grammy Awards consistently struggle to overcome their ordinariness. In previous years, the show seemed to be on a confused search for meaning. An identity crisis instigated by years of snubs and accelerated by the pandemic led comedian Trevor Noah to admit in 2022 that the event was “a concert where we give out awards.”
That sentiment still rings true two years later. With most of the categories abandoned to an energetic but sparsely attended pre-show ceremony, the main telecast feels like a trying exhibition and a hotbed of contradictions. To watch the Grammys in 2024 is to witness an insistence on fun without much actual evidence of it.
Some of that has to do with the forces that have changed how people consume awards shows. Is it worth another subscription to tune into a more-than-three-hour showcase, especially if you can catch the snipped and clipped highlights on your preferred social platform the next day? Probably not. But most of the trouble stems from a clash between eroded trust (on the part of the viewers) and desperate courtship (on the part of the Academy). The institution’s representatives invoke music’s radical roots and unifying power, but what’s on display is an ultimately deflating commercial reality.
Noah returned as host this year, and his presence soon proved to be the only consistent element in an uneven affair. The evening began on a high note with a performance of “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs. Combs’ committed cover was nominated for Best Country Solo Performance and, in a pre-recorded video, the North Carolina singer talked about the importance of the song to his development as an artist. His admiration of Chapman, who won the Grammy for best new artist in 1989, was clear from the looks he cast her way during their performance. Another highlight was Annie Lennox’s moving tribute to Sinéad O’Connor, who died in July 2023, during the In Memoriam part of the program. She ended her performance with a call for a ceasefire in Gaza, one of the few acknowledgments during the evening of the escalating violence in the region, where the current Palestinian death toll has climbed above 27,000.
Other heartfelt moments revolved around the telecast’s loose theme of women reigning supreme. The dominance of female artists was reflected in the nominations for major categories and in the performances. Victoria Monét took home the award for best new artist for her striking album Jaguar II, and used her stage time to acknowledge the years-long path to claiming this trophy.
In pre-recorded interviews, SZA and Miley Cyrus reflected on their nominated works, both their stories underscoring a theme of embracing the winding path of self-discovery. Before performing a cool medley of “Snooze” and “Kill Bill,” SZA talked about the five years she spent toiling away on SOS, which won best progressive R&B album. A similar thread of hard work and personal growth ran through Miley Cyrus’ remarks. Her post-divorce anthem “Flowers” won best pop solo performance and the coveted record of the year.
When Billie Eilish performed “What Was I Made For,” which was named song of the year, the telecast seemed to double down on its focus on empowered women — a focus that made the contradictions within the show more apparent. Take the impact achievement award named after Dr. Dre, a figure dogged by his alleged assault history and yet continuously honored and afforded space by the Academy. Even if Jay-Z — this year’s recipient — accepted the prize with his daughter by his side and used his moment on stage to call out the Grammys for their snubs, there’s a chilling effect to the awards’ lack of self-awareness in this regard.
Joni Mitchell’s beautiful performance of “Both Sides Now” struck a similar chord of dissonance. Two years ago, the singer pulled her songs from Spotify in protest of the platform’s contribution to COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, but this evening’s program didn’t even gesture at the ongoing crisis caused by the pandemic.
After Noah’s monologue, which partly joked about Universal Music Group’s decision to pull its music from TikTok, as well as the exploitative relationship between Spotify and artists, the show proceeded in predictable fashion. The three-hour-plus runtime only contributed to the sense that the telecast was an endurance test. The taxing duration made it hard, for example, to fully appreciate performances like the one by Burna Boy, Brandy and 21 Savage (“Sittin’ on Top of the World”), which came later in the evening. Attention was paid to the usual suspects, with extra airtime given to Taylor Swift’s reactions. The artist used her 13th Grammy win (best pop vocal album for Midnights) to announce her forthcoming album.
This year’s telecast, more than usual, felt like a studied affair — obligation occasionally elevated by some surprising moments. I couldn’t help but compare it to the pre-show ceremony, where most of the awards were given out. Even with its quirks and hiccups, that broadcast — shown on the Grammys’ website — was enlivened by its honesty, heart and a clear commitment to celebrating artists. The main show could learn a thing or two.