Grammys 2020: Billie Eilish's triumph overshadowed but well-deserved

Alexis Petridis
Photograph: Steve Granitz/WireImage

Almost all awards ceremonies tend to come with a side order of controversy, but whatever took place at this year’s Grammys was clearly going to be overshadowed by what had happened before it. Just days prior to the event, Deborah Dugan, the former CEO of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences filed a lawsuit against the organising body, alleging sexual harassment and racial discrimination, accusing her predecessor as CEO of rape, and referring to “irregularities and conflicts” in the Grammys’ nomination and review process. The whole thing is so rigged, her lawsuit suggested, that an artist managed by a member of the Academy’s board was allowed to sit on the nomination committee of 2019’s song of the year award, a category they were both eligible for, and subsequently nominated in.

One unconfirmed rumour had Taylor Swift pulling out of a surprise performance at the 2020 awards in solidarity with Dugan. Then Sean “Diddy” Combs weighed in. His speech at Clive Davis’s pre-Grammys party apparently went on for 50 minutes. If you’d ever looked at glamorous red-carpet photos of that event and wished you were there, here was a reason to be profoundly grateful you weren’t. His central message, however, was clear: the Grammys are inherently racist. Not just hip-hop artists but black artists generally had “never been respected” at the awards, and it had to stop. “Y’all got 365 days to sort this shit out,” he declared.

You didn’t have to be a terrible cynic to feel there was a hint of damage limitation about the memo by Dugan’s successor, Harvey Mason Jr, that appeared the morning after Combs’ speech, admitting to a “culture that leans towards exclusion rather than inclusion”, and underlining that 17 of the 18 recommendations of the Academy’s diversity taskforce – which had released a blistering statement expressing its “shock and dismay” at Dugan’s allegations – had been implemented in December, including the promise to hire a diversity and inclusion officer, and an independent review.

‘It’s just a politically correct way to say the N-word’ ... Tyler, the Creator performs at the Grammys. Photograph: Rob Latour/Rex/Shutterstock

No one on stage on Sunday night mentioned Dugan’s allegations, although Tyler, the Creator – winner of the best hip-hop album award for Igor and responsible for the night’s best live performance, complete with burning suburban houses and a giant fake sink hole in the stage – let them have it with both barrels in the press room afterwards. “It sucks that whenever guys that look like me do anything that’s genre-bending, they always put it in the rap or urban category,” he said. “It’s just a politically correct way to say the N-word.”

Even without anyone mentioning it in their acceptance speeches, the events of the preceding days hung over the event: what price Camila Cabello singing mawkishly to her teary-eyed dad, one of the Jonas Brothers performing with food stuck in his teeth, or Usher gamely belting his way through a succession of Prince hits if the whole deal really is a racist, misogynist fix? And, if you wanted evidence that the Academy is a smug club, there was always the performance of I Sing the Body Electric, a song from the 1980 musical Fame and a fairly baffling choice – after all, nothing screams louder about the vibrancy of pop music in 2020 quite like a proggy showtune from a 40-year-old musical. It was conceived as a tribute to the event’s outgoing executive producer Ken Ehrlich, during which Broadway star Evan Hansen appeared to be staging a one-man protest by looking as if he had been corralled into performing at gunpoint.

Still, unless you were Lil Nas X – oddly overlooked for record of the year, given Old Town Road’s vast commercial success and its hopefully game-changing crossover appeal – it was hard to argue with the night’s big winner, Billie Eilish. It’s been pointed out that her path to fame isn’t quite as organic and homespun as it’s been sold, but on purely qualitative terms, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? reveals an artist with a singular and hugely impressive vision. As if to underline the fact, her understated performance of When the Party’s Over had more emotional punch than any of the event’s grandiose, wilfully tear-jerking tributes to late artists.

Related: 'I never wanted a normal life': Billie Eilish, the Guardian artist of 2019

Lizzo’s eight nominations yielded only two awards – best pop solo performance and best traditional R&B performance – but on stage she did her usual job of reminding the world why her career has crossed over from cult success into the mainstream: she can rap, she can sing, she can play the flute, she looks amazing, she’s both gleeful and charismatic.

For anyone looking on from the UK, meanwhile, the Grammys highlighted how little impact our home-grown artists are having on the world stage (the only big British winners were the Chemical Brothers, who swept the board in the dance/electronic categories) and how weird the event’s umpteen awards can seem from the outside. What the hell is “immersive audio”, a category won by Morten Lindberg for his work on Lux, an album by Nidarosdomens jentekor and Trondheimsolistene? Wither the new age award, in which Wings by Peter Kater beat albums with terrifying names such as Homage to Kindness and Fairy Dreams?

In fact, looking at the plethora of categories, it was hard not to concede that Tyler, the Creator had a point. There are so many of them that music becomes ghettoised into different genres and micro-genres, and it’s often difficult to grasp where the point of difference is supposed to lie: what metric decides that one track from Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You constitutes traditional R&B (Jerome) and another pop (Truth Hurts), but that the album in its entirety is urban contemporary? The result is that some awards start looking like consolation prizes, reinforced along racial lines: the nominations for the major, and most ostensibly “open” categories were supposed to be diverse, but no artists of colour actually won any of them. How different the Grammys will look in 2021, what impact its ongoing scandals have, remains to be seen.