Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Grammys 2021: Women sweep awards shaped by pandemic and protest

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

By Ben Sisario
Published: Mar 15, 2021

Beyoncé and Megan Thee Stallion accept the Best Rap Performance award for 'Savage' onstage during the 63rd Annual GRAMMY Awards at Los Angeles Convention Center on March 14, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

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.

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.

At an early ceremony at which 72 of the night’s 83 awards were handed out, Eilish and her brother, Finneas, shared best song written for visual media, for the theme song to the latest James Bond film, “No Time to Die,” which was delayed by the pandemic and still has not been released.

Early prizes also went to Fiona Apple, who won best rock performance for “Shameika” and alternative album for “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” a huge critical hit. (Hours before the show began, Apple posted online that she would not be attending because of the scrutiny it brings.) The Strokes, among rock’s brightest lights in the early 2000s, won their first Grammy, best rock album, for “The New Abnormal.”

This year’s Grammys also brought to fever pitch some of the controversies that have been surrounding the show and its parent organization, the Recording Academy, for years.

After the Weeknd, the singer of megahits like “Blinding Lights” — and the performer at last month’s Super Bowl halftime show — was shut out of the nominations entirely, critics of the academy noted the tendency for Black artists to lose out in the top categories, and also attacked the academy’s practice of using unaccountable expert committees to make the final choices about nominations in 61 categories.

The Weeknd himself (Abel Tesfaye) told The New York Times last week that he would boycott future Grammys in protest of those committees.

The awards also capped a tumultuous year in the music industry, with musicians losing the vital lifeline of touring but the business that surrounds them riding the popularity of streaming to new financial heights on the stock market and in private deals.

Some musicians, like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Stevie Nicks, reaped huge rewards by selling their song catalogs for sums in the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars — figures that seemed impossible just a decade ago, when the music business was widely seen as a ruined ship, sinking in a sea of digital piracy.

To survive, musicians have sold what assets they could, doubled down on creating content and toured via livestreams from their homes. Sarah Jarosz, who won best Americana album for “World on the Ground,” spoke to reporters on a Zoom call about making “lots of videos from here, in my living room, over the last year.”

The Grammys also highlighted the struggles of independent venues by having staff from four music spots — the Apollo Theater in New York, Station Inn in Nashville, Tennessee, and the Troubadour and Hotel Café in Los Angeles — present four awards.

Prine, the folk singer who died of COVID-19 last year at age 73, won two awards for his song “I Remember Everything.” Chick Corea, the jazz keyboardist who died of cancer last month at 79, also won two. Both men’s widows accepted their awards on their behalf.

Even in the Grammy celebrations themselves, hints came through of the tumult behind the scenes of the Recording Academy.

Controversies over the lack of minority representation at the Grammys went all the way down the ballot to the children’s music album category. Three of the five original nominees dropped out as a protest because no Black artists had been recognized.

Joanie Leeds, one of the two remaining nominees, won for “All the Ladies,” a tribute to great women, made with a long list of female collaborators. In her acceptance speech she cited a recent report about the poor representation of women in the music world, and sent a message to others in her field.

“We may be a small genre,” she said, “but we are really powerful. Let’s continue to be the change that we want to see.”


Record of the Year “Everything I Wanted,” Finneas O’Connell, producer; Rob Kinelski and Finneas O’Connell, engineers/mixers; John Greenham, mastering engineer (Billie Eilish)

Album of the Year “Folklore,” Taylor Swift

Song of the Year “I Can’t Breathe,” Dernst Emile II, H.E.R. and Tiara Thomas, songwriters (H.E.R.)

Best New Artist Megan Thee Stallion

Best Pop Solo Performance “Watermelon Sugar,” Harry Styles

Best Pop Duo/Group Performance “Rain on Me,” Lady Gaga with Ariana Grande

Best Pop Vocal Album “Future Nostalgia,” Dua Lipa

Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album “American Standard,” James Taylor

Best Dance Recording “10%,” Kaytranada featuring Kali UchisBest Dance/Electronic Album“Bubba,” Kaytranada

Best Contemporary Instrumental Album “Live at the Royal Albert Hall,” Snarky Puppy

Best Rock Performance “Shameika,” Fiona Apple

Best Metal Performance “Bum-Rush,” Body Count

Best Rock Song “Stay High,” Brittany Howard, songwriter (Brittany Howard)

Best Rock Album “The New Abnormal,” The Strokes

Best Alternative Music Album “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” Fiona Apple

Best R&B Performance “Black Parade,” Beyoncé

Best Traditional R&B Performance “Anything For You,” Ledisi

Best R&B Song “Better Than I Imagine,” Robert Glasper, Meshell Ndegeocello and Gabriella Wilson, songwriters (Robert Glasper featuring H.E.R. and Meshell Ndegeocello)

Best Progressive R&B Album “It Is What It Is,” Thundercat

Best R&B Album “Bigger Love,” John Legend

Best Rap Performance “Savage,” Megan Thee Stallion featuring Beyoncé

Best Melodic Rap Performance “Lockdown,” Anderson .Paak

Best Rap Song “Savage,” Beyoncé, Shawn Carter, Brittany Hazzard, Derrick Milano, Terius Nash, Megan Pete, Bobby Session Jr., Jordan Kyle Lanier Thorpe and Anthony White, songwriters (Megan Thee Stallion featuring Beyoncé)

Best Rap Album “King’s Disease,” Nas

Best Country Solo Performance “When My Amy Prays,” Vince Gill

Best Country Duo/Group Performance “10,000 Hours,” Dan + Shay and Justin Bieber

Best Country Song “Crowded Table,” Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Lori McKenna, songwriters (The Highwomen)

Best Country Album “Wildcard,” Miranda Lambert

Best New Age Album “More Guitar Stories,” Jim “Kimo” West

Best Improvised Jazz Solo “All Blues,” Chick Corea, soloist

Best Jazz Vocal Album “Secrets Are the Best Stories,” Kurt Elling featuring Danilo Pérez

Best Jazz Instrumental Album “Trilogy 2,” Chick Corea, Christian McBride and Brian Blade

Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album “Data Lords,” Maria Schneider Orchestra

Best Latin Jazz Album “Four Questions,” Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra

Best Gospel Performance/Song “Movin’ On,” Darryl L. Howell, Jonathan Caleb McReynolds, Kortney Jamaal Pollard and Terrell Demetrius Wilson, songwriters (Jonathan McReynolds and Mali Music)

Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song “There Was Jesus,” Casey Beathard, Jonathan Smith and Zach Williams, songwriters (Zach Williams and Dolly Parton)

Best Gospel Album “Gospel According to PJ,” PJ Morton

Best Contemporary Christian Music Album “Jesus Is King,” Kanye West

Best Roots Gospel Album “Celebrating Fisk! (The 150th Anniversary Album),” Fisk Jubilee Singers

Best Latin Pop or Urban Album “YHLQMDLG,” Bad Bunny

Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album “La Conquista Del Espacio,” Fito Paez

Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano) “Un Canto Por Mexico, Vol. 1,” Natalia Lafourcade

Best Tropical Latin Album “40,” Grupo Niche

Best American Roots Performance “I Remember Everything,” John Prine

Best American Roots Song “I Remember Everything,” Pat McLaughlin and John Prine, songwriters (John Prine)

Best Americana Album “World on the Ground,” Sarah Jarosz

Best Bluegrass Album “Home,” Billy Strings

Best Traditional Blues Album “Rawer Than Raw,” Bobby Rush

Best Contemporary Blues Album “Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?,” Fantastic Negrito

Best Folk Album “All the Good Times,” Gillian Welch and David Rawlings

Best Regional Roots Music Album “Atmosphere,” New Orleans Nightcrawlers

Best Reggae Album “Got to Be Tough,” Toots and the Maytals

Best Global Music Album “Twice as Tall,” Burna Boy

Best Children’s Music Album “All the Ladies,” Joanie Leeds

Best Spoken Word Album “Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth,” Rachel Maddow

Best Comedy Album “Black Mitzvah,” Tiffany Haddish

Best Musical Theater Album “Jagged Little Pill,” Original Broadway Cast

Best Compilation Soundtrack For Visual Media “Jojo Rabbit,” Various Artists

Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media “Joker,” Hildur Gudnadottir, composer

Best Song Written For Visual Media “No Time to Die,” Billie Eilish O’Connell and Finneas Baird O’Connell, songwriters (Billie Eilish)

Best Instrumental Composition “Sputnik,” Maria Schneider, composer (Maria Schneider)

Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella “Donna Lee,” John Beasley, arranger (John Beasley)

Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals “He Won’t Hold You,” Jacob Collier, arranger (Jacob Collier featuring Rapsody)

Best Recording Package “Vols. 11 & 12,” Doug Cunningham and Jason Noto, art directors (Desert Sessions)

Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package “Ode to Joy,” Lawrence Azerrad and Jeff Tweedy, art directors (Wilco)

Best Album Notes “Dead Man’s Pop,” Bob Mehr, album notes writer (The Replacements)

Best Historical Album “It’s Such a Good Feeling: The Best of Mister Rogers,” Lee Lodyga and Cheryl Pawelski, compilation producers; Michael Graves, mastering engineer (Mister Rogers)

Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical “Hyperspace,” Drew Brown, Julian Burg, Andrew Coleman, Paul Epworth, Shawn Everett, Serban Ghenea, David Greenbaum, John Hanes, Beck Hansen, Jaycen Joshua Greg Kurstin, Mike Larson, Cole M.G.N., Alex Pasco and Matt Wiggins, engineers; Randy Merrill, mastering engineer (Beck)

Producer of the Year, Non-Classical Andrew Watt

Best Remixed Recording “Roses (Imanbek Remix),” Imanbek Zeikenov, remixer (Saint Jhn)

Best Engineered Album, Classical “Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13, ‘Babi Yar,’" David Frost and Charlie Post, engineers; Silas Brown, mastering engineer (Riccardo Muti and Chicago Symphony Orchestra)

Producer of the Year, Classical David Frost

Best Orchestral Performance “Ives: Complete Symphonies,” Gustavo Dudamel, conductor (Los Angeles Philharmonic)

Best Opera Recording “Gershwin: Porgy and Bess,” David Robertson, conductor; Frederick Ballentine, Angel Blue, Denyce Graves, Latonia Moore and Eric Owens; David Frost, producer (The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; the Metropolitan Opera Chorus)

Best Choral Performance “Danielpour: The Passion of Yeshua,” JoAnn Falletta, conductor; James K. Bass and Adam Luebke, chorus masters (James K. Bass, J’Nai Bridges, Timothy Fallon, Kenneth Overton, Hila Plitmann and Matthew Worth; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and UCLA Chamber Singers)

Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance “Contemporary Voices,” Pacifica Quartet

Best Classical Instrumental Solo “Theofanidis: Concerto for Viola and Chamber Orchestra,” Richard O’Neill; David Alan Miller, conductor (Albany Symphony)

Best Classical Solo Vocal Album “Smyth: The Prison,” Sarah Brailey and Dashon Burton; James Blachly, conductor (Experiential Chorus; Experiential Orchestra)

Best Classical Compendium “Thomas, M.T.: From the Diary of Anne Frank & Meditations on Rilke,” Isabel Leonard; Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor; Jack Vad, producer

Best Contemporary Classical Composition “Rouse: Symphony No. 5,” Christopher Rouse, composer (Giancarlo Guerrero and Nashville Symphony)

Best Music Video “Brown Skin Girl,” Beyoncé, Blue Ivy and WizKid

Best Music Film “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” Linda Ronstadt

©2019 New York Times News Service