A Big Night for the Grammys’ Rookie Class

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Tyler, the Creator’s performance at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards on Sunday night began with what felt like a familiar Grammys energy. Onstage for a performance of his song “Earfquake,” he was joined by the R&B titans Charlie Wilson (who is on the original track) and Boyz II Men — a meeting of genres, a smorgasbord of generations. A Grammy Moment™, as it were.

Then Tyler, wearing his white-ish bowl-cut “Igor” wig, stepped to center stage and transitioned to “New Magic Wand,” a harsh electro-industrial number. The performance was wild — emphatic inhales and exhales, sharp shouts, zombie-walk dancing and, finally, unhinged moshing. About 20 Igor-alikes, an array reminiscent of Eminem’s breakout performance at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards, accented the scene, all captured by what may well have been the Grammys’ first-ever moshing-along camera.

A little later in the show, Tyler won best rap album for “Igor” and gave an enthused, amused and sweetly sincere speech in which he spoke of “growing up feeling left of center to a lot of stuff that I saw on TV” and thanked his friends for putting up with his “annoying hyperactive energy.”

By far the most transfixing personality on this year’s show, Tyler is not the sort of musician the Grammys have historically made much room for: He is relatively young (28), black, and from the world of hip-hop, though “Igor” is an especially offbeat entrant in that category.

But this year may well be remembered as one of severe, jolting transition for the Grammys, and not just because of the behind-the-scenes conflagration about conflicts of interest, irregularities in the nomination process, sexual harassment and more that overshadowed the event. Instead, Sunday night’s show featured several impressive moments spotlighting some of pop music’s youngest innovators: Tyler, Lizzo, Billie Eilish, Rosalía. And while there were plenty of the usual serious-as-a-snore Grammy performances, they faded from memory thanks to the night’s cleverest and hungriest attendees.

That there’s room for those performers on the show now is, in part, a positive side effect of the institution’s own necrosis. The Grammys have systematically alienated a whole generation or two of hip-hop and pop stars, many of the most crucial musicians of the last two decades. Think about everyone who was not in attendance this year: Drake, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Kendrick Lamar. What’s left? The veterans who are a part of the show’s firmament, but more intriguingly, the new kids on the block.

Lizzo — who won three Grammys, and who received the most nominations, eight — opened the show with a winning performance of “Cuz I Love You” and “Truth Hurts,” backed by an orchestra and flanked by ballerinas in tutus and durags. She sang with bluesy authority, rapped with frisky fervor and, naturally, played the flute.

The sneakily traditional Billie Eilish won five awards, including a sweep of the biggest categories: album, song and record of the year, and best new artist. (Her brother and producer, Finneas, also won trophies for producer of the year, non-classical and best engineered album, non-classical.) Her performance of “When the Party’s Over” was supple if a little sleepy. (It was just two years ago that Lorde, nominated for album of the year, wasn’t even offered a solo performance slot.)

But perhaps the most promising performance, and the one best attuned to pop’s increasing unpredictability — never a Grammys strength — was the multi-ring circus that was Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” which reigned atop the Billboard Hot 100 for a record 19 weeks last year, aided by a seemingly unending string of remixes.

Rather than turn “Old Town Road” dour, perhaps with a performance by some country elders, the Grammys leaned into the mayhem. Lil Nas X performed on a rotating stage cut into sections representing different versions of the song: one featured BTS, the K-pop supernova; another held the child yodeler Mason Ramsey and Diplo absently strumming a banjo; yet another was seemingly built for Young Thug, who was a no-show.

At the end, everyone — including Billy Ray Cyrus, whose appearance on the original remix vaulted the song to pop novelty infamy — convened together, dancing and partying and generally indulging in the utterly absurd unlikeliness of it all. It was like a Technicolor meme convention, a gathering of misfits, and perhaps the most honest representation of the new pop-economy rule making that the Grammys have ever seen. It also, conveniently, displaced a lot of the performance pressure off Lil Nas X, who won two of the six Grammys he was nominated for — he’s still very green, and it shows.

The “Old Town Road” performance — not the night’s best, but certainly the most delirious — also presented a possible solution to at least part of the Grammys crisis at hand. Turning the show into a showcase of up-and-coming talent and de-emphasizing legacy acts would make for a more dynamic telecast than the sorts of sluggish-heart-rate performances that veterans favor, and that rising performers are often pushed into. (Though there were plenty of those, too, of course — the third hour, in particular, was a slog. Grammys gonna Grammy.)

The flickers of life gave a kind of hope for a new generation of talent whose relationship to Grammy acclaim is both genuine and also salted with just a touch of skepticism, or whimsy. No one appeared to be having more fun than Lizzo, who provided one cheeky reaction shot after another, and who briefly screamed alongside Steven Tyler of Aerosmith when he strolled past her during “Livin’ on the Edge.” In the second part of his performance, Lil Nas X was joined by actual Nas — or “Big Nas,” as he called himself — who’s never won a Grammy despite earning 13 nominations and being one of the most important and gifted rappers of all time. That he was willing to be in on the joke on a stage this huge was a true reflection of the changing times.

Before Eilish won album of the year, her fourth of five awards, the cameras captured her mouthing, “Please don’t be me, please.” Tyler, who tweeted a decade ago that winning a Grammy was one of his goals, did a bit of protest work backstage in the press room, as well. When asked about the recent Grammy controversies, he was frank: “Half of me feels like the rap nomination was just a backhanded compliment. Like, my little cousin wants to play the game. Let’s give him the unplugged controller so he can shut up and feel good about it.”

Truly updating and reforming the Grammys will require the participation of artists who understand its limitations, but still believe in it as a platform. After Tyler won his award, he tweeted about how excited he was to get played off the stage, a classic awards show indignity. There may be a new generation ascending, but the old Grammys are unlikely to go down without a fight.

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