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Jeff Miers: Lamar rises above more-of-the-same Grammys

The Grammys are a yearly fashion show with a nagging music problem, and I for one am pretty much over it.

The abundant female talent in the industry is under-represented, the performance pairings feel gratuitous and arbitrary, and the artists who come closest to the Grammy mandate of honoring groundbreaking, culturally enriching music are given their awards off-screen and aren’t invited to perform.

Sunday's 60th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony, though the advance PR claimed it as the most diverse and inclusive gig in Grammy history, was largely more of what we’ve come to expect from the Recording Academy's yearly self-congratulatory bacchanal. Yes, this was the most hip-hop saturated Grammys yet, but it's not like hip-hop emerged as a major cultural force this year – the genre has been the most influential pop form for at least two decades.

Mainstream pop and country were well represented, but if you care about rock music, you were largely out of luck. No rock awards were given on air, and so many deserving rock albums were ignored in major categories that it felt purposeful and decidedly tone-deaf on the part of the Academy.

There were moments, of course, as there always are. The first came in the opening moments of the broadcast, as Kendrick Lamar and an ensemble of dancers absolutely crushed it with a fiery take on "XXX" – replete with U2 cameo and Dave Chappelle interjections – that suggested every performer following would be up against it.

As it turns out, Lamar was indeed a tough act to follow, though many performers gave it their all, and a few came close. Musically speaking – weird that I have to make that qualification, no? – Childish Gambino, the nom de plume of musician, actor and writer Donald Glover, came closest with a gorgeous, soulful rendition of "Terrified."

Elsewhere were well-executed but overwrought ballads from Sam Smith, Lady Gaga and Pink, all of whom sang beautifully but failed to make a case for … well, meaning something in the current climate, which is what Lamar has so masterfully done. (Ice T and Body Count did that, too, but we weren't privy to that, unless we tuned in to Grammy.com.)

Cardi B and Bruno Mars teamed for "Finesse," a pure '80s throwback that soared when Mars was doing his best Michael Jackson impression, and didn’t benefit much from Cardi B's brief introductory verse and follow-up. It was fun, but it wasn't particularly special.

Sting celebrated the return of the ceremony to New York City with "Englishman in New York," the refrain of which – "I'm an alien, I'm a legal alien" – had resonance beyond the moment. Shaggy joined in, to promote the pair's forthcoming collaborative album, and I'm shocked to admit that it worked. Rihanna with DJ Khaled and Bryson Tiller was just a mess, even with the Carlos Santana guitar sample.

"Tears in Heaven" was presented as a tribute to those who lost their lives in the mass murder at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas by Eric Church, Maren Morris and the Brothers Osborn, and it was powerful. How we have moved on from that massacre is still difficult to fathom. One hopes that music has helped.

Kesha was joined by Cyndi Lauper and Andra Day for "Praying," and the veil was lifted here, as the #MeToo movement was represented by an incredibly visceral performance by the singer. She all but broke down during the song's coda and once again, the evening's subtext was directly addressed.

U2 performing "Get Out of Your Own Way" on a barge in front of the Statue of Liberty was deeply moving, and echoed one of the underlying themes of the evening – the fact that our culture is the product of the imaginations, dreams, hopes and talents of immigrants. "Blessed are the arrogant, for theirs is the kingdom of their own company," yelled Bono through a megaphone at the song's apex, and yes, we know who he was talking to.

Speaking of the president, his bulky shadow hung over much of the evening, and not just because he Tweeted shade at multi-nominee Jay-Z earlier on Sunday. John Legend, Cher, Snoop Dogg, Cardi B, DJ Khaled and, hilariously, Hillary Clinton read from Michael Wolff's "Fire and Fury" in a pre-filmed bit that sufficed to throw shade back at Trump from, by extension, the entire music industry.

Popular music seems to stand in direct opposition to the current regime. But what does that mean? And where will it lead anyone on Monday morning, when Madison Square Garden has been swept up and swabbed down? Who knows?

This was Kendrick Lamar's year, and it's fitting that he took some top awards in a hip-hop saturated ceremony. He is an important artist, and his "Damn" is a significant album. Beyond this, the Grammys face the same quandary they've faced for a decade, one that was aptly encapsulated by an artist who was granted a Grammy prior to the broadcast.

“What happens in the music industry sucks a lot,” said the rapper Residente, winner of the Best Latin Rock Album in a pre-ceremony interview reported by Billboard.

“Everyone is paying attention to numbers, numbers, numbers. And anyone can be relevant if they show their butts on Instagram. And I hate numbers, I hate math and that's why I became an artist. So I think that I dedicate this Grammy to all the people who do true art. The people who perform in small places, because they don’t care about the money, they don’t care about the sales, they only care about art.”

That sounds like a good place to start.

Email: jmiers@buffnews.com

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