Are award shows without an audience actually pretty good?

Promising to be unlike any award show staged before, the Grammy Awards 2021 were certainly one of the first I’ve ever watched that took place entirely outside in a supremely sunny LA. Watching it in the dead of night in the UK, my cat wondering why I was still up at 3am whisper-shouting at the screen for my favourites, it was certainly a unique experience.

Gone were the rows of artists and musicians sat together to allow for ‘Oh look it’s Paul McCartney sat next to A$AP Rocky’ replaced by masked up artists sat at distanced tables with only the currently nominated acts front and centre at any given point. Arena-sized performances were replaced with what can only be described as host Trevor Noah doing his best Jools Holland impression. Artists like Harry Styles, HAIM, Dua Lipa and DaBaby performing for each other in a sort of warehouse setting, but one that allowed for some genuinely dynamic performances even without a live crowd.

The performances were far and away the highlight, which I totally didn’t expect going in. The lack of an up-close crowd was surely going to make everything feel a little flat or unengaging, but somehow it captured the energy of a live show way more than the pre-recorded epic scale ‘performance videos’ award shows have relied on during the pandemic.

I loved the gripping performance from Black Pumas, or country singer Mickey Guyton’s emotional Grammy debut with her song Black Like Me, while I also loved Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak.’s first performances as the duo Silk Sonic. Gone were the usual random tribute or golden oldie performances, replaced with nearly every single nominee for Record of the Year being performed, new life brought to the likes of DaBaby’s inescapable Rockstar, ‘Don’t Start Now’ by Dua Lipa’ or Billie Eilish’s ‘Everything I Wanted’ by seeing them performed on a proper stage. That’s not even mentioning the utter filth of Cardi B and three-time winner Megan Thee Stallion’s WAP somehow making it past the censors for an outrageous debut performance.

Of course, there were some performers I’d have love to have seen on Sunday night. Multi-nominee (and sadly 0/4 winner) Phoebe Bridgers would have been a nice contrast to the Pop/Rap heavy artists elsewhere, while the fact Beyoncé was there but didn’t take to the stage to perform ‘Savage’ with Megan Thee Stallion feels like a massive missed opportunity. The focus on hit songs over albums meant that even Album of the Year contenders like Jhene Aiko and Jacob Collier were reduced to presenting an award, while Fiona Apple opting out of the whole ceremony for her own personal reasons meant her wins in Alternative Album and Rock Performance didn’t get a proper moment.

Of course, the Grammy Awards are exactly that and unlike last year – where the big story was entirely around a clean sweep of awards for Billie Eilish and Finneas – it often felt like the awards themselves were taking a back seat for these ‘moment’ performances. The extended pre-show ceremony, where they give out just about every award, was much closer to the ‘Zoom Conference’-style award shows we have come to expect, despite some brilliant performances from the like of Poppy and Burna Boy, they were full of dodgy internet connections, mic problems and ‘Sorry You’re On Mute’. Thankfully the main show avoided this, with every category left for the televised portion given to an artist there in the venue.

The biggest winners were definitely Beyoncé and Megan, winning a pair of trophies together for ‘Savage’, but alongside classical producer David Frost were the only people to win more than two in total. News of Beyoncé breaking the all-time record for total Grammys won by a woman and a performing artist in general became the story of the night, leading to a sort of awkward but gracious acceptance speech – the sort we are sure to hear again in a few years when she breaks the overall record. The fact the academy has managed to give Beyonce 28 trophies, but never Record or Album of the Year isn’t lost on anyone who has been paying attention, the former of these going to an utterly baffled Billie Eilish, who all but walked over to give the trophy to Bey and Megan instead. ‘We will reward you in the genre categories, but in the big awards you’ll keep missing out.’

The other award she’s never won went to Taylor Swift for a third time. I’m a big fan of Folklore, clearly one of her best albums, but what was surprising was how every other category the album was nominated in went to someone else. It’s happened before, most notably with Babel from Mumford and Sons and The Suburbs by Arcade Fire, but it’s an interesting anomaly. In fact, the same situation happened with both Song and Record of the year, with H.E.R.’s brilliant ‘I Can’t Breathe’ winning the former in one of the biggest upsets of the night. The voters clearly still love Billie Eilish too, her song ‘Everything I Wanted’ making her only the third act after Roberta Flack and U2 to win Record of the Year twice in a row.

This spread of award winners meant we got to see Bad Bunny, Harry Styles, Burna Boy, Kaytranada and even Nas win their first Grammy Awards. Nas was on the infamous list of most nominations without winning until Sunday night, it took him 14 attempts. We had Dua Lipa, Lady Gaga, Miranda Lambert, Brittany Howard and Anderson .Paak adding to their growing list of wins too, so despite the fact there were loads of artists I’d have loved to have seen get some love this year, it didn’t feel like one or two names took all of the glory on Sunday.

I’d go as far to say it was one of the most enjoyable Grammy Awards show in recent memory, but perhaps that just shows the state of some of those previous events. Trevor Noah was a brilliant host, the attention was more on the music than ever before and I enjoyed the focus on music venues and the people running them for award presenters rather than big name celebs. The performances felt like actual performances and there were no ‘Justin Bieber’s ‘Yummy’ Wins a Grammy’ debacle headlines to follow. Of course we are simply ignoring the glaring omission of The Weeknd from all of this, his stance on not submitting music again until the secret nominating committees are removed summing up his take on the Academy. At home in my pyjamas at 3.30am on a Sunday night though, I couldn’t have wanted a more music focused show from an institution that so often gets it so wrong.

Words by Sam Atkins

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