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The Grammys were a perfect example of what happens when a powerful political movement is neutered

This year’s Grammys lacked fire and fury; for a music award show, it barely wanted to make any noise. In fact, the organisers seemingly pulled the plug before anyone could, declaring in advance that this night would be all about the music, not the issues.

Unfortunately, there were a cacophony of issues to contend with and no real host to direct us through. A distinctively less-boisterous-than-usual James Corden let us know that 2018’s nominee list was the most diverse the Grammys had ever produced in its 60 years, while he was the least diverse host. Then he backed off, with most of his sketches pre-recorded, and his introductory duties taken over by Kendrick Lamar and Dave Chappelle.

Lamar and Chapelle burst onto the scene with a startling opener about being a black man in American. While its fireworks, militia dancers and gunshots seemed powerful in the moment, the most Chappelle could say was, “I just wanted to remind the audience that the only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America is being an honest black man in America.” While no doubt truthful, it felt like Chappelle had a lot more in him than that statement.

Alongside increased diversity onstage in a time of heightened racism and anti-immigrant sentiment was a country music scene that had been rocked by the Nashville shooting. It was rumoured that artists who played on that night would be coming forward to say something powerful and profound about gun control – a first for country music. Instead they played Tears in Heaven for the victims, and if it wasn’t for Maren Morris mentioning the Manchester arena bombing, it might not have been all that clear why.

When Janelle Monae introduced Kesha, declaring that “we come in peace, but we mean business –and for those who would dare try to silence us, time’s up”, she was cheered and whooped, but when she said that sexual harassment is not just going on in Hollywood or Washington but “in our industry as well”, there was only a smattering of applause.

The Golden Globes had a cohesive movement who served a press release that they would be wearing black to signal change. They backed it up with a legal fund and well-known actresses partnered with activists, walking them down the red carpet. They pulped E! hosts’ confidence in asking easy, breezy questions by flipping the script and pivoting toward their very clear, unified movement.

Watching the Grammy’s red carpet, the only controversy was Cardi B, who after admitting she had “butterflies” in her stomach, added for clarity, “and butterflies in my vagina”. Most seemed to be on DJ Khaled’s level, who told us he “loved life” and were projecting their inner Eckart Tolle: no mess, no fuss, no inner discontent. This wasn’t quite Debra Messing talking about E!’s gender pay gap, on E! with an E! reporter.

The TimesUp movement for the Grammys itself was muted. It was formed from a meeting of 15 music executives at a Mexican restaurant, and was only spearheaded last Monday, where they settled on the statement of a white rose to show solidarity. The scattershot results on the night were therefore hard to pin down. Was Rick Ross making a statement by not wearing the white rose (was it under his massive coat?) or did he not get the memo?

This lacklustre way of drawing attention to issues, while “not wanting to make the night about the issues” and simultaneously taking away the hosts’ duties, left the audience in a weird limbo of half-thought-out ideas. Much like the creation of the white rose movement, the Grammys lacked a director.

The standout performance of the night was Kesha’s powerful rendition of Praying, a soulful piece that was her comeback after a public battle with Dr Luke, who she accused of emotionally and sexually abusing her. This is something she’s dealt with in the public eye since 2013.

When she started up, I thought I’d hit upon my analogy for the night. It sounded like she was pulling herself back, whispering when she could be yelling, muted when we knew she was impassioned. I scrawled “stifled” in my notes, seeing a parallel with the entire show. Happily she was building to a crescendo, a feat the Grammys couldn’t match. Unlike the perfect pitch of the many women onstage, who hugged a clearly overcome Kesha at the end of her set, the rest of the Grammys night was out of sync and strangely bland. 

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