Grammys 2021: Women sweep awards shaped by pandemic and protest

Taylor Swift poses in the press room with the award for album of the year for "Folklore" at the 63rd annual Grammy Awards at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Sunday, March 14, 2021. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP) Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

The 63rd annual Grammy Awards combined splendor, star power and pandemic-era versatility Sunday night to celebrate the music that emerged in a deeply challenging year, highlighting the Black Lives Matter protests and — after years of pointed criticism for past slights — the role of women in pop music.

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With touring artists grounded and fans stuck at home, and the music industry pulling in billions of dollars from streaming yet criticized by artists over pay, the music world has been upended for the past year.

But the producers of the show promised a night of respect and togetherness, with a novel outdoor setting in downtown Los Angeles in which performing musicians faced each other while performing — and then gathered, masked and socially distant, to politely applaud each other’s acceptance speeches.


Women won all the night’s major awards. Megan Thee Stallion, the sparkplug Houston rapper who described her young ambition as to become “the rap Beyoncé,” took best new artist, and her song “Savage” — which featured Beyoncé as a guest — won for best rap performance and for best rap song.

“It’s been a hell of a year, but we made it,” Megan Thee Stallion said when accepting best new artist, while downtown traffic roared.

Billie Eilish, the 19-year-old who swept the awards last year, took record of the year for “Everything I Wanted,” and told Megan Thee Stallion: “You deserve this.”

Taylor Swift won album of the year for “Folklore,” which she made entirely in quarantine. It was her third time winning that coveted prize. (She lost each of the five other awards she was nominated for this year.)

Beyoncé, the pop deity whose every move is hyper-analyzed online, won four awards, bringing her lifetime total to 28 Grammys — more than any other woman, and equaling the total for super-producer Quincy Jones.

Accepting the award for best R&B performance for her song “Black Parade,” which was released just as protests were breaking out last summer, Beyoncé said: “As an artist I believe it’s my job, and all of our jobs, to reflect the times, and it’s been such a difficult time.”


Even Beyoncé’s 9-year-old daughter, Blue Ivy Carter, took home a Grammy, her first: best music video for “Brown Skin Girl” (which she won with her mother and WizKid).

In an upset, the singer-songwriter known as H.E.R. won song of the year — beating Beyoncé, Eilish, Swift and Dua Lipa — for “I Can’t Breathe,” a fist-in-the-air anthem for Black Lives Matter, with lines like “Stripped of bloodlines, whipped and confined/This is the American pride.”

“We wrote this song over FaceTime,” H.E.R. said, accepting the award, “and I didn’t imagine that my fear and that my pain would turn into impact, and that it would possibly turn into change.”

Other moments highlighted Black protest, pride and anger. Lil Baby performed his song “The Bigger Picture” as a dramatic showdown with riot police, and featuring a speech in which activist Tamika Mallory said: “President Biden, we demand justice.” And rapper DaBaby, in a glittery white suit and Chanel brooches, sang “Rockstar,” another protest anthem, while conducting a choir of older white singers who danced along.

At other points, the theme was togetherness amid the pandemic, with an undercurrent of anxiety for things to get back to normal — especially in music.


Accepting best country album, for “Wildcard” — a category in which all the contestants were women — Miranda Lambert thanked the Grammys “for putting us together and letting us at least kind of be together and say hi,” and then called out to her band and crew: “I miss the hell out of y’all.”

Dua Lipa won best pop vocal album for “Future Nostalgia,” and Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” took best pop solo performance.

The Grammys are usually the music world’s big moment each year for glitz and self-congratulation, with flashy performances and the minting of new pop royalty.

But this year the show itself was buffeted by the pandemic. Originally planned for January, it was delayed by six weeks because of rising coronavirus numbers in Los Angeles. And the event, normally a mega-production inside the Staples Center, had to be adjusted for safety.

“Tonight is going to be the biggest outdoor event this year besides the storming of the Capitol,” the night’s host, Trevor Noah, announced at the start of the show, televised by CBS.

The most noticeable change was the performance configuration, in which performers faced each other but kept at a distance. A shirtless Styles, in a leather jacket and feathery boa, opened the night as Eilish nodded along admiringly. The sisters of Haim and the rock-soul duo Black Pumas held their instruments, waiting their own turns. They were the kind of interactions that music fans used to see every night, but have been starved for since March 12, 2020, when virtually all live music shut down.


Swift sang a medley of songs from her twin pandemic albums “Folklore” and “Evermore” looking like a woodland heroine from a Maxfield Parrish print.

Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B performed their ribald hit “W.A.P.” — “Wet, wet, wet,” they sang, one of the many censored versions of a song that is defiantly raunchy.

Latin superstar Bad Bunny sang “Dákiti” with purple and blue lights dancing off his chain-link vest, and dance-pop queen Dua Lipa — the best new artist winner two years ago — led her hit “Don’t Start Now” surrounded by dancers in silvery face masks.

Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak debuted their new project, Silk Sonic, like 1970s “Soul Train” crooners in three-piece suits and wide lapels.

In an extended “in memoriam” segment, Lionel Richie paid tribute to Kenny Rogers; Mars and Anderson .Paak feted Little Richard; Brandi Carlile sang John Prine’s “I Remember Everything,” and Brittany Howard and Coldplay’s Chris Martin honored Gerry Marsden of the Merseybeat group Gerry and the Pacemakers.

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