In that moment, just a few feet separated Adele and Beyoncé, but the chasm between their treatment by the Grammys was huge, and potentially unbridgeable. It was #GrammysSoWhite come to life. For years, Kanye West has complained about how black artists — himself, but also others — are mistreated in the main Grammy categories. This year, Frank Ocean, fatigued with the Grammys’ handling of black music, opted to not even submit his music for consideration. (The other big all-genre category, best new artist, was won by a black artist, Chance the Rapper.)
The Grammys’ race problem is so pernicious that some white winners have chosen contrition over exuberance — Adele’s embrace of Beyoncé, Macklemore’s apology to Kendrick Lamar in 2014 (Macklemore reportedly did not submit his most recent album for consideration this year) — demonstrating a greater understanding of the fundamental imbalance of the Grammys system than the Grammys themselves.
Despite minor rule changes and lip service to the idea of better representation, the Grammys remain on the defensive. In the days leading up to this year’s telecast, the show’s longtime producer, Ken Ehrlich, deflected Mr. Ocean’s criticisms in an interview with Rolling Stone, earning a rebuke from Mr. Ocean on Tumblr: “Use the old gramophone to actually listen bro, I’m one of the best alive. And if you’re up for a discussion about the cultural bias and general nerve damage the show you produce suffers from then I’m all for it.”
The Grammys’ consistent celebration of tradition-minded white acts feels like single-party rule in an evenly divided nation, while the royalty from the other side — Beyoncé and Jay Z, Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna — looks on politely from the front rows. (Or, in the case of Mr. West and Mr. Ocean, who did not attend the Grammys, not even looking on.) There was also frisson in the ceremony’s lumpy attempts to bridge the age gap: When the show tried to highlight the work of Neil Diamond, via a clumsily executed version of James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” routine, it was clear that most of the assembled stars didn’t know the words to “Sweet Caroline.” And in a country in which around 15 percent of the population — more than 50 million people — speaks Spanish, there were no Spanish language, or even bilingual, performances. The language was only heard during the in-memoriam segment, and in a Johnnie Walker ad that featured a pointed bilingual cover of “This Land Is Your Land” by the Los Angeles band Chicano Batman.
Again, strictly controlled borders. It’s in these moments that the Grammys’ lack of imagination and tolerance contrasts with the general progressive political stances of the artists it celebrates. During the show, Ms. Lopez quoted Toni Morrison on the role of art in fraught political times. Katy Perry performed “Chained to the Rhythm,” her new anti-political-apathy single, with an armband that read “PERSIST” — a reference to Elizabeth Warren’s recent Senate silencing — and concluded in front of an image of the Constitution.
Beyoncé performed in a gold crown that suggested a futuristic Lady Liberty, and during her acceptance speech for best urban contemporary album, preached about the power of inclusion: “It’s important to me to show images to my children that reflect their beauty, so they can grow up in a world where they look in the mirror, first through their own families — as well as the news, the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the White House and the Grammys — and see themselves, and have no doubt that they’re beautiful, intelligent and capable.”
Honoring Beyoncé in categories devoted to black music goes part of the way to fulfilling that vision, but it’s where she’s not honored that feels more pointed: She has won 22 times, but only four of those awards have been in all-genre categories. (She has lost album of the year three times, to Beck, Taylor Swift and Adele.)
So long as the Grammys continue to strike a blow for the values of yesteryear over the energy of today, they will remain an agent of the status quo, not resistance or evolution. But when an institution stands still, while its citizens are pressing for change, how long can the borders hold before everyone outside is let in, or everyone inside decides it’s not worth staying and leaves?
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