After a tumultuous political year, the Grammys took a stand for the rights of women and immigrants — but the top awards went to a singer whose mind is on sex, booze and parties.
The surprise sweep by Bruno Mars has renewed criticism in quarters that the music industry’s premier prizes are out of touch with the wider world, but for fans of the retro R&B and funk star, he is an undisputed talent who provides exactly the type of joy the world needs right now.
The Recording Academy, the group of 13,000 professionals who vote for the awards, had seemed set to change the narrative this year, with hip-hop for the first time dominating the nominations.
But rap mogul Jay-Z, who led with eight nominations, left New York’s Madison Square Garden empty-handed. Kendrick Lamar, who has given musical voice to the Black Lives Matter movement, for the second time swept the rap awards but was shut out in the general categories.
During the televised broadcast, President Donald Trump was skewered, stars defended immigrants facing deportation and Kesha’s powerful performance punctuated the growing #MeToo movement to end sexual harassment.
The singer, who fought her label to stop working with a producer she says raped her, delivered her autobiographical song “Praying” with palpable ferocity.
But Kesha was also passed over for awards, with “Praying” edged out for Best Pop Solo Performance by Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” about putting the moves on a woman at a bar.
– ‘Least threatening artist’ –
Mars won Album and Record of the Year for “24K Magic,” whose title track speaks of the sight of hot women “waking up the rocket” in his pants, and Song of the Year for “That’s What I Like” about making love in high style.
His victory triggered an avalanche of social media postings questioning whether Mars really represented 2017 in music.
The satirical site The Onion summed up much of the criticism with the headline: “Bruno Mars Takes Home Coveted ‘Least Threatening Artist’ Award.”
Justin Vernon of experimental rockers Bon Iver, who won the Best New Artist Grammy in 2012, wrote on Twitter that while Mars had a “fun voice,” the singer “made a name in the INDUSTRY by making hits OUT of hits of yesteryear.”
Others faulted the Grammys for snubbing “Despacito,” the most-streamed track in history.
At a precarious time for Spanish-speaking immigrants as well as hurricane-hit Puerto Rico, “Despacito” would have been the first non-English song to take a top Grammy since the very first awards in 1959.
The fate of “Despacito” entered the political arena, with Democratic Senator Bob Menendez tweeting that the song by Puerto Ricans Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee was “robbed.”
– Proud of roots –
But Mars, whose real name is Peter Hernandez, does not lend to a simple narrative. He is himself partially Puerto Rican and also has Jewish, Filipino and Spanish ancestry.
The 32-year-old from Hawaii in an interview last year with Latina magazine voiced pride in his Puerto Rican heritage and suggested that he took a stage name to avoid being pigeon-holed as a Latin artist.
He has rarely spoken overtly about politics, instead of explaining that he sees music’s power to excite and unite.
Alisha Lola Jones, an assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Indiana University, said Mars deserved praise for acknowledging his debt to R&B and funk greats rather than appropriating them.
At the Grammys, Mars credited towering African American songwriters Babyface, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Teddy Riley for inspiring him.
Many scholars of African American culture “actually appreciate that as he draws from the tradition, he’s telling us the history,” Jones said.
“African American tradition does not always have to protest. Folks who are true to the tradition do as Bruno Mars suggests, which is get people up and moving.”
But she said that Mars’s high-energy dance routines could be an easier sell at the Grammys than Lamar, who put on a symbolism-rich performance with camouflage-clad dancers dropping to the ground to simulated bullets.
Mars “does a palatable music industry performance that folks can digest, where Kendrick Lamar, in contrast, has folks on edge,” she said.
Another possibility for Mars’s victory is that with multiple hip-hop stars in competition, he benefited from a split in the vote.
Recording Academy president Neil Portnow hinted at that theory, telling reporters: “When you look at five nominations (in a category), the math of how that works out and who votes for whom is a little unpredictable.”
Whatever the reason, the Grammys also face another issue. Initial figures from Nielsen said that 19.8 million people watched the show, a drop of more than one quarter from last year and the lowest in a decade.