There’s nothing the Grammys like more than classiness. Many of the albums and songs to have won the top prizes have been ones that are handsomely, rather than raggedly, made; emotionally forthright but keeping themselves in check. And so it proved at the 2022 ceremony, where strong work of great classiness by Silk Sonic, Jon Batiste and Olivia Rodrigo secured the big prizes.
Silk Sonic’s Leave the Door Open is a very deserved winner of four awards, for record and song of the year, plus R&B performance and R&B song (the latter shared with Jazmine Sullivan, also the rightful winner of R&B album). With its immaculate session musicianship and vocal harmonising, it seems to be in conversation with R&B itself, lampooning the earnest lust of the late 70s and 80s iteration of the genre but not mocking it. There is a kind of sketch comedy detail to the way Anderson Paak makes sure all the bases are covered to seal the romantic deal, proffering fillet steaks and marijuana – but without such sumptuous songwriting it would have risked coming off as a Lonely Island-type parody. These wins mean Paak’s Silk Sonic partner Bruno Mars is now a 14-time winner, and Mars is perhaps the very vision of what the Recording Academy loves: technically brilliant, in tune with history and alive to love and sex without being threateningly erotic.
Jon Batiste is another person who is consciously riffing on musical history, creating a genre-spanning overview of Black American culture with We Are, which won album of the year (he also won four other awards). At times I found this album corny, like a Disney ride around jazz and hip-hop where you have to keep your hands very much inside the car – but there are some affecting moments such as the finely etched memories on Boy Hood, and his ambition, positivity and humanity cast a halo around even the more generic songs.
Olivia Rodrigo’s three wins in her breakout year included best new artist and best pop solo performance for the year’s best power ballad, Drivers License. Like the aforementioned winners, she can really sell a tune, and this isn’t faint praise. There is something actorly about her delivery – even on bedroom-trashing pop-punk songs – but she is so convincingly angry and hurt that she lifts pop into psychodrama, though still in a very family-friendly way (an F-bomb notwithstanding).
You could argue that artists with messier emotions and less contained artistry got shut out, such as Lil Nas X, whose variously waspish and self-lacerating album Montero was as good as pop music gets. Likewise Billie Eilish and her riveting portrait of corroded youth, Happier Than Ever, although perhaps voters consciously heeded her cringe at fame and indeed the very public lens that the Grammys puts its winners under. But Doja Cat, who could have been too purely vivacious for the Academy, thankfully won best pop duo/group performance with her determinedly horny song Kiss Me More featuring SZA. In recent days, she has spoken of wanting to retire – here’s hoping she can find a way to thrive through the chaos of pop, as she has the kind of joie de vivre that makes it worth turning on the radio.
Foo Fighters swept the rock categories, and while this wasn’t a sentimental choice – voting had closed before drummer Taylor Hawkins’ death in March – it did end up feeling apt: Hawkins’ spirited playing was the very essence of the genre. Another deserved winner was Baby Keem, who won best rap performance alongside Kendrick Lamar: a boisterous 21-year-old memelord whose command of both melody and distinct metre is startling.
Of course, classiness was notably absent in other areas. Some will have been discomfited by Kanye West’s two wins in other rap categories in the wake of an ugly barrage against ex-wife Kim Kardashian and boyfriend Pete Davidson – the post-divorce poignancy of his Grammy-nominated album Donda soured when he brought his anger and confusion outside the music and under the glare of social media. Ultimately, the Donda material is underrated and his winning songs are compelling – Jail’s fanfare of distortion is a wonderfully grand statement (and brings Jay-Z up to 24 wins overall) and Hurricane benefits from one of the Weeknd’s loveliest vocal melodies – and the voting cutoff was before West’s most sustained hounding of Kardashian.
The Academy’s starker ethical failure is in awarding Louis CK with best comedy album. In 2017, CK was accused by numerous women of sexual harassment, and he admitted to the allegations that he had masturbated in front of them. His Sincerely Louis CK comedy special may have its merits, and there is a ruthlessly punitive bent to our culture which denies that people can be rehabilitated and better themselves. But the Grammys carry greater meaning than “this was the best comedy album this year”, while also, in their win-lose binary, stripping out any complexity. Honouring CK ultimately sends the message that sexual harassers need not worry about their misdeeds, as a few years later they’ll be back to the very top of the US cultural tree. It is a bad call in a Grammys year that made a lot of the right ones.