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HOW THE GRAMMYS BROUGHT THE HEALING

The scandal that blazed like a dumpster fire throughout the week leading up to the Grammys—call it “Dugan-gate” if you must—was widely expected to put a damper on Music’s Biggest Night. At parties and meetings in the days before the show, speculation centered on how charges of voting irregularities, financial waste, sexual harassment and the purported cover-up of an alleged sexual assault within the Recording Academy would inform the tone of the night. How, insiders wondered, might this mess be addressed in the words of host Alicia Keys and assorted winners at the podium?

Then, mere hours before the broadcast was to commence, news broke of a fresh nightmare.

The sudden death of a hero like Kobe Bryant would’ve been devastating under any circumstances. But losing a figure so woven into the fabric of L.A.’s community, someone whose legend was burnished at Staples Center, the very temple in which the music world was preparing to assemble? When Kobe, who flew, crashed to earth, it cast an instant pall over the city and looked as though it might be the coup de grâce for Grammy.

And so, with hours to go, show producer Ken Ehrlich, Keys and their teams pivoted to acknowledge this loss and assuage the grief that flowed from crowds gathered in downtown L.A. to the far corners of the world. Ehrlich, whose swan-song show after 40 years already featured one extended sequence dedicated to an Angeleno suddenly claimed by violence—the late, lamented Nipsey Hussle—now had to scramble to accommodate this newest horror.

What’s remarkable is that in doing so, the Grammys found not just a groove but gravitas.

Much credit for this goes to Keys, whose abundant musicality, soul, compassion and authenticity rose to the formidable challenge of hitting just the right tone. It’s hard to think of any awards-show host presented with a higher bar, but she cleared it—balancing gravity and levity, virtuosity and humility, poignancy and playfulness. She sang, she played, she testified, she wept, she joked, all winningly. And perhaps because she’s accustomed to keeping time with one foot, she did all of this mostly without letting things drag.

The night’s performers, meanwhile, showed that music heals not merely with a big hook and production values but by diving into whatever emotions we’re feeling. So heartbreak ballads and songs that took on depression, addiction and suicide—in other words, what the conventional wisdom would shun as a buzzkill—truly resonated. Artists like Billie Eilish, Lizzo, Demi Lovato and Tyler, The Creator have always articulated the pain and confusion their fans feel, and that subject matter felt especially pertinent at such a shattering moment.

This mix of artists—women, people of color, gay black men in pink—didn’t just “step up.” They stepped in, like first responders, taking the message of healing seriously. And rather than merely serving up spectacle and diversion as a painkiller, the show was much more about addressing our sorrow and rage head on, frequently via music that overflowed with those very emotions.

When Lovato, tears streaking her cheeks, plunged into her powerful new song “Anyone,” she provided a true catharsis. When Billie and FINNEAS performed “when the party’s over,” the crowd was hushed, attuned. When Tyler screamed in an inferno, walled in by bewigged doppelgangers, he held up a funhouse mirror to our own surreal apocalypse. When Camila Cabello sang tenderly to her father, there was an added pathos framed by events. When Gary Clark Jr. sang “paranoid and pissed off… in the middle of Trump country” before melting walls with his guitar, his fury was a thunderclap at our corrupt, racist rulers. The Nipsey tribute (especially thanks to John Legend and the dynamic Kirk Franklin) turned mourning into uplift, as did the sweet New Orleans jazz coda to the In Memoriam segment.

And even moments of lightness, such as Lil Nas X’s guest-heavy romp, underscored Grammy’s cherished ideals of inclusion and diversity.

Truth hurts, but let’s speak some anyhow. Moments of fluff and nostalgia largely didn’t land. The rockers who ruled the landscape in prior decades looked, frankly, decrepit. Dancing in lingerie seemed out of step with the vibe. The show didn’t escape that familiar overstuffed feeling, especially in its final hour.

But Ehrlich’s personal farewell, a star-studded “I Sing the Body Electric” from Fame, embodied much of what makes the event special. Rather than take the stage for his bow, Ehrlich—seen white-bearded in the control room during show bumpers, his visiting grandkids in his lap—assembled a joyous celebration of the arts and arts education that was all about how music lifts us up.

“Body Electric” was adapted from the words of the great American poet Walt Whitman, another white-bearded mover of our culture. Whitman’s importance to the modern liberal vision of inclusion and peaceful coexistence cannot be overstated. A lesser-known fact about him is that he was a nurse during the Civil War, where he tended the wounds of America’s young.

In a similar way, amid divisive battles, in the midst of deafening, terrible and often random devastation, the Grammys went about the business of tending our wounds.

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