By sheer acclamation, the biggest winner of last night’s Grammy Awards probably wasn’t any of the night’s pop acts—including Taylor Swift, who won Album of the Year for “1989”—but instead a Broadway musical called “Hamilton.” Depending on your social context, you’ve probably heard either absolutely nothing or far, far too much about “Hamilton,” a hip-hop musical on American history that puts the guy on the $10 bill front-and-center. The story of “Hamilton” is a legitimately incredible one. The racially diverse and musically adventurous play reclaims American history from the dusty halls of the National Archives—and in the process, reclaims Broadway, which hasn’t had a cultural moment so hip and relevant since “Rent” in the ‘90s. During last night’s live telecast, the Grammys sent their feed outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles to the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City, where the “Hamilton” cast performed the opening number for their play, and later accepted the award for Best Musical Theater Album.
For the vast majority of the viewing audience who had never seen the show, it was a taste of something entirely new—rapped lyrics, its multiethnic cast, and the tense, exultant joy of creator, writer, composer, and star of “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda, as he both performed the lead role and then accepted the Grammy with a jubilant cast around him.
“Hamilton”’s moment—and the conversation around it, which ranged from rapturous to critical—was a reminder of what makes the Grammy Awards important, despite how frustratingly long and boring they often are. Television is the great democratizer of the live event, streaming something in one room to, potentially, hundreds of millions of people. Beyoncé tickets sell out in a presale flash and “Hamilton” tickets run for hundreds of dollars, sometimes breaking $1,000 in resale. But if you’ve already got a TV—or you can get to a bar—you can watch Bey at the Super Bowl, “Hamilton” in the Richard Rodgers, Kendrick Lamar at the Staples Center, and Lady Gaga doing whatever Lady Gaga does.
The Grammys are the music industry’s chance to sell American music to the American people, whether that’s through a clip reel of the concerts they could be going to or the sense of shared history that pop music can deliver. In other words, it’s the Hard Rock Café—but the length of seven sitcom episodes, and there is no food. The Grammys can’t quite reproduce joy of a great concert or the feeling of first listening to a great album to you, but it can try really, really hard to make you remember—by digging up the performers of the top 40 radio that haunts you in shopping malls, bar bathrooms, and Uber pools; by saturating you with tributes and nostalgia for aging musicians wielding some kind of legacy; by bringing together unlikely artists for a type of concert experience that will never (and maybe should never) exist again.
But as HBO’s tiresome “Vinyl” reminds us, the music industry has changed, man. Last night’s Grammy Awards felt like an advertisement for music that didn’t quite know what product it was selling. Child stars that have turned into raunchy pop musicians seemed to be a product—as did violent-sounding longhaired men playing guitars. (One of them was Johnny Depp. It was weird.) Lady Gaga’s spirited if disorganized David Bowie tribute/medley segued directly into an advertisement from Intel, starring Gaga, on how the Bowie segment was made. (Hint: Intel was inside.) A long Target ad starring Gwen Stefani on rollerskates aired live and was almost indistinguishable from one of the Grammys onstage acts. Adding to the very strong sense of faded glory, every single segment appeared to be a tribute or an in memoriam—for Bowie, B.B. King, Glenn Frey, Lionel Richie (still alive), Lemmy Kilmister, and more. And meanwhile, logistical difficulties plagued the show: Adele’s performance was marred by a microphone error. Beyoncé was late. Lauryn Hill ditched. Rihanna called in sick. Kanye West—who is currently staging one of the biggest and weirdest album debuts in music history—didn’t bother showing up. The camera kept zooming over to Taylor Swift, to see her reaction, as if it would be a) authentic or b) sympathetic. The Grammys weren’t selling or defining music as much as it kept asking, over and over again, like an emo teenager: “What are we?”
Music has long been about identity, both in the way it’s listened to and in the way it’s marketed. Sometimes that’s covert—“anything but country”—and sometimes it’s engraved on the subgenre’s Grammy. These are lines and genres defined by race and ethnicity and culture, and the self-appointed job of the music industry is to sand down the differences between them enough to make them all somewhat universally palatable—or keep them in their separate categories, where they won’t cause too much trouble.
But this year’s Grammys demonstrated a lot of anxiety about those identity silos. Kendrick Lamar’s performance off of his sophomore album “To Pimp A Butterfly” was an explosive showcase of those anxieties—addressing and making central the experience of black Americans, from mass incarceration to African roots. The performance ended with a map of Africa, except labeled “Compton,” a stunning commentary. But most enlightening was what was happening offstage. There was a moment during his set where the camera panned off of Lamar and to the audience—a mass of shocked faces, as far as the eye could see, eyes very wide and lit by the glow of the onstage bonfire. The viewing audience on Twitter loved it, but this was an expression of identity that didn’t sit well with everyone present. Perhaps the goal was to do something a little less obviously coded—like Pitbull calling Sofia Vergara onto the stage for his finale number, or some lackluster patriotism deployed right before the country music award announcements.
Compared to all of this fug, no wonder “Hamilton” felt like the winner of the evening—it was a breath of fresh air. The musical is about racial and ethnic identity, but it is also about expanding and transcending it; this sense of freedom and possibility from the performers was on display just a few times at the Staples Center, and every instance was in short supply. It does not escape my notice that in order to find some heart, the Grammys had to physically leave the Staples Center, Los Angeles, and most of the music industry behind. Comedy writer Jake Fogelnest observed during the telecast: “I think… I think I hate music?” Maybe when we leave the Grammys notion of “music” behind, we can really start having some fun.