Billie Eilish reigned supreme at the Grammys on Sunday night, winning five awards including best new artist, album of the year and song of the year for Bad Guy – a high point for Generation Z on a night otherwise defined by solemnity for those who have passed too soon.
The shadow of basketball legend Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others mere hours before the show, loomed large over a ceremony held at the Staples Center in which he played for the Los Angeles Lakers for over 20 years. “We’re all feeling crazy sadness right now,” said returning host Alicia Keys to a room in which Bryant’s retired jersey numbers shone brightly overhead. “We’re literally standing here heartbroken in the house that Kobe Bryant built.”
Bryant’s death marred a ceremony already jaded by controversy surrounding the awards’ governing Recording Academy. The Academy’s president, Deborah Dugan, was recently ousted following allegations of sexual misconduct; Dugan countered with a legal filing last week in which she alleged sexual harassment and voting corruption in the company, and that her predecessor Neil Portnow raped an unnamed female recording artist. It’s only been two years since Portnow said female artists needed to “step up” in order to be recognized, a comment which spiked long-simmering frustration with the Grammys’ diversity of voting and awards.
But while last year’s ceremony showcased feisty defiance and shout-outs to female empowerment, this year’s event mostly sidestepped any swipes at the recording academy in favor of vulnerability and remembrance. Tributes to Bryant rained throughout the show, from opening performer and pop solo performance winner (for Truth Hurts) Lizzo to DJ Khaled to a strategically placed jersey in Lil Nas X’s staging of Old Town Road. DJ Khaled and John Legend sang Higher, a rousing tribute to the late rapper Nipsey Hussle, who was shot and killed in Los Angeles at 33 last April. Demi Lovato returned to the stage for the first time since she nearly died of a drug overdose in July 2018, to belt Anyone, a song she wrote four days before the hospitalization; choked by tears, she stopped and started the song over. Best country album and song winner Tanya Tucker, accompanied by Brandi Carlile on piano, silenced the room with Bring My Flowers Now, a chastened song on cherishing your loved ones while you can. “We all think we got the time until we don’t,” she sang.
Still, there were plenty of the usual and much-hyped “Grammy moments” –collaborations meant to hype audiences across genres and age, such as Aerosmith re-teaming with Run DMC for a chaotic rendition of their 1985 crossover hit Walk This Way. Tyler, The Creator brought in Boyz II Men for a concept piece from his best rap album winner Igor, and Usher slickly saluted Prince with help from a pole-dancing FKA Twigs.
Along with Eilish, who performed her hit When The Party’s Over with brother Finneas, the ascendant generation of performers represented high points for the stage. Spanish sensation Rosalía flamenco-danced her way through Malamente, Lil Nas X remixed Old Town Road again with assists from Billy Ray Cyrus (with whom he won best pop duo performance), K-pop band BTS, Mason Ramsay and a banjo-slining Diplo. The Jonas Brothers returned to the Grammy stage in triumphant black and gold suits and Ariana Grande re-enacted her music video for 7 Rings, complete with returning an engagement ring to its box.
The big winner, however, was Eilish, who won the night’s three biggest awards in the last half hour of the telecast, leaving her seemingly both bowled over and exasperated. “I think Ariana deserves this,” she said of her win for album of the year for her debut, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? “I’m not going to waste your time – thank you very much.”
“We wrote an album about depression and suicidal thoughts and climate change and being a bad guy, whatever that means,” added her brother and collaborator Finneas, who also won for producer of the year, non-classical. “We stand up here confused and grateful.”