While last year’s COVID-compromised Grammy Awards hardly made for a ratings success story, it did feel like the Recording Academy stumbled onto something new and interesting with the more intimate, largely outdoor broadcast. The performers had never felt so close to the viewers, or to each other, resulting in some unexpectedly thrilling little moments of star overlap — and some uncomfortable ones, too, but even those couldn’t help but be a little charming. Even the winners were satisfying: four different artists splitting the Big Four categories (album of the year, record of the year, song of the year and best new artist), all of them vital contemporary artists, and all of them women, just three years after the disastrous “step up” incident. For a show that’d struggled a little to find its contemporary footing in recent years, it was worth wondering if the Las Vegas-set 2022 Grammys — if not officially the first post-COVID Grammys, then at least the first without the kind of pandemic-safety mandates that necessitate such formalistic reinvention — might still find a way to take lessons from the previous year.
And by the end of the opening run of performances — Silk Sonic, Olivia Rodrigo and J Balvin — the answer to that query was clear: not really. Rather than continuing to lean on going small, the Recording Academy instead showed their intent to put the “Big” back in Music’s Biggest Night, as evidenced by that first trio of big-name, big-production performances: Silk Sonic went Full Vegas glitz for their casino-themed “777,” Rodrigo brought out a Mercedes-Benz and fake suburban backdrop for “Drivers License,” and Balvin led a mini-auditorium’s worth of seated backing dancers for “In Da Getto.” (Meanwhile, a crowd-pleasing Trevor Noah worked a relatively tame reference to The Slap into his hosting duties, a sigh-of-relief moment considering how obviously one was coming and how much more cringe-worthy it could have been.) Naturally, no award was given out between the performances; only nine total awards were handed out over the course of the three-and-a-half-hour broadcast. “Don’t even think of it as an awards show,” Noah tellingly advised audiences early on. “This is a concert where they’re giving out awards.”
It’s certainly fair to ask if it’s insulting to the nominees (and to the weight of the honors themselves) to de-emphasize the actual awards portion of the evening so explicitly; the Oscars faced heavy criticism just a week earlier for announcing just eight of their 23 categories in their pre-telecast, and they still found a way to excerpt even those wins on the main show. But the Grammys have long been trending in this direction, as have televised awards shows in general, so it was also hard to get too worked up about Noah’s pronouncement — particularly when the show’s early performers were so electrifying. Lil Nas X essentially told the story of his career since his last Grammys appearance in a three-song medley with dazzling design and convincing choreography. BTS gave probably their greatest Stateside awards show performance to date with a “Butter” so bursting with energy and ideas (and one flirty/meme-friendly pre-song moment between the group’s V and Olivia Rodrigo) that it felt like the stage could barely hold them. And Billie Eilish brought the rain down with her and brother Finneas’ explosive “Happier Than Ever” rendition, a satisfyingly definitive performance of a signature song in their careers.
The problem with all that? Those three performances, along with those of Rodrigo and Silk Sonic, arguably comprised the five most-anticipated performances of the night, at least among the contemporary hitmaking set — and there were still nearly two and a half hours to go in the broadcast once the last of them (Eilish) was done. After that, it was a solid but largely surprise-free run-through of performances from recent awards show standbys like Brandi Carlile, Chris Stapleton, John Legend and H.E.R., the latter of whom at least got to kick out the jams a little more than usual alongside Lenny Kravitz and (of course) Travis Barker. Lady Gaga got in a nice moment of tribute to Love for Sale partner Tony Bennett but with understandably little of her usual awards show shock-and-awe. Nas played a medley of previous hits as a suited-up big band leader, proving such Rat Pack vibes incompatible with his street rap classics. Justin Bieber’s “Peaches” with Daniel Caesar and Giveon was marred by some awkward chorus censoring and an absurdly drawn-out piano intro. It’d be tough to maintain three-and-a-half hours’ worth of livewire energy for any live show, but particularly one where the bill is stacked with the would-be headliners going on first.
It fell to the awards themselves, then, to cover any lag in momentum, and… well, if you’re a Silk Sonic megafan, you got to see Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars basically reliving Mars’ triumphant 2018 Grammy night, going 4-for-4 with their nominations — including televised wins in both song and record of the year for “Leave the Door Open” — and enjoying the moment too much to feign any false modesty (“In the industry, we call that a clean sweep!“). Doja Cat gave both the funniest and most emotional speech of the night, bemoaning the cut-short bathroom break she had to scurry back from to accept best pop duo/group performance along with SZA for “Kiss Me More,” and then shedding real tears over what a “big deal” the moment was for her. And both Baby Keem (best rap performance for “Family Ties”) and Jazmine Sullivan (best R&B album for Heaux Tales) got to take the podium for gratifying wins, the former as confirmation of his rising star, and the latter as long-overdue validation for her excellent career. But Olivia Rodrigo’s much-predicted big night did not quite come to pass; though she took home three statues on the evening, only one was in the Big Four categories (best new artist), with her “Drivers License” losing both record and song of the year to “Leave the Door Open,” and her Sour also falling short in album of the year.
What album did take home that most coveted of Grammys, you might ask (assuming you didn’t watch and haven’t been on social media since Sunday night)? That would be Jon Batiste’s We Are, a surprise nominee when the category’s contenders were first announced in November, and now certainly the most unexpected winner of the award in at least a decade. (You might have to go back to Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters victory in 2008 for an AOTY winner whose surprise seemed as genuine as Batiste’s on Sunday night.) It’s not an inexplicable selection: Batiste is very well-liked among industry insiders, and his We Are album is an impressive and genre-spanning affair that likely appealed to voters with more classic sensibilities, while the glut of contemporary pop stars in the category (Rodrigo, Eilish, Doja Cat, Lil Nas X, Taylor Swift) may have ultimately hurt each of their individual chances. Somewhat jaw-droppingly, it’s also the first album by a Black performer to win the award since Hancock, a streak we should all be glad to see broken. However, Batiste is not otherwise the kind of winner to quell notions of the Recording Academy’s membership being out of touch with current trends; the set peaked at No. 86 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, spawned no hit singles, and received only a handful of reviews in mainstream publications.
Ultimately, it was probably unrealistic to expect the sort of unplugged nature of the 2021 broadcast to mark a way forward for the Grammys, rather than a single-year aberration — nor was it practical to expect another repeat of last year’s compelling array of timely big winners. For the Recording Academy, which already had to delay the awards for two months due to omicron-variant scares, business as usual is likely good enough for these Grammys, which still packed their fair share of stunning performances and rewarding wins. But with ratings that have long been declining as the show’s runtime keeps expanding, it feels pretty risky to ask fans to embrace a three-and-a-half-hour awards show that gets its biggest stars out of the way early, and ends with Jon Batiste accepting the marquee award and acclaimed country duo Brothers Osborne playing over the end credits. The Grammys may officially be Big again, but that doesn’t mean they’re too big to fail.