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Every Grammys 2018 Music Performance Ranked
Last night, the big Grammys went to the wrong people, but you expected that. You also expected some fierce and political performances. It is the way of the Academy: reflect our turbulent moment in history with an eclectic and electric roster of live performers, then chuck the three top awards at our new Lionel Richie. Today, as CBS viewers Google “SZA,” pop fans download Rainbow, and Fox News’ prime-time screamers write their responses to Kendrick Lamar, let’s rank last night’s 19 live performances, from least-impressive to most-Rihanna.
19. Sam Smith – “Pray”
You know what you’re going to get with a Sam Smith. You know he’s going to be painfully earnest and sing about heartbreak in front of a choir. You know he’s going to shift bashfully from one foot to the other, press a hand to his chest like an abandoned Lachey brother, and sound like he’s underwater. You do not expect him to do it dressed like Beaker from The Muppet Show.
18. Little Big Town – “Better Man”
When a successful country act does a big awards show in New York, the producers always make a big deal out of it. Like: Look at the juxtaposition! A li’l ol’ down-home jug band right here in the city! And so it was with Little Big Town, styled like secondary Vanderpumps, serving windswept drama on what looked like the roof of a Manhattan skyscraper. Everybody settle down; country music is popular everywhere, even in cities with tall buildings, and none of us will forget that Little Big Town’s breakout single was about motorboating.
17. Sting & Shaggy – “Englishman In New York” / “Don’t Make Me Wait”
At this particular moment, a song about a wealthy white immigrant’s feelings of isolation in 1980s America doesn’t seem quite appropriate. If Sting were trying to say anything about the immigration debate in 2018, it was so subtle as to not register at all. But the Sting-Shaggy collaboration from the full album they’re releasing in April is awfully catchy, even if there is no conceivable reason for any of it to be happening.
16. Eric Church, Maren Morris & Brothers Osborne – “Tears in Heaven”
Speaking of questionable choices, a song about an accidental death in a tribute to the victims of the Las Vegas shooting seems a little off; it’s not like those 58 people all fell out a window. It is even stranger to put the song in a key that’s too low for any of the performers, and to give the big finish to Eric Church, who sort of just squeaks and beeps.
15. Logic, Khalid & Alessia Cara – “1-800-273-8255”
Pivoting off Chester Bennington’s card in the in-memoriam segment, a performance we’ve seen before, by a rapper we would never recognize if not for the glasses and the phone-number hoodie.
14. U2 – “Get Out of Your Own Way”
For this—for Bono and The Edge’s second performance of the night, for a warmed-over Coldplay track with limp self-help lyrics, for a chance for Bono to bellow into a stars-and-stripes bullhorn—we forfeit a Lorde performance?
13. Jon Battiste & Gary Clark, Jr. – “Ain’t That a Shame” / “Maybelline”
This is the Alicia Keys spot: the standard Grammy tribute to recently fallen legends, in which the most credible artists of the moment jam in front of black-and-white montages. It is what we talk about when we talk about the Grammys, and it is what was playing when we collectively went to the kitchen for a snack. And then after a tribute to Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, Jon and Gary gave an award to Ed Sheeran. Grammys, you’re weird.
12. Bruno Mars & Cardi B “Finesse (Remix)”
The problem with this performance is the problem with Bruno Mars in general. Sure, you can faithfully reconstruct the sound and aesthetic of 1991 new-jack pop, but why? Are you saying anything about it, are you updating it in any way, or are you just regurgitating? Are you an artist, or a Branson Hi-Five tribute act? Who are you, Bruno Mars?! Still, Cardi B in Cross Colours is always welcome.
11. Elton John & Miley Cyrus – “Tiny Dancer”
It was the “Wait a minute, Miley can really sing!” moment that our culture has already had a few times, and all I could think through the whole thing was: Isn’t Lady Gaga, godmother to Elton’s kid and powerhouse vocalist, already here for this? Has there been a rift?
10. Chris Stapleton & Emmylou Harris – “Wildflowers”
Just the kind of austere, generation-spanning tribute the Grammys are known for. Tom Petty deserved something a little more upbeat, something a little jammier, and maybe something a tiny bit earlier in the show, before we’d been pummeled by three-plus hours of spectacle and performative wokeness.
9. Lady Gaga “Joanne” / “Million Reasons”
The first of these songs is a tribute to Gaga’s dead aunt, and If you watched the Gaga documentary Five Foot Two, you saw her play a demo through an iPhone speaker for her grandmother. You saw Gaga try to wring some emotion out of the old woman, and you saw that old woman tell her, “My daughter died a long time ago, Stefani. Don’t be so maudlin.” It was, in many ways, the most Gaga thing that has ever happened. The most Gaga thing that happened last night was this performance, where she dressed up her piano like a giant dove and trotted out “Million Reasons” for the billionth time. Gaga remains a treasure.
8. Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee – “Despacito”
The song you could not escape in 2017, in its all-Spanish version. Luis and Daddy were entirely upstaged by their backup dancers, who slammed their genitals against each other so hard it counted as a secondary percussion instrument.
7. Pink – “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken”
For around the last decade, Pink has been as famous for being a circus act as for being a singer. You see her name on a list of awards-show performers, and you wonder whether this will be the night she finally shoots herself out of a cannon. So I’m happy to say that for the Grammys, she did the only shocking thing she has left to do: She stood there in a t-shirt and just belted. Now if we can only break her out of the ballad prison she’s locked herself in. We are ready for a new “There You Go,” Pink.
6. SZA – “Broken Clocks”
One of the year’s most exciting new artists, fresh off losing Best New Artist to Alessia Cara, one of the most exciting new artists of two years ago. She shook it off, let her backing singers take a seat, and introduced herself to the CSI-watching nation.
5. That Broadway Tribute
Ben Platt is one of the first superstars of this new era of musical theater, the one that kicked off somewhere around Spring Awakening. It’s an era in which the songs can sound like Something Corporate, an era in which a Jason Mraz can find himself on Broadway. It’s one where you take a perfect showtune like “Somewhere,” strip it down to piano and cello, and then do runs all over it. It is the era of the earnest young coffeehouse guy in musical theater. Patti LuPone was of course flawless on “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,” but let’s be honest: “Dressed up to the nines, at sixes and sevens with you” would have been eviscerated if Twitter had existed in 1981.
4. Kesha and Every Female Vocalist on the Planet – “Praying”
Kesha went for raw emotion over vocal perfection, and gave the night the shot in the arm it was needing, right at the perfect time. If the Academy hadn’t almost completely ignored Rainbow, the moment might have been even more triumphant. (Don’t make the same mistake; it’s one of the best albums of last year, and “Let ‘Em Talk” is a smash waiting to happen.)
3. Childish Gambino – “Terrified”
An album track, and not the catchiest choice for a Grammy performance, but Donald Glover wasn’t there to make you hum along. He was there to establish himself as an artist for the dozen people who haven’t noticed it yet. Mission accomplished. And then we went to commercial, and “Redbone” was used to shill Animojis, available only on the new iPhone X.
2. Kendrick Lamar – “XXX”
Matt Miller said it better than I could. The only way this could have been better were if Kendrick’s vocals had been mixed a bit higher; he got lost in the mix, and I don’t trust the people who needed to hear his words the most to go to Genius and read them.
1. DJ Khaled/Rihanna/Bryson Tiller – “Wild Thoughts”
DJ Khaled needs to take Bono’s advice and get out of his own way. This nearly-perfect performance was marred only by his constant yelling: “Come on!” “Don’t Stop!” “This the Grammys!” Khaled, please: the performance is going to go on whether you keep reminding it to or not. But the stage tableau was gorgeous, Tiller was in fine voice, and Rihanna’s dancing stank face made the entire night worth watching.