By the end of the 62nd Grammy Awards on Sunday evening, a major star had been crowned: 18-year-old singer Billie Eilish, who swept all four of the night’s biggest prizes — Best New Artist, Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Album of the Year — along with honors for Best Pop Vocal Album.
But that rush of awards came only at the tail end of a long, strange and emotionally ambivalent ceremony held Sunday night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
The evening was far from the fizzy, uplifting celebration that the music industry, and the Recording Academy, the organization that gives out the prizes, had anticipated just a few weeks ago. But the organizers of the ceremony seemed to still be pressing towards joy, no matter what.
The death of Los Angeles basketball legend Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash just hours before the awards, coupled with an ongoing scandal within the Recording Academy that has rocked the music business, meant that this year’s televised ceremony was straining under a heavier load than usual — and the flames onstage during several of the live performances were nothing compared to the fire that the Academy is attempting to douse behind the scenes, which include explosive allegations, including sexual misconduct and financial and voting improprieties, levied by the organization’s recently suspended CEO, Deborah Dugan, who was placed on leave earlier this month.
In recent years, especially as major black musicians like Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar have lost out in the top categories, the Grammys have become a target of critics arguing that the Academy was falling out of touch — or worse, using stars to boost ratings without acknowledging their art. If anything, the 2020 awards were supposed to be a celebration of younger talent — and most especially female and diverse artists, with serious contenders for major awards that also included Lizzo, Lil Nas X, Ariana Grande, H.E.R. and Lana Del Rey.
It initially felt as if Lizzo might carry the night, especially after a joyous, triumphant opening medley and an early win, for Best Pop Solo Performance. But Eilish pushed past, picking up five total Grammys, becoming the youngest-ever winner of the Album of the Year and Record of the Year prizes and the first female artist to sweep all “Big Four” categories. (She is only the second person ever to do so, after Christopher Cross in 1981.)