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Last Night’s Grammys Were About Drama, Drama, and Also Drama Print-ready version

From SZA killing the hell out of Bill to heartwarming performances by Tracy Chapman and Joni Mitchell, the show heaped on the surprises and once again failed to suck

by Rob Sheffield
Rolling Stone
February 5, 2024

SZA had a huge night. KEVIN WINTER/GETTY IMAGES FOR THE RECORDING ACADEMY

Remember when the Grammys used to suck every year? These days, nobody does. The Grammy ceremony has been on a historic roll ever since 2021, when they finally figured out how to stop doing a normal award show, and turn it into (as host Trevor Noah said) "a concert where we give out awards." Grammy Night now has blown up into a ritual that really feels like a full-blast fan celebration. Last night's excellent Grammy bash had no stupid comedy skits, no cringey presenter chit-chat - just memorable music moments, along with some dog-vomit ones. Oh, and drama. Loads and loads of drama.

Taylor Swift - you remember her, right? She made history as the first artist to win Album of the Year four times - but she also chose tonight to tell the world about her new album. Jay-Z roasted the Academy for getting hip-hop wrong, as well as never doing right by Beyoncé. Joni Mitchell brought the tears. SZA killed the hell out of Bill. Billie Eilish, Burna Boy, Olivia Rodrigo, Miley Cyrus, Dua Lipa, and so many other stars had glorious live moments. Hell, so did Billy Joel. Tracy Chapman sang with Luke Combs. Killer Mike was taken from the room in handcuffs, booked for battery over an "altercation." Oprah was in the audience, rocking hard all night.

Swift won Album of the Year for Midnights, setting a new record as the first four-time winner ever. Before that, she was in the three-timers club with Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, and Paul Simon (and the only female artist to win even twice). "Mind blown!" she said. "For me, the award is the work. All I want to do is keep being able to do this." She dragged Lana Del Rey up onstage with her, calling her "a legend in her prime." At this point, they're probably renaming the award Album of the Year: Taylor's Version.

But Taylor wouldn't dream of missing any opportunity to make a great big mess, would she? So she also dropped a bombshell tonight: her new album, The Tortured Poets Department, which is coming on April 19th. She broke the news early on, while winning Best Pop Album - her 13th Grammy. It's absolute insanity that she made an album in her spare time during the freaking Eras Tour, not to mention two new Taylor's Versions and her busy psy-ops schedule. It's the second straight time she's revealed her new album during an awards show - she announced Midnights during the VMAs, back in August 2022, or in the Taylor timeline, three Number One albums ago. 

Taylor also unveiled the album cover - she's going black and white again, like Folklore and Reputation - as well as a handwritten note. "All's fair in love and poetry," she signed it. "Sincerely, The Chairman of the Tortured Poets Department." (That album title absolutely screams the Return of Quill Pen Taylor.)

Jay-Z gave the funniest, saltiest speech of the night, picking up his Dr. Dre Global Impact Award. He went off about his wife Beyoncé never winning Album of the Year, despite winning more Grammys than anyone in history. "I don't wanna embarrass this young lady," Jay-Z said. "But she has more Grammys than everyone and never won Album of the Year, so even by your own metrics, that doesn't work." As for other non-winners, he didn't hold back. "Some of you are gonna go home tonight and feel like you've been robbed," he said. "Some of you may get robbed. Some of you don't belong in the category!" But he made no apologies. "When I get nervous, I tell the truth."

Accepting the Dr. Dre Global Impact Award alongside daughter Blue Ivy, Jay-Z shouted out his wife Beyoncé: "She has more Grammys than everyone and never won Album of the Year, so even by your own metrics, that doesn't work."

SZA had a huge night, doing "Snooze" and "Kill Bill," yelling "I did it! I did it!" in a homicidal moment of triumph. She also debuted a new song during an ad break, "Saturn." When she won Best R&B song for "Snooze," she gave the night's most emotional speech, running in late with a hug for presenter Lizzo. (SZA knows how to make a big Grammy entrance - a couple of years ago, she was on crutches, so Lady Gaga helped her up the stairs.) She told the crowd, "Sorry I'm out of breath because I was changing, then I took a shot and I ran here."

She gave a touching tribute to Lizzo, recalling their early days playing tiny clubs together. "I came really, really far," SZA said. "And I can't believe this is happening and it feels very fake." She also gave a shout-out to one of her fans - "Hi, Taylor!" - and ended with the words, "I'm not an attractive crier. Have a good evening."

Joni Mitchell broke hearts everywhere with "Both Sides Now." It was a big occasion - the first time she's ever played the Grammys, despite her many wins over the years. But she was here to make history. The 80-year-old Mitchell sat regally in an armchair, singing a song she wrote at 25 about "life's confusions," but with no irony - just going back to her old diary and finding new stories in it. She was supported by an intimate band including Brandi Carlile, who introduced her as "the matriarch of the imagination." She played with the lyrics in her deepest voice, singing, "They shake their heads and say, 'Joni, you've changed!'" By the end, she was laughing softly to herself, thumping her cane, fully aware she had the whole room - and the whole world - under her spell. It was a rock-star moment for the ages.

Miley Cyrus rocked "Flowers" in her Tina Turner-cosplay fit, in a powerhouse performance, asking the crowd, "Why are you acting like you don't know this song?" She was the night's first winner, accepting her award from none other than Mariah Carey, then won again for Record of the Year. At the end of her speech, Miley said, "I don't think I forgot anyone, but I might have forgotten underwear."

Dua Lipa kicked off the night with a high-energy disco rush of "Dance The Night," "Houdini," and an unreleased banger, "Training Season." Karol G had (incredibly) her first Grammy win ever. "Hello everybody!" she said. "My name is Karol G. I am from Medellín, Colombia. This is my first time at the Grammys, and this is my first time holding my own Grammy!" Legendary. Victoria Monét had another one of the night's emotional highlights, when she won Best New Artist, for her major-label breakout smash, Jaguar II. "I like to liken myself to a plant, and you can look at the music industry as soil," Monét said. "I feel like today I'm sprouting, finally above ground."

Tracy Chapman made a comeback triumph, singing her 1988 folk-rock classic "Fast Car" with Luke Combs, who made it one of 2023's biggest country hits. (It won Song of the Year at the Country Music Awards, not a bad feat for a song she wrote in the Eighties.) This was Chapman's first public live performance in years, and she made it a massively poignant moment, as Combs gazed at her with a fan's reverence and awe.

Olivia Rodrigo sang a stripped-down, devastating, anything-goes "Vampire." Kacey Musgraves previewed her new music in a video with a falcon on her shoulder, raising hopes that Kacey might be entering her mega-glam Roxy Music Avalon era. Burna Boy became the first Afrobeats artist to rule the Grammy stage, doing it up in style with Brandy and 21 Savage. Billie Eilish did a gorgeous "What Was I Made For?," with her brother Finneas at the piano. When she took off her 1950s-style shades mid-song, she made it feel like a big dramatic flourish. When the song won Record of the Year, she told the crowd, "I'm shocked out of my balls!"

Lainey Wilson won Best Country Album for Bell Bottom Country, and gave one of the night's most touching speeches. "I'm a fifth-generation farmer's daughter," Wilson said. "I would consider myself a farmer, too. Everybody that I surround myself with, I think they're farmers, too - they're story farmers. It's about getting up every single day and planting those seeds and watering them and watching them grow."

On Grammy Night, you expect some suck farmers, and Travis Scott delivered with one painfully boring "Fe!n." U2 appeared live from The Sphere in Las Vegas, where their residency has earned a rapturous buzz, but given all the excitement, it was an odd choice to play "Atomic City," a little-known new song that doesn't exactly rank with their best - not the most flattering way to spend a high-profile Grammy spot. On the other hand, Celine Dion, making a surprise appearance to hand out Album of the Year, got one of the night's most loving ovations. "I love right you right back!" Dion said. "You look beautiful."

Billy Joel made an excellent return with his heavily-hyped - step right up - First New Song in 30 Years. (He actually released a new song 17 years ago, but nobody seems to remember it and that's probably for the best.) "Turn The Lights Back On" was a vintage BJ ballad, with a flashy piano-man solo, in the mode of his underrated Eighties classic The Nylon Curtain. Billy closed the show with one of his Eighties hits, "You May Be Right" - but too bad he didn't do "Uptown Girl," considering that Olivia Rodrigo was right there in the room.

The memorial section was a show in itself, stretching past the 20-minute mark, starting with Stevie Wonder paying tribute to his old friend Tony Bennett. Annie Lennox sang "Nothing Compares 2 U" for Sinead O'Connor, with Wendy and Lisa, who played with Prince at the time he wrote it. (As every Prince fan was thinking, Wendy was at his side the night he met Joni - and played her "A Case of You.") Lenny Kravitz introduced Jon Batiste for a Bill Withers medley in honor of Clarence Avant. But Fantasia really blew off the roof with her athletic tribute to Tina Turner, shimmying all over the room with "Proud Mary." Tina also got a touching tribute from Oprah, who called her "our forever goddess of rock & roll." That's a crown that Tina will wear forever.

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Added to Library on February 5, 2024. (289)

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