The 2021 Grammys arrived amid a cloud of controversy. The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” arguably the biggest song of the last year, was completely shut out of the nominations. Multiple major artists announced they would be boycotting the awards over the Recording Academy’s continued failure to recognize artists of color. Beyoncé, the night’s most nominated artist, declined to perform. And on top of that, the show faced the enormous challenge of producing an awards telecast during a pandemic, with all the crowd restrictions and socially distanced dance numbers that come along with it.
But somehow, against the odds, the Grammys were pretty fun this year.
After Billie Eilish swept cleanly through all the big categories last year, this year saw the major awards distributed evenly among a varied, and by and large deserving, crowd of nominees. And both Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, two of the biggest stars in music, broke major records over the course of the show.
(But did the Grammys continue their proud tradition of giving a big award to a white artist who then dedicates their acceptance speech to the Black artist who arguably should have won? Of course they did.)
And as for the part of the evening that everyone actually tunes in for: The performances were actually maybe … great?
We’ve collected some of the best — and worst — moments from the night below, so you can see for yourself.
Winner: The Grammys, for pulling it off
While our year of socially distanced televised live events has been a mixed bag, there has been the occasional show — the Democratic National Convention, for instance — that made the argument that going fully virtual is actually better than playing live. In some ways, virtual ceremonies can be more streamlined, more sleek; you don’t have to kill as much time just getting the talent from one spot to the other.
But of all this pandemic’s big live shows, the Grammys were arguably in the worst position to make that argument. The Grammys, after all, are traditionally a giant concert with a few awards presentations squeezed in between live numbers; without a giant hall crammed full of every big musician in the industry jamming out to each other’s songs, what’s the point?
And yet somehow, against the odds, the Grammys kind of pulled off a successful, satisfying, pretty entertaining show.
Under host Trevor Noah’s affably poised patter, the night cut back and forth between the exterior of the Staples Center, where A-listers lounged at distanced tables like they were at the world’s chicest garden party, and the stage inside, where A-listers performed to tiny crowds of other A-listers grooving on the sidelines, like they were at the world’s coolest club. It shouldn’t have worked! It kind of did! The whole thing felt fresh, unpretentious, and not nearly as lengthy or self-serious as the Grammys usually are. Even if they were scheduled to run for three and a half hours and still went 15 minutes over.
Winner: Harry Styles starts the show off right
Let’s be real, awards shows during the pandemic have been, as a genre … shaky. (We’re being nice, because surely we are all doing our best under difficult circumstances, but look, did you see the Golden Globes? If so, you have our condolences.) So there was a lot of pressure on the opening number of the Grammys to let us know whether we’d be watching a fun show or a train wreck.
When Harry Styles opened the night with a performance of “Watermelon Sugar,” he had before him the formidable task of setting the tone for a night that would need to balance theatrical spectacle with an intimacy that suited its scaled-down audience. The boy did not miss.
Draped in a feather boa and an open leather jacket, Styles channeled his best glam rocker and swaggered across the stage like a jolt of pure charisma. It was like a reassuring nod to the audience watching at home: You can relax for the night. You’re in good hands. We’ve got this.
Winner: Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and others brought a cyberpunk vibe to the club
Perhaps because we’re living through a dystopia, multiple artists who performed at the 2021 Grammys brought an optimistic sci-fi vibe to the stage. Dua Lipa donned flashy pink sequins and performed a medley of her singles “Levitating” and “Don’t Start Now” alongside DaBaby. On a concert stage that doubled as a scaled-down club environment, the two of them threw a disco party and gave us a dose of ’70s chic, combined with a neato sci-fi vibe that featured a bunch of backup singers in silver masks — a little like badass Terminator Barbies.
But she wasn’t alone: Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, and Doja Cat also had a range of cyberpunk, Afropunk, and seapunk overtones in their sleek, crowd-pleasing performances of “WAP” and “Say So.” If this is the aesthetic we can look forward to seeing more of in 2021, we’ll take it.
Winner: Mickey Guyton scored a historic country nomination and delivered a stirring protest performance
Amid much louder cultural discussions surrounding the Grammys’ lack of diversity, one striking nominee flew under the radar: Mickey Guyton, the first Black female solo artist ever to receive a nomination in a country music category. Yes, ever.
Guyton got the nod in the Best Country Solo Performance category for her single “Black Like Me,” and although she lost to Vince Gill, she arguably got the better deal: She performed “Black Like Me” during the telecast accompanied by a gospel choir, showcasing a powerful range and an equally powerful country twang.
In contrast to the 2019 controversy over whether Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” could really be considered “country” music, Guyton’s vocal stylings unquestionably fit the mold of powerhouse country singers — she’s a chip off the Martina McBride mold with the occasional, glorious Whitney Houston-esque flourish.
And there’s nothing quite like the sounds of the heartland being set to good old-fashioned protest lyrics: “If you think we live in the land of the free / you should try to be Black like me.”
Winner: Pandemic fashion brought the glam
Most awards shows since the start of the pandemic have kept their biggest talent at home, dialing in their performances and their acceptance speeches from a distance. So the Grammys were one of our only chances to see celebs strut their stuff with the biggest accessory of our dystopian timeline: the statement mask. It turned out to be kind of delightful?
Megan Thee Stallion wore an orange satin mask to match her glam orange satin prom-queen-in-a-good-way gown! Harry Styles matched his mask to his Clueless-yellow plaid jacket and threw in another feather boa! (He would later appear to swap out this second feather boa for a third.) Taylor Swift bedecked her mask with appliquéd flowers! Phoebe Bridgers did her whimsical skeleton thing but made it luxe! Chika’s mask was pastel and had ruffles!
Look, if we’re living in a dystopia anyway, we might as well find the glamour in it every now and then.
Winner: The nomination packages, for bringing the focus back to the artists and having fun doing it
The Grammys have faced criticism in the past for ignoring the people they are ostensibly supposed to be honoring: the nominees. So this year, the ceremony stole a page from the Oscars playbook and gave the nominees for Record of the Year a little documentary segment introducing them to Grammy viewers at home. And they showcased a surprising amount of personality.
Billie Eilish got a nicely spooky horror pastiche. The Black Pumas got to present an inspiring rags-to-riches story that was never too sentimental. DaBaby got a superhero edit, with plenty of adorable footage of his baby to go with it. Megan Thee Stallion got an old-school newsreel intro that had almost as much swag as she does.
It was a smart way to shine a spotlight on the artists the Grammys are supposed to center on. And considering that this is an awards show that exists purely to let famouses congratulate one another, it did not feel at all as self-congratulatory as it could have.
Winner: Beyoncé, for surprise-dropping herself to make history
Beyoncé, having invented and perfected the surprise album drop in 2013, has moved past such trivialities as casually taking over Billboard without so much as a marketing push. She’s surprise-dropping herself these days.
It was widely reported before the 2021 Grammys began that Beyoncé, who was the 2021 Grammys’ most nominated artist, would not be appearing, presumably in protest of the awards’ obscure voting process. A spokesperson for the Recording Academy even confirmed on Saturday that Beyoncé would not be showing up unannounced.
But then, just before Megan Thee Stallion took the stage to perform “Savage” — on which Beyoncé is a featured performer — the camera panned over the audience to reveal Beyoncé and Jay-Z, lounging like royalty in coordinating black masks and shades. Viewers on social media stood up and applauded, and Megan, upon winning, appeared to swoon upon seeing that Beyoncé had actually shown up to support her.
Beyoncé still declined to perform during the show — her verse on “Savage” was piped in as a prerecorded interlude. But she didn’t need to perform to make her statement. She took control of the conversation just by being there.
And in the process, she also made history. Beyoncé won her 27th and 28th Grammys on Sunday, making her the singer and female artist with the most Grammys ever.
In the past, the Grammys have tended to take advantage of Beyoncé’s cultural dominance without ever quite recognizing it on the official record. In 2016, the Recording Academy invited her to perform an extended medley from Lemonade, in a number that became the talk of the evening — but the biggest award it gave her that night was for Best Urban Album.
So it was only fitting that, during the year the Grammys finally recognized Beyoncé’s icon-level accomplishments, she delivered a silent flex as only she could. She grabbed control of the conversation without having to sing a note.
Winner: Taylor Swift, for entering good company
Speaking of record breakers! Taylor Swift won Album of the Year for her first surprise quarantine drop album of 2020, Folklore. (The second, Evermore, won’t be eligible until the 2022 Grammys.) The win means that Swift now has three Album of the Year Grammys, making her the first woman to hit that milestone. She’s the fourth artist in history to tie this record, after Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra, and Paul Simon.
Winner: Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B, for bringing in intergalactic raunch
Megan Thee Stallion began her set with a witty, pornified Ziegfeld Follies take on “Savage” and “Body” that featured twerking tap dancers, and that alone would have been enough. But then Cardi B showed up to rap “Up” and segue into “WAP,” dressed like a sexy galactic empress and pole-dancing around the heel of a giant stiletto, and that just sent the whole thing over the top.
Three-dimensional tongues waggled in the background! Caged dancers tossed cash in the air! Cardi and Megan danced across a giant bed toward each other! Even with the lyrics cleaned up for CBS — they sang the chorus as “wet wet wet” — it was a sight to behold. “WOW,” said Trevor Noah, and he spoke for all of us.
Winner: Protest songs
In a year where the Grammys themselves came under fire for excluding many worthy artists of color from major recognition, the ceremony itself was a reminder that even an awards show that is often labeled as out of touch is inevitably shaped by the sociopolitics of its era.
Following 2020’s turbulent civil rights protests, the 2021 Grammys reflected artistry that emphasized struggle. Multiple nominees and many of the showcased performances were powerful protest songs against Black oppression, from Mickey Guyton’s historic “Black Like Me” to DaBaby’s “Rockstar,” a song the rapper remixed to explicitly reference the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Onstage, DaBaby performed the number with updated lyrics, and featured backup performers dressed as Supreme Court justices.
Lil Baby and Killer Mike also delivered a powerful rendition of Lil Baby’s “Bigger Picture,” which featured a special segment from Black Lives Matter activist Tamika Mallory calling on President Joe Biden to take legislative action to protect Black Americans from police violence.
Beyoncé’s “Black Parade,” now the 2021 Grammy winner for Best R&B Performance, likewise delivered on themes of Black empowerment during a period of civil unrest, while one of the evening’s major awards, Song of the Year, went to H.E.R.’s Black Lives Matter anthem “I Can’t Breathe.”
Loser: The Grammys, for alienating so many artists so many times that they sparked a major boycott
After years of criticizing the Grammys for being out of step with the times, this year, a number of artists seemed to decide enough was enough. After one of the top artists of 2020, The Weeknd, didn’t receive a single nomination despite having a record-breaking phenomenon of a single in “Blinding Lights,” he vowed to boycott the Grammys, this year and in the future, by not performing during the 2021 show and not submitting his music for consideration at the awards going forward.
He kicked off a string of withdrawals and avoidances from a number of high-profile artists, most notably celebs like Nicki Minaj, Zayn Malik, Ariana Grande, and Beyoncé — who declined to perform at the ceremony despite being the most nominated artist of the night.
Beyoncé’s awards trajectory is especially revealing as a window into the paradoxical relationship many artists have with the Grammys. Her absence on the performance stage may have something to do with the fact that she hasn’t actually received a major award in a decade.
In 2010, she won multiple golden gramophones for her album I Am Sasha Fierce, including the single “Single Ladies.” But since then, she’s been overlooked by the Grammys’ highest honors despite single-handedly changing the music industry in 2013 with her surprise self-titled album — and then doing it again in 2016 with Lemonade. So even though she’s now racked up a record-breaking number of Grammys with her 2021 wins, she’s also shared the fate of many other top-tier artists who’ve seen their most groundbreaking work overlooked by the music industry’s most prominent awards.
The K-pop phenomenon BTS can claim a similar experience: Despite having a groundbreaking hit with their summer bop “Dynamite,” the band was only nominated for one award — Best Pop Duo or Group Performance. BTS then lost that race to Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s single “Rain on Me,” a song that was arguably far less culturally impactful.
Part of the reason for the Recording Academy’s discordant approach to its own industry may be that its voting process is notoriously secretive and obscure — and reportedly “ripe with corruption,” according to a complaint filed in 2020 by its former CEO Deborah Dugan. The Academy subsequently tried to overhaul the process, inviting over 2,300 new artists to become voting members. But as some of the boycotting artists noted, the entire voting procedure needs more work:
.@recordingacad are moving in inches and we need to move in miles. I’m keeping the pressure on & fighting for transparency & inclusion. We need to make sure we are honoring and celebrating “creative excellence” of ALL. End the secret committees. Until then ... #fuckthegrammys— zayn (@zaynmalik) March 14, 2021
The Grammys’ production team was evidently hyperaware of this tension. During the ceremony, the Recording Academy’s interim president and CEO Harvey Mason Jr. delivered a speech in which he pledged on behalf of the group to “listen harder” to marginalized voices — and near the end of the ceremony, the telecast displayed a title card noting that the Recording Academy and CBS stand against “all forms of racism, sexism, violence, anti-Semitism and hate.”
But change doesn’t happen overnight, and the absence of so many prominent artists, pandemic or not, seems to be a statement about how far the Grammys still have to go in terms of consistent equal treatment of people of color, and Black artists in particular. As Joe Coscarelli noted for the New York Times, the last time a Black artist won Album of the Year was 2008 — when jazz legend Herbie Hancock won for a tribute album to a white artist, Joni Mitchell. With Sunday’s win in that category going, predictably, to Taylor Swift’s Folklore, that lousy statistic stands for another year. Meanwhile, Billie Eilish’s insistence that her own award for Record of the Year should have gone to Megan Thee Stallion is another reminder that, for now at least, white artists still dominate the Grammys — whether or not they should.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistitled Taylor Swift’s second album of 2020 and misidentified the category in which nominees were the subject of individual documentary segments. The album title is Evermore and the category was Record of the Year.