How the Grammys Bring Rebels Into the Fold

Around midway through the 65th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday night, Madonna came out to introduce a performance by Sam Smith and Kim Petras of their theatrically gothic collaboration, “Unholy.”

The track, a robust and cheeky song about infidelity with a playfully erotic video, went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in October, making Smith and Petras the first nonbinary and transgender artist, respectively, to top the chart. (On Sunday, “Unholy” also won best pop duo/group performance.)

“Here’s what I’ve learned after four decades in music,” Madonna said dryly, riding crop in hand. “If they call you shocking, scandalous, troublesome, problematic, provocative or dangerous, you are definitely onto something.”

Madonna would know, of course — the first decade of her career, she was aggressively, provocatively and campily pushing the boundaries of pop feminism, religion and sexuality, becoming one of the signature superstars of the 1980s. The Grammys, naturally, all but ignored her. She didn’t win a trophy for one of her studio albums until “Ray of Light,” in 1999. To this day, she has never claimed a Grammy in one of the major categories.

Sam Smith performed “Unholy” after an introduction from Madonna in which she discussed the joys of provocation.Credit…Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

And yet here she was, a revered and often-imitated elder, now fully absorbed into the Grammys ritual of baton passing between icons old and new.

The Grammys, more than any of the other major award shows, needs these sorts of intergenerational handoffs to survive. Often it fudges them, by emphasizing and over-celebrating younger artists, like Bruno Mars and H.E.R., who make deeply traditional music.

But the story of pop music is far more often about the mainlining and then mainstreaming of frisky outsider ideas into broad palatability. Innovators and interlopers become the establishment. Those who emerged pushing back fiercely against their elders eventually become elders.

For the Grammys to last for decades to come — if it even should, but that’s a debate for a different time — it needs to turn rebels into institutionalists.

Nowhere was this more clear Sunday night than in the elaborate and rousing hip-hop history revue that anchored the broadcast — a performance that underscored the Grammys’ often-tortured relationship to newness and rebellion, to say nothing of pop music rebels’ often-tortured relationship to the Grammys.

Start at the end, when Lil Uzi Vert stomped out onstage, his hair jelled into spikes, rapping his bizarro viral hit “Just Wanna Rock.” This is how hip-hop works now — an idiosyncratic stylist finds fervor online and builds a cult atop it, a mechanism that couldn’t be further from the Grammys stage.

Lil Uzi Vert represented rap’s current generation, performing “Just Wanna Rock.”Credit…Kevin Winter/Getty Images For The Recording A

And yet here he was, anchoring a 12-minute feat of logistics and favor-pulling (orchestrated by Questlove) featuring several titans who had previously never touched the Grammy stage. Rakim, never nominated for a Grammy, with a morsel of “Eric B. Is President.” Too Short, never nominated for a Grammy, plowing through “Blow the Whistle.” The Lox, only nominated for featuring on a Kanye West album, performed “We Gonna Make It,” a song reliably certain to ignite a Hot 97 Summer Jam in New York but not usually the purview of an industry gala.

Like all historical surveys, it was both impressively broad and woefully incomplete. Jay-Z was in the audience, not onstage. Drake and West didn’t attend (likely for very different reasons). Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj were M.I.A. The lineup also brought to mind boatloads of other legends who could have taken a star turn — Cam’ron, Lil’ Kim, UGK, KRS-One, E-40, Master P, Big Daddy Kane — to say nothing of the countless rappers who died before seeing the genre reach its 50th birthday.

Mostly it underscored the uncharitable ways in which hip-hop has been handled by the Grammys, and the long-running resistance of hip-hop’s biggest stars to the show’s butter-finger approach to handling them. At the 1989 Grammys, the first to honor hip-hop with an award, several of the nominated artists boycotted because the category was not being televised. But some of those original boycotters, Salt-N-Pepa and DJ Jazzy Jeff, appeared during this Sunday’s performance, more evidence of time healing all wounds.

In recent years, the Grammys have ever so slightly sped up their relationship to pop music’s evolution. Opening the show this year was Bad Bunny, the Puerto Rican rapper-singer whose 2022 release “Un Verano Sin Ti” was last year’s most streamed LP. It was also nominated for album of the year, the first Spanish-language album so honored. The memorial segment included a tribute for Takeoff, the Migos rapper, from his group mate Quavo, a saddening indicator of the Grammys’ growing acceptance of hip-hop. And in her acceptance speech for record of the year, Lizzo framed her unabashedly positive and joyful music as an act of rebellion that paid off.

And then there is the matter of Beyoncé, now the most decorated artist in Grammy history while still feeling like something of an outsider. Claiming that record didn’t quite overshadow her losses in the three major categories she was nominated in — to Bonnie Raitt (nice), Lizzo (sure, OK) and Harry Styles (errrr … great rings, beautiful rings).

Beyoncé took the Grammys stage once, to accept the award for best dance/electronic music album, which gave her the record for most Grammy wins ever.Credit…Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Beyoncé is a shadow traditionalist, but her short-straw-drawing at the Grammys has fashioned for her something of an outsider lore. She did not perform at this year’s event, and hasn’t for some time, a choice that feels pointed. It’s possible to be the most awarded artist in Grammys history, and still be an anti-Grammys rebel.

This goes for her husband as well. Jay-Z boycotted the Grammys in 1999, but has shown up from time to time in the years since, largely to support his wife. He’s won 24 Grammys to Beyoncé’s 32.

He was nominated five times this year, but more important, he was the key element in the show-closing performance of “God Did,” a signature DJ Khaled-orchestrated posse cut. What’s notable about this song isn’t that it was a hit — it was not — but that it features a dramatically long, boast-filled, conversation-starting Jay-Z verse.

Jay-Z rapped the whole thing, all four minutes of it, seated at the center of a Last Supper-style table, flanked on either side by his longtime business associates Emory Jones and Juan Perez. He looked relaxed, unbothered, rapping like a benevolent uncle from whom you’re lucky to hear old war stories.

For someone who’s been vocally skeptical about the Grammys over many years, Jay-Z ended the show wholly on his terms, like the final move in a decades-long chess game. An agitator finally ceded the throne.

Whether he — or Beyoncé — will ever deign to sit in it again remains to be seen.

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