For an event that gathered the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Kesha, Bruno Mars, Elton John, Pink, Cardi B, Patti LuPone, Jay-Z, Rihanna, and (a bizarrely ubiquitous) Sting, the 2018 Grammys sure were boring.
To be fair, all of the above — plus wide-eyed host James Corden — tried their best to give the awards ceremony the level of star power and powerhouse performances that the Grammys are typically known for. (Kesha, in particular, managed to pull off one of the night’s only truly memorable moments with a barn-burning rendition of “Praying,” a song devoted to leaving an abuser in the past and setting out for a brighter future.)
However, by the time Mars finally claimed Album of the Year for 24K Magic — three and a half hours after the show opened — the ceremony was mostly just exhausting. Torn between being a celebratory event jam-packed with fiery performances and a somber reflection on The World Today, the 2018 Grammys ended up just floundering somewhere in the middle.
It didn’t have to be this way. (Again, did you see who showed up?! And we didn’t even mention Blue Ivy Carter sitting front row center between her parents, sporting a perfect look of bored disdain.) So to break down exactly why the Grammys felt so lacking this time around, here are the three biggest things that went wrong.
1) The show’s overall production was … confusing
On the one hand, the Grammys are always overstuffed and muddled, cramming as many performances and high-profile appearances as possible into three and a half(!) hours. But on the other, keeping everything together during the 2018 ceremony caused a visible strain on the show’s production team. There were problems on the most basic technical levels as the awards show struggled to adjust to being back in New York City’s Madison Square Garden for the first time in 15 years.
The camerawork was sloppy, making it hard to understand exactly what was happening during some of the more ambitious numbers. (Kendrick Lamar’s opening performance, for example, was one of the night’s best, in spite of the frantic direction that flailed in an attempt to capture it all.)
The sound was noticeably off-kilter, as several artists — from Rihanna to Eric Church to Kesha — struggled to match the pitch of their tracks. At a few points, the sound cut in and out; there was even a moment where we heard a backstage command on a stray hot mic, and it happened, of all times, as a quartet of country artists (including Church) tried to introduce their moving tribute to the victims of last October’s mass shooting in Las Vegas.
Then there was the fact that the show kept trying to find uses for Corden, whose presence became increasingly confusing as the night wore on. Though he didn’t attempt to pull off an elaborate opening number like he did when hosting the 2017 Grammys, he nonetheless tried to squeeze in some Late Late Show-esque bits that distracted from an already overstuffed ceremony.
A sketch featuring Corden, Sting, and Shaggy trying (and failing) to pull off a “Carpool Karaoke” bit on the New York City subway dragged on and on, while a sketch later in the night featuring artists reading from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury (plus a bonus Hillary Clinton appearance) seemed manufactured solely for the conservative outrage it might spark. (And lo, on that front, it succeeded!)
So even though there was an extraordinary amount of talent gathered beneath the Madison Square Garden roof, most of the night ended up feeling like a missed opportunity. It’s not for nothing that one of the more pressing questions to emerge from the night was why Lorde, an Album of the Year nominee, didn’t get to perform, while someone like Sting appeared onstage multiple times. Over and over again, the Grammys proved that it had no idea where its own priorities should lie in 2018.
2) The structure of the show was whiplash-inducing
When Corden opened the evening, he hailed the nominee slate as being the most diverse ever — before pointing out that the show had chosen the “least diverse” host. It was a winking reference to his presence as a doofy white guy at an event where many of the nominees were women and people of color, and it wasn’t a bad joke. But it ended up being an accidental harbinger of how the show would proceed.
Something big and bold would happen, but then it would immediately be followed by a safer (and usually whiter) choice. The show would go from Kesha performing a song off an album widely interpreted to be about the aftermath of a former producer sexually assaulting her to Camila Cabello giving a shout-out to DREAMers stuck in legal limbo to U2 performing on a barge in the middle of the river. All of these moments worked in isolation; stacked together, they made very little sense. As a result, the Grammys never built up any sense of momentum.
In particular, the show’s choice to essentially silo all political messaging into one 20-minute section in the middle of the production felt like a network note, as if CBS itself had descended to say, “Let’s not scare off Trump voters with a bunch of business about immigration and men’s sexual misconduct.” Indeed, the awkward, whiplash-inducing transitions from relatively safe material to riskier material felt very CBS — since the network is, after all, America’s most staid broadcaster.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this in theory. An awards show doesn’t need to be political, and so far, the #MeToo movement hasn’t hit the music industry in the way it has the film and television industries, so attempts to talk about sexual misconduct in the music industry could have felt very disingenuous.
But sequestering the vast majority of that material into its own little sections (like Kendrick Lamar’s opening performance, or a mid-ceremony performance meant to honor the victims of the Las Vegas massacre) ended up feeling even stranger, like the show was a little scared of politics but felt it should say something regardless.
3) The production didn’t wed the past and present. It kept them away from each other.
At their best, the Grammys represent music’s past and present colliding on one giant stage, a massive celebration of what was and what might be coming. The stars of yesterday celebrate the stars of today, and everybody tips their cap to the stars of tomorrow.
But the 2018 Grammys felt like no one really knew how to pull this off. The opening performance felt like a perfect example of how this usually works, as U2’s Bono and The Edge joined Kendrick Lamar onstage. But Lamar performed a little, then Bono and The Edge performed, and then Lamar performed again. There was no attempt to wed the two artists’ very different styles or have them bounce off each other or even just jam out.
Arguably, the only time the 2018 Grammys integrated the “old” and the “new” came when Miley Cyrus joined Elton John for a straightforward rendition of “Tiny Dancer” — and Cyrus, while young, has been around for more than a decade and isn’t exactly up and coming anymore. Even worse, one of the night’s major nominees (Album of the Year contender Lorde) didn’t perform at all, only adding to the sense that none of this was up to the moment.
Even when it came time for performances from major stars, they were often turning to older material (Lady Gaga) or offering halfhearted cuts that didn’t show them off at their best (Little Big Town). None of this was bad, but none of it helped the show escape the sense that it was awarding the best music of 2015 — current, but also a little off, like drinking milk just past the expiration date.
Put another way, the person Grammy viewers saw the most throughout the evening outside of Corden wasn’t Lamar or Jay-Z or even the night’s big winner Bruno Mars. It was Sting, for some reason, who kept turning up over and over again, any time the show needed to stuff the “this is getting a little too dangerous” genie back into the bottle. And, look, Sting’s great, but is he really the face the music industry wants to promote in 2018?