As for the ceremony, it was dominated by performances from women, including lively showings from Cyrus and SZA that shimmered and slashed, as well as regal turns from Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman that felt rich with gravitas and grace. In fact, the only man handed any gramophone-shaped statuary during Sunday’s telecast was Jay-Z, accepting a legacy prize and using his speech to note that his wife, Beyoncé, the winningest Grammy honoree of all time, has never been given the big one. “Most Grammys, never won album of the year,” he lamented. “That doesn’t work.”
There are still a great many things about the Grammys that don’t work — for starters, the show’s near-exclusion of rap music, which, as Jay-Z also noted, remains as shameful as ever. But cumulatively, this year’s Grammy ceremony felt like an improvement, with the evening’s most significant moments involving women who appeared to be stepping outside the awards show itself. Like when Swift broke news — and maybe decorum — in a surprise act of unblinking self-promotion. And later, when Annie Lennox raised her voice in protest of much graver concerns. And near the top of the program when Chapman, gently duetting her decades-old “Fast Car” with country star Luke Combs, offered a flash of quiet contemplation that bordered on transcendence.
Taylor first. Previously tied with Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder with three trophies for album of the year, she put fresh ink in the history books with her “Midnights” album, which also won the prize for best pop vocal album e
arlier in the proceedings. Check out her first acceptance speech of the night: “I know that the way that the Recording Academy voted is a direct reflection of the passion of the fans, so I want to say thank you to the fans” — and here, she seemed to be opening a telepathic channel to the Swiftie hivemind, speaking over the Grammy voters assembled in Crypto.com Arena — “by telling you a secret that I’ve been keeping from you for the last two years, which is that my brand new album comes out April 19. It’s called ‘The Tortured Poets Department.’ I’m going to go and post the cover right now backstage.”
The subtext of this big reveal made it clear that Swift’s concerns now exist entirely outside this silly prestige bubble that she’s wholly ruled for the entirety of her career. If Grammy voters are simply here to enact the will of her fandom, who cares what those Grammy voters think about anything? And if the whole thing felt tone-deaf on your television screen, just remember that the Grammys are nothing more than a big, three-plus-hour commercial for the music business itself. Swift was doing business. It wasn’t tacky. Just grim.
A far more sobering turn came a few minutes later during an extensive “In Memoriam” segment during which Annie Lennox sang “Nothing Compares 2 U” in honor of the late Sinéad O’Connor. Flanked by Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman of Prince’s Revolution — their presence was a nod to the song’s late composer — Lennox gave the ballad a stark, wounded reading that sounded almost dry in her throat.
Then, she honored O’Connor’s radical activism and devout pacifism by raising her fist in solidarity with Palestinians: “Artists for cease-fire! Peace in the world!” This made for the most righteous and lonely moment of the night. Did anyone else in the room even notice it? Lennox was the evening’s only performer to acknowledge the catastrophes unfolding in the outside world, and in this fleeting gesture, she channeled the courage that defined O’Connor’s entire career. Even at music’s epicenter, it’s easy to feel like no one is listening.
Chapman appeared onstage near the start of the show, thankfully, with everyone’s ears still attentive and fresh. The storied singer-songwriter has been away from the touring circuit for years, but no one could have guessed that Sunday, her voice sounding as nimble and rich as it did when she won her own best new artist Grammy back in 1989. “Fast Car,” an iconic ballad about escape and renewal, has remained Chapman’s signature ever since, and when Combs resurrected it as a massive country hit last year, fans began to wonder if she might someday materialize to sing it alongside him. Finally, here they were: the star-struck country star making himself more of a backup singer than a duet partner, and the placid folk singer easing her voice into the song’s emotive depths like a stone sinking in a pond.
The Grammys used to have to play matchmaker with these kinds of performances, forcing rookies and veterans to duet an old song and branding it a “Grammy moment.” This moment felt as if it had happened entirely of its own volition — a delicate expression of mutual gratitude that seemed to bind not only the two singers, but anyone and everyone listening in. On a fraught and starry night of winners, losers, shameless self-hype and lonely protest, here was a quiet song about leaving everything behind and starting again.