First off, I don’t watch the Grammys or follow the awards; I have no idea what the categories are, how the winners are determined, or how Billie Eilish can win 5 Grammys, including Album of the Year and Record of the Year (what’s the difference again?). But I did catch the aftermath this year, namely the musical performances which tend to be an iconic part of the awards show. Personally, I was most interested in the performances by Tyler, the Creator, Bilie Eilish, and Lil Nas X, of which Tyler is the most senior, having been rapping and pushing the limits of the genre for the last decade, while both Billie and Lil Nas are recent stars on the hip hop/pop scene. All performances were interesting in their own way and extremely telling of the current music industry, and for that reason I want to look at how successful each performance was and what defined them.
My favorite performance by far was Tyler, the Creator performing a medley of songs off of his most recent album Igor, which you may remember me writing about last fall. It ended up winning Best Rap Album of the Year, which is somewhat controversial, considering how experimental and genre-breaking Igor truly is. Many critics of the Grammys (including Tyler himself) point out the historical connotations of the Best Rap Album award, which has been one of the only awards consistently won by African American musicians, and feel that the forcing of Igor into this category further displays the role of the rap award as a participation trophy for African American artists.
Regardless of the politics around the award, nobody can argue that Igor didn’t deserve the Grammy; it truly is one of a kind, a fusion of multiple genres and saturated with personality and aesthetic. Tyler brought these exact qualities to his explosive performance, featuring a beautifully sung intro, then wild and intense effects followed up by an insane, almost heavy metal raging and dancing, leading to another beautifully sung reprieve, and finally a crescendo of visceral craziness and adrenaline, leading to a fitting climax. I definitely recommend watching it yourself; words can’t do it justice. Even if you don’t usually appreciate that style of music, I think the performance is objectively fantastic. I found that my heart was racing when I was watching, and I caught myself smiling at the end, that’s how much I was drawn into the over-the-top qualities of the performance. Not only was it more entertaining than any other performance, it actually put the music on display, perfectly conveying the themes and emotions that go along with the album.
The next performance I watched was Billie Eilish performing an acoustic song off of her most recent album with her brother on the piano. It was certainly well done and haunting, but its impact was almost insignificant compared to Tyler’s. I should acknowledge my bias towards Tyler first however; I simply appreciate his style and musical development more than Billie’s. I was a fan of hers when she first started, but I quickly felt like all of her music sounded the same (which is a pretty generic critique, I know). Perhaps her style is just meant to be subtle, and I missed the point of her performance, but regardless I felt like it left a lot to be desired, which is surprising considering how many Grammys she won.
Last but not least was Lil Nas X performing a medley of Rodeo and Old Town Road, both viral hits last year. They’re great songs and all, certainly very catchy, but it’s hard for me to see him as anything more than just a meme. I don’t mean that with disrespect; I definitely think there is a place in pop culture for viral music and his endearing personality, but I think he objectively lacks the artistic skill of more serious or developed musicians. He might grow into a more serious artist one day too, who knows, but for now I think his music is just meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator of today’s pop culture, which I think was put on full display during his performance. Studded with other celebrities and musicians, his performance felt like an odd fever dream with some familiar faces, but no unifying style. It was practically a musical advertisement for the music industry, not an example of outstanding creative performance. It makes sense that Lil Nas would rely on the reputations and popularity of other musicians, considering he has just started making a name for himself, but it certainly doesn’t help him to stand out or create his own musical legacy.
Hopefully this didn’t turn into a rant (it can be hard to tell sometimes), and I think my biases are pretty obvious, but regardless I think that comparing these iconic performances can reveal a lot about what makes award show performances so important, and what makes a performance stand out or blend in. In my opinion, Tyler’s performance is the gold standard of memorable, experimental, mold-breaking, and artistic. It might not be fully appreciated by general audiences, or appeal to the popular culture spheres of today, but I think it will be remembered as iconic in the history of award performances. The other performances will likely be forgotten by the next Grammys, but hopefully those artists will have another chance to prove themselves with more experience and perspective under their belts.