Last Wednesday (Feb. 6), four days before the 61st Annual Grammy Awards, the results of the 2018 Pazz & Jop critics poll were released. The annual Village Voice survey serves as an annual roundup of the favorites from a wide array of music media members, selecting the best albums and singles from the previous year. And for the first time in the 40-plus-year history of the poll, its winning album and single this year also took home the biggest prizes at music’s biggest night: Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour both topped the P&J album poll and won the album of the year Grammy, while Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” bested its singles listing and received Grammys for both song and record of the year.
It’s worth mentioning, because critical consensus and the Grammys have rarely gone hand in hand, especially in the 21st century. The album of the year winners of the 2010s have correlated much more closely to commercial success — mega-sellers like Mumford & Sons’ Babel, Taylor Swift’s Fearless and 1989 and of course, Adele’s Diamond-certified sibling releases 21 and 25. The rare exceptions to this in recent years have been longtime Grammy favorites who had never won the biggest award previously, like Beck with Morning Light in 2015 or Herbie Hancock with River: The Joni Letters in 2008. Only once this decade has an obvoius critics’ darling won the top prize, in 2011, when the AOTY went to Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs — a sprawling indie rock concept album with no hit singles, which finished third in the 2010 P&J album poll — though even that one had still topped the Billboard 200 albums chart.
By those standards, Kacey Musgraves’ gorgeous Golden Hour winning album of the year certainly registers as something of a game-changer. As a critically beloved country singer-songwriter with a cult following but no major radio presence in over a half-decade, Musgraves does not fit the bill of any recent album of the year recipient. (Even bluegrass-country favorite Alison Krauss, a perhaps-unexpected 2009 winner for Raising Sand, had the signal-boosting benefit of being co-billed with Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant on that set.) Musgraves’ third LP did not have the name recognition, the hit singles, the album sales — Golden Hour debuted at a respectable No. 4 on the Billboard 200, but has yet to even be certified Gold by the RRIAA — or even the obvious and persuasive career narrative to make her a clear favorite. But people really, really liked her album. For the Grammys, that explanation being the simplest for a winner is still a rarity.
Meanwhile, Childish Gambino’s incendiary “This Is America” racking up both song and record of the year trophies is nothing short of historic. A song winning both categories in the same ceremonies is far from unprecedented — it’s happened 30 times, essentially once every two years — but a rap song had never won in either category before, and only even been nominated a handful of times. And while the Billboard Hot 100-topping “America” continues the tradition of both Grammy awards traditionally going to major crossover hits — both record and song of the year have gone exclusively to Hot 100 top five hits this decade — it’s a major anomaly as a protest song, the first winner in either category to represent any kind of fight against the system since at least 2007, when Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice” took both awards.
Taking in all of this, it’s worth asking for the first time in a long time: After years and years of coming under fire for their Grammy choices being out of touch, did the Recording Academy finally do right by the music industry (and the culture at large) this year? Consider the two biggest over-arching criticisms that the show faced last year: That women were underrepresented among the winners and performers (and then challenged by Grammys president Neil Portnow to “step up”), and that hip-hop, currently the country’s dominant mainstream musical form, was again shut out in the Big Four categories (album, record, song and best new artist). This year, the winners in those Big Four categories would seem to have addressed both problems head on: Female artists won album of the year and best new artist (the latter going to ascendant pop star Dua Lipa), while a hip-hop song won both song and record of the year. For once, the show’s biggest winners seem relatively backlash-proof.
Of course, as big as they are, those are only four categories among the many dozens that make up the totality of the Grammys; progress in the most visible awards doesn’t necessarily mean progress across the board. But zoom out on the total winners list from last night and it still feels like a step forward. Among the winners in the 24 categories from the six genres arguably most relevant to contemporary mainstream music — pop, rock/alternative, hip-hop, R&B, dance and country — last year, only two of them included a female or female-fronted act (Little Big Town, for best country duo/group performance, and Rihanna, for best sung/rap collaboration.) In 2019, across those same 24 categories, 13 of the winners included a female or female-fronted act — including at least one in all six of the genres. (Cardi B even became the first ever solo female artist to win best rap album, for debut Invasion of Privacy.)
And what made the sea change in gender equality among the winners more convincing was that it was also reflected in the evening’s performances. In addition to the paucity of female artists among the winners at least year’s ceremonies, the Grammys were also criticized for its treatment of female performers — particularly Lorde, an album of the year nominee who was reportedly only asked to sing as part of a tribute to Tom Petty, an artist she had little connection to. It looked like a potentially recurring issue for the Grammys, as before this year’s ceremonies, Ariana Grande took to Twitter to chastise Grammys producer Ken Ehlrich for “lying” about the reasons for her lack of involvement; Ehlrich claimed Grande felt it “too late to put something together” for the show, while the pop star said she “offered 3 different songs” for a performance but felt her “creativity & self expression was stifled” by Ehlrich’s demands.
Even without Grande, though, there was a staggering amount of female talent that made it to the stage on Sunday night: Of the 18 performances that took place at this year’s Grammys, only three of them did not feature a single female lead artist. The remaining 15 featured a wide array of women performers, spanning generations and ranging from R&B to rap to country to rock to dance to gospel to Latin pop to folk, many of them blending several genres into one performance. This is nothing new for the actual industry, of course, but to see such representation on the actual Staples Center stage at Grammy Sunday — down to Alicia Keys, the awards’ first female host since Queen Latifah in 2005 — was fairly stunning.
So after a wave of pre-show criticsm and anxiety over what potentially laid ahead with this year’s winners, did the Grammys finally nail it in 2019? Well, mostly — and certainly moreso than in any other year in recent memory — but still not entirely. The genre categories continued to reflect an unfortunate voter tendency to go for the biggest name eligible, leading to relatively eye-rolling wins like Lady Gaga’s “Joanne (Where Do You Think You’re Goin’?)” — an alternate version of a 2016 album track — reigning in best pop solo performance, over some of the year’s biggest radio hits, and Justice’s career-spanning remix album Woman Worldwide taking best dance/electronic album, over more urgent sets from SOPHIE and Jon Hopkins. Meanwhile, the progress made in bringing gender equality to this year’s Grammys was undermined slightly by a somewhat self-congratulatory final address from the departing Portnow, as well as an unnecessary compilation video of (mostly female) artists thanking him for his service — time which could’ve been budgeted for acceptance speeches, so stars like Dua Lipa and Drake wouldn’t need to get cut off mid-thanks.
But the show’s biggest issues still lie with the hip-hop community. “This Is America” winning both song and record of the year is a massive first step towards the genre getting the Grammys recognition it demands, but it is lamentable that it took such a headline-catching song (and music video, of course) from such a major cross-platform, award-winning star for the Recording Academy to finally take the genre seriously in the Big Four. Meanwhile, Musgraves’ win for Golden Hour means we still haven’t had a hip-hop winner for the night’s final award since Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2004; few would call Golden Hour an undeserving winner, but Cardi B’s blockbuster Invasion of Privacy would’ve certainly made for a more timely one.
More pressingly, hip-hop went woefully underrepresented in the evening’s performances. Only four rappers showed up across the 18 performances on Grammy night, and of the quartet, only Cardi’s performance was unassisted. The others saw Young Thug showing up as a special guest for Camila Cabello’s show-opening “Havana,” Post Malone playing an accoustic ballad and then jamming out with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and Travis Scott splitting mic time with James Blake and Earth, Wind and Fire before going off raging on his own. That’s a pretty meager showing for a genre that commanded eight of the top 15 slots on Billboard‘s 2018 Top Artists year-end chart.
It wasn’t necessarily due to a lack of trying on the Grammys’ part: Ehrlich claimed that the show approached Drake, Childish Gambino and Kendrick Lamar — three of the evening’s biggest nominees — about performing, but were turned down. But the fact that the show didn’t have a backup plan for the stars bowing out is telling both of the bar rappers, even veteran ones, have to clear to be considered worthy of a Grammys performance (who wouldn’t have loved a Pusha T performance?), and of how even in a night of such purposeful focus on female artists, Cardi was still the only female rapper to have a presence. Meanwhile, the big-name no-shows reflect an ongoing distrust between the Grammys and the rap world’s premier players, following eons of snubs in the major categories. That hurt might’ve been soothed by the dual “This Is America” Big Four wins, but also might’ve been re-exacerbated by the producers cutting off Drake, an exepcted no-show, in the middle of his best rap album (for Scorpion) acceptance speech — a speech which already challenged the notion of the Grammys as an arbiter of objective musical truth.
Ultimately, it was unquestionably a year of progress for the Grammys and the entire Recording Academy, in some very critical areas. But there’s still a lot of work to be done: in repairing music’s biggest night’s relationship with music’s biggest genre, in encouraging awards in all categories to go to the best artists and not just the most recognizable names, in making marquee artists feel like they’re being treated with respect, and in ensuring the steps made this year in gender quality aren’t backtracked if or when it becomes a less immediately pressing PR concern. The best thing you can say about the 2019 ceremonies, though, is that for the first time in a long time, we’ve been given reason to believe this is work the Grammys can actually get done one day.