Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Support NHPR's local journalism that brings clarity, context, and community!

For 20 Minutes, The Grammys Transcend The Awards-Show Blahs

Kendrick Lamar performs "The Blacker The Berry" at the 2016 Grammy Awards, held Monday night.
Larry Busacca
Getty Images
Kendrick Lamar performs "The Blacker The Berry" at the 2016 Grammy Awards, held Monday night.

Sometime tomorrow, Linda Holmes and I will break down Monday night's Grammys telecast in a Small Batch edition of Pop Culture Happy Hour. And, for a variety of reasons, we're not likely to spend much time on the awards themselves.

The headlines there, after all, aren't shocking: Taylor Swift's 1989 won Album Of The Year, beating out Kendrick Lamar's more creatively ambitious and critically heralded To Pimp A Butterfly. Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars' "Uptown Funk" won Record Of The Year, which was hard to dispute, while Song Of The Year went to Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud," which was all too easy to dispute, if you're me. Meghan Trainor won Best New Artist, while the year's heavily nominated standard-bearers in rock (Alabama Shakes), country (Chris Stapleton), and hip-hop (Lamar) largely dominated their fields.

This Grammys transcended the usual awards-show industry showcase in two performances, set back to back in a manner that proved almost disorientingly powerful. First, the cast of Broadway's Hamilton performed "Alexander Hamilton" on stage in New York, giving many wannabe ticket-holders their first live look at the massively celebrated musical. That gave way almost immediately to a stunning Kendrick Lamar medley of "The Blacker The Berry" and "Alright," followed by a riveting, fiercely political new song — all of it as vital as anything seen on a Grammys stage. Then, with barely a moment for the audience to catch up, the Hamilton cast was awarded its inevitable Grammy, at which point composer and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda rapped a giddy, thrilling acceptance speech.

You'd be forgiven for thinking the rest of the show couldn't measure up, though grabby performances abounded, from a lengthy David Bowie medley performed by Lady Gaga to fine showcases for the likes of Alabama Shakes, Chris Stapleton and Andra Day. Even the wobblier moments — an Adele song that suffered from technical and vocal difficulties, a Lionel Richie medley that rarely cohered, an up-and-down Justin Bieber showcase — got people talking, which is, after all, one of any awards show's primary goals. This one achieved that. And, for about 20 essentially perfect minutes, it did much, much more.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.