Taylor Swift Made History at the Grammys—But One Big Mistake

Byvu lita

Feb 6, 2024

Two different events happened simultaneously last night in the Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles, a venue fittingly named after a postmodern financial shell game. For most participants and viewers, it was one of the most effective Grammy Awards ceremonies in living memory, with a surplus of touching performances and a relative lack of abrasive celebrity ego. Meanwhile, Taylor Swift seemed to think she was at a shareholders’ meeting to announce her second-quarter profit projections, or, as she called it, her new album. And while there, she might as well collect her annual bonus payment, or, as the Grammys call it, the prize for Album of the Year. (She won it for a record-setting fourth time, passing Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon, and Stevie Wonder to become the artist with the most wins in that category.)

To avoid repeating Swift’s own error of making the night all about herself, let’s celebrate the first part first. This year’s Grammys seemed to verify the lastingness of the awards broadcast’s positive turn since 2021, when it passed from hidebound four-decade executive producer Ken Ehrlich to the fresher hands of Ben Winston. Aside from the extended memorial segment in the middle—which itself included some great music—the night seemed to zip along and mostly struck a decent balance between the contemporary and the historical. The recording academy’s ongoing efforts to widen the demographics of its membership base seem to be yielding results, with the major awards spread among a fairly predictable range of big names (within limits I’ll address shortly), but at least not being swept by one safe bet or falling to irrelevant hangers-on of decades past, as has happened so often before.

The best indication of that was the night’s dominance by women, six years after former Grammys President Neil Portnow sniped that women needed to “step up” artistically if they wanted to win more Grammys. Portnow has since been denying a sexual assault allegation arising from within the academy, prompting Phoebe Bridgers of Boygenius to direct a message his way in an offstage press moment yesterday: “I know you’re not dead yet, but when you are, I hope you rot in piss.” Between last night’s spotlight moments in particular for elders such as Tracy Chapman, Annie Lennox, and Joni Mitchell (performing with Brandi Carlile and Allison Russell among others), plus diva-before-her-time Miley Cyrus and Oprah Winfrey introducing the rousing Tina Turner tribute by too-oft-forgotten R&B fabulosity Fantasia, it often felt as if host Trevor Noah and other dudes at this year’s Grammys had merely been granted day passes at a Womyn’s Music Festival in some bucolic field. I’d say, “Sarah McLachlan, bring back Lilith Fair,” but maybe it’s not even needed anymore. (Nah, bring it back anyway.)

The opening number by Dua Lipa and a bevy of cage-climbing male backup dancers (Noah: “I’ll never look at scaffolding the same way again”) was boilerplate Grammys stuff, fine, and nothing more. But the tone was set more by Cyrus coming out to accept her first Grammy ever, Best Pop Solo Performance, for her huge 2023 single “Flowers,” and spending most of her acceptance gushing about receiving it from presenter Mariah Carey. Cyrus would later perform the song with gusto, interrupting herself with ripostes to the crowd (“Why are you acting like you don’t know this song?”) and returning to claim Record of the Year for it as well—charmingly downplaying the importance of the award (“My life was beautiful yesterday”), thanking her “main gays” for her styling, and exiting with a flippant “I might have forgotten underwear.” Cyrus’ evolution into the next Cher felt well underway.

The second big performance brought us Tracy Chapman. Luke Combs’ workmanlike cover of her 1988 classic “Fast Car” was an unlikely country crossover smash last year, but their duet last night brought closure to that story by finally putting the poignant ballad back in Chapman’s hands where it belongs, and everybody I know broke down in tears. It’s hard to say if anything topped it the rest of the night.

Many performers gave it a damn good try. SZA delivered a cinematic, trenchcoat-clad, sleazy-alleyway-set rendition of “Snooze”—the song for which she’d later be awarded Best R&B Song, a category that seemed to make the broadcast mostly because this innovator, the most nominated artist of the year, wasn’t going to win anything else—and followed it with a version of “Kill Bill” featuring dancers flashing swords. I was disappointed that she didn’t bring up Bridgers for a duet on “Ghost in the Machine,” which earlier in the day had taken the prize in the highly competitive Best Pop Duo/Group Performance category, but at least we did get to witness Bridgers and Best New Artist winner Victoria Monét laughing maniacally as a dancer brandished a katana atop their table. In her acceptance speech later, SZA choked up about her long personal journey to the podium, said a chipper “Hi, Taylor!” to Swift in the crowd, and wrapped up with “I’m not an attractive crier! Have a good evening!” which I am going to use as my exit line from parties from now on.

Billie Eilish, who all but swept the Grammys in 2020 with her first album, gave a fantastic rendition of her Oscar-nominated Barbie torch song “What Was I Made For?” clad in my favorite outfit of the night, which the fashion press soon identified as the look of 1965’s “Poodle Parade Barbie,” whatever that means. Accepting her award later for Song of the Year, Eilish declared, “I am shocked out of my balls!” Which I am going to use as my entry line for parties from now on.

To my surprise, the young pop nominee shut out of the awards this year was Olivia Rodrigo, whose album Guts was far better than Swift’s Midnights, which beat it not only in the overall album category but in the more minor Pop Vocal Album slot. Her debut album Sour also underperformed in 2022, so it seems Rodrigo still hasn’t entirely convinced Academy voters she’s not a flash in the pan. Still, her performance of “Vampire,” which built to a climax of thick red blood dripping from the very walls and ceiling of the set right onto Rodrigo’s face, Carrie-style, delivered every ounce of the melodramatic, dare we say gothic excess fans love from her.

Rodrigo’s 2022 accolade as Best New Artist went this year to Monét, a veteran behind the scenes as a songwriter, most notably for Ariana Grande, and at 34, the oldest person ever to win this title—although her fellow nominee Jelly Roll, who’s won the equivalent prize at country awards, is 39. (And I was kind of rooting for him.) When she said in her speech, “I liken myself to a plant who was planted, and you can look at the music industry as soil,” I assumed she was winkingly acknowledging “industry plant” charges against her in a highly roundabout way. As much as I enjoy Monét’s highly listenable R&B, I confess I think this might be her peak.

Never say never, though, as evidenced by Billy Joel returning with his first new single in 17 years, “Turn the Lights Back On,” a tuneful if somewhat contorted metaphor about, if I understand it correctly, reviving his libido to have sex with his longtime partner again, and that partner being songwriting. Joel also closed out the broadcast with “You May Be Right.” I concur that it would have been a waste to have Joel there and not have him play a classic. But the 74-year-old slouchy-machismo figure seemed an odd choice for the capping encore on a night so defined by women, although he’s arguably not a lesbian icon either.

The night’s ultimate comeback, of course, was from Joni Mitchell, who gave her first Grammy performance ever at age 80 as part of her triumphant return since 2022 after her near-fatal 2015 brain aneurysm. As pointed out by her amanuensis Brandi Carlile in her introduction, that means that “matriarch of imagination” Mitchell, who also suffered from polio as a child, has learned to walk three times in her life. And she carries all that gravity and all that overcoming with her onstage, ringed by musician friends around her comfy revolving throne, holding in one hand a cane tipped in silver with the head of a wolf. Time stood still as she began (would anything go wrong?), then vanished as she dug into the deep tissue of “Both Sides, Now,” a song she, unbelievably, wrote in her early 20s and has revised to suit her maturing voice and perspective ever since. Her latest brushes with mortality and physical limitation were evoked potently with the simple maneuver of slipping her own name into the lyrics: “They shake their heads and say, ‘Joni, you’ve changed’/ Well, something’s lost, but something’s gained/ In living every day.”

That moment’s only rival for emotional impact was Annie Lennox paying homage to Sinead O’Connor by singing “Nothing Compares 2 U,” backed by none other than Wendy and Lisa, the collaborators of the song’s late composer Prince. That double tribute was potent enough, but the real honor to O’Connor’s rebel spirit came at the end, when Lennox became the first artist to say anything of real social significance onstage, raising a fist and proclaiming, “Artists for a cease-fire! Peace in the world!”

The relative mutedness among nearly everyone else was shockingly uniform, given world events and the upcoming American elections. The best most other artists mustered were mumbled references to needing music in troubled times. Even the reliably dull representative of the academy (this year it was CEO Harvey Mason Jr.) did more by introducing his backing string quartet as being composed of Palestinian, Israeli, and Arab musicians. When the academy is bolder politically than the artists, that’s just embarrassing for everyone.

The members of Boygenius, at least, did wear red Artists for Ceasefire pins on their white suits—along with pink carnations in memory of Elliott Smith’s 1998 Oscars outfit, in symbolic solidarity with his experience then of being a lifelong indie artist suddenly finding himself in the most mainstream possible industry venue. It was almost an eerie parallel that when they then lost the Album of the Year prize last night (though they’d come out on top in three smaller categories earlier), the surprise presenter was Céline Dion, who defeated Smith in 1998. One wonders why Boygenius apparently wasn’t asked to perform and whether it had anything to do with fears of what the forthright trio might say in the live broadcast.

Instead, the person who came closest to talking out of turn was Jay-Z, receiving the relatively new Dr. Dre Global Impact Award. He talked about hip-hop’s sense of alienation and its long-standing exclusion in the Grammys’ top categories, though he conceded that artist boycotts in response have been of mixed effectiveness. He also addressed, in implicitly racialized terms, that his wife, Beyoncé, though the recipient of the most Grammys of anyone, has never been given Album of the Year. And he excused himself for saying that some people nominated that night maybe “don’t belong in the category” by laughing and noting, “When I get nervous, I tell the truth.” He didn’t directly point out that no awards in hip-hop, the world’s biggest genre, were presented on the live broadcast this year, while country, Latin, and R&B awards were (rightly) included. The only rapper up in the big general categories was Ice Spice for Best New Artist, plus maybe Jelly Roll, and the only real rap performance came from, sigh, Travis Scott. Nobody at all mentioned that the actual winner of rap album of the year, the lyrically dexterous and politically outspoken Killer Mike, had been taken away from the arena in handcuffs by Los Angeles Police after a still-mysterious incident of alleged misdemeanor battery. (He was quickly released but did not seem to return to the show.)

Speaking of things said and unsaid, let’s turn at last to the Taylor Swift Experience. Granted, the fact that Swift seemed to float through the proceedings ensconced in a Taylor-shaped bubble is somewhat understandable. She’s into the second year of one of the most successful tours in concert history, being showered with adulation for hours a night by tens of thousands of people, while offstage the Biden administration pants thirstily for her endorsement and the MAGA mob concocts psy-op conspiracy theories about her gridiron-centric love life. Host Trevor Noah joked when she entered the room that as she passed by, she boosted the local economy of each table of Grammy watchers in the room, the way the “Eras” tour does for each city it visits. Swift also seemed her usual chatty and convivial self from what we saw backstage and out and about in the crowd, often on her feet dancing and singing along to the performances—including during Rodrigo’s “Vampire,” no doubt trying to counter the ongoing rumors of beef with the younger pop star.

But Swift hit an off note when she took the stage herself. Getting up to accept the award for Best Pop Vocal Album, first she brought up that it was her 13th Grammy in order to make a little joke about whether she’d ever happened to mention that 13 is her lucky number. This is one of those “self-aware” Swift remarks that might be categorized rhetorically as either classical apophasis (to raise a subject by way of denying it) or, in more contemporary terms, a humblebrag. By kidding about how often she recycles the same old self-centered tropes, she gets to recycle that self-centered trope yet again, plus she gets to mention the number of Grammys she’s won. But that would have been fine if Swift hadn’t then used the moment to announce that on April 19, she would be releasing a previously unhinted-at new album, The Tortured Poets Department. What’s wrong with that, you might ask? First, Swift could have done this in countless other venues, notably on one of her own tour dates, and drawn just as much attention. But as if fearing that she might not get any of the major prizes and therefore be something other than the night’s center of attention—again, not possible; cameras were constantly on her—she had to make a move she knew would dominate the night’s headlines, at everyone else’s expense. I feel particularly bad for Kacey Musgraves, who had already hinted at her own upcoming new album on screen and in a TV ad, then announced it on Instagram. Nobody will be covering that today.

It was also Swift’s tone, as every word sounded calculated and strategic, in contrast with the spontaneity of other award winners’ reactions. She spoke the coy way she often speaks to her arena crowds, rather than as if to a roomful of her artistic and industry peers. As many on social media were quick to notice, in contrast to Cyrus with Carey, among others, Swift barely even acknowledged Céline Dion, who showed up despite being in treatment for a rare and life-threatening illness. (For instant spin, photos were quickly posted showing the two embracing backstage.)

While Swift’s speech included a touch of modesty, as she said she was grateful for the award but no more so than for all the other things she gets to do in her career, that was another case of humblebraggadocio and her obsessive, CEO-like work ethic. With all the loftiness of her position, she couldn’t think of one thing to say about other people’s troubles in the world that might make a difference. It might be too early for a presidential endorsement, but even just a platitude about peace or something about women’s rights and Trump in the primaries, or a food bank to donate to, or some other meager scrap of human concern?

I might not be having such a strong reaction if Midnights were as worthy of acclaim as Swift’s past album Grammy winners (Fearless1989and Folklore). This felt like a vote for Swift as one of the main buoys helping keep the industry afloat, more than for what’s actually on the album. Mind you, I liked it! The album has tended to shrink more than grow, in my estimation, since its release, but I think her “Anti-Hero” probably deserved the Record of the Year prize over Cyrus’ “Flowers,” and I’m pleased Swift’s producer Jack Antonoff got Producer of the Year again, if only to spite his naysayers. But with Swift’s workaholic level of output, the quality control on Midnights suffers from the same insularity Swift showed on the Grammy podium tonight. That is, from the unavoidable disconnect and imbalance that comes with being the biggest star in the world.

The strength of the field no doubt split some of the vote, but I think it’s too bad the Grammy voters reinforced that imbalance with their pick, a continuation of the institution’s pernicious tendency to overlook changing currents by returning to the same winners over and over, as my colleague Chris Molanphy pointed out in his recent Hit Parade podcast devoted to Grammy history. As gifted and deserving an artist as she is, Swift seems like a person right now who needs to be reminded that she doesn’t automatically get every present the universe has to offer. Nobody on earth actually merits that level of reward. As Joni Mitchell herself warned us about movers and moguls in “People’s Parties” back in 1974, “Some are friendly, some are cutting, some are watching it from the wings, and some are standing in the center, giving to get something.”

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