The brilliant 64th Annual Grammy Awards went a long way to helping me recover from the slap in the face that was the 94th Annual Oscars. There is now a concatenation of awful things happening the world over to knock us sideways: the horrors in Ukraine, the pandemic, global warming, corrosively divided politics, mass shootings… and yet that slap hit me hard, ricocheting through the international news cycle for days. Why??
For me the Oscars have always been a time out, a night to indulge all my illusions about stars and glamor, and to enjoy a fantastically entertaining celebration of what artists do and what that means in the culture. It’s also a chance to peek behind the curtain and see who the real people beyond the characters they play might be. To watch them, vulnerable, waiting in the dark, hoping to be seen and accepted — it’s what every human being wants. It’s reassuring to know that somehow we are all the same, that we are all in whatever this is– together. I have never missed a show since I was a child, either on TV or on the red carpet from which I reported live for over 20 years. There’s nothing I haven’t seen– the streaker, Sacheen Littlefeather declining Brando’s Best Actor Oscar, Jack Palance doing onstage push ups, Bjork wearing a swan, and more recently the night the wrong best picture was announced.
But nothing, NOTHING, prepared me for what Will Smith did– a funny, talented, charismatic, international superstar’s naked assault on a fellow performer in front of a global audience minutes before winning this year’s Best Actor Oscar. I wanted everyone’s best self up there onstage that night. He showed us the worst. For me it was a surreal cultural tipping point in a world that is spinning out of control, where the time absolutely feels out of joint, where facts aren’t facts, reality has been destabilized, and the problems bearing down on us require a stance that seems increasingly out of reach: compassion, collaboration, and creativity. I wanted that night to provide a stage for the vast array of moving, exciting, revelatory stories that were told this year, and a celebration of the extraordinary level of artistry required to tell them.
And so much of it was exactly that, a history-making awards event by any calculation. It was the first Oscar telecast featuring three female hosts–Wanda Sykes, Regina Hall, and Amy Schumer–who were fresh and funny, separately and together. The first openly queer actor and first Afro-Latina– Ariana DeBose –to win a best supporting actress Oscar for WEST SIDE STORY. The first time a male deaf actor won an Oscar, Troy Kotsur for CODA co-starring Marlee Matlin, the first ever deaf actor to win an Oscar. CODA, shot in Gloucester, went on to win the Oscar for best picture becoming the first ever best picture winner produced by a streaming service– APPLE +. It was the first time a woman was ever nominated twice for Best Director and the first year a woman won those honors twice in a row: Jane Campion for THE POWER OF THE DOG. It was the first time the Oscars were produced by an all-black production crew.
And then it happened, that ugly moment which shattered the vibe, the camaraderie, the celebration of the best. The incident became a Rorshach. Some attacked, others defended Will Smith for defending Jada. Some blamed Chris Rock for a bad joke. Some blamed Jada for not being able to take a joke. Some explained it as old, misplaced aggression the result of Will’s witnessing an abusive father assault his mother. Smith suggested it was “love” making him do crazy things. I can’t argue with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s take:
“With a single petulant blow, he advocated violence, diminished women, insulted the entertainment industry, and perpetuated stereotypes about the Black community.”
I also saw a complicated human being, propelled by conscious and unconscious impulses, overreacting in a highly charged, pressure-packed moment at god only knows what crossroads in his personal life. A human being in crisis. His acceptance speech looked like a breakdown; it was painful to watch him searching for a way forward and not finding it. I kept hoping he would own it and apologize, unequivocally, to everyone including Chris Rock. Instead, the light went out in that room and never fully came back on. His instagram apology later didn’t cut it. I was heartsick.
Then just as suddenly, the Grammy Awards telecast began to restore my faith. It was a blazing celebration of what awards shows can be and illuminate: compassion, boundless creativity, and humanity at its best. I loved that the leaders of production teams stepped out in front of the curtain to introduce the stars they support behind the scenes. I loved that the Grammy stage could hold such an extravagantly diverse array of mega talents and individual voices in one place, at one time, from BTS to Brandi Carlile; H.E.R. and Lenny Kravitz to Carrie Underwood; Silk Sonic to Sondheim; J Balvin to Billie Eilish; Olivia Rodrigo to Lil Nas X; Justin Bieber, Giveon & Daniel Caesar to Brothers Osborne; Lady Gaga singing tribute to Tony Bennett; John legend & Ukrainian artists singing in solidarity; and an extraordinary message from artist and Ukraine’s President Vladimir Zelensky— now an heroic actor on the world stage–who raised his voice in a cry for freedom and humanity:
“We defend our freedom. To live. To love. To sound. On our land, we are fighting Russia, which brings horrible silence with its bombs — the dead silence. Fill the silence with your music.”
And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, it did. Jon Batiste–whose band “Stay Human” is the house band on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert”–was the most nominated performer of the year. This singer, songwriter, dancer, instrumentalist, arranger, producer– took the stage to accept his 5th Grammy, the most awarded to anyone this year, and the final Grammy of the evening for his profoundly titled Album Of The Year: “WE ARE.” I was still euphoric from his performance of “Freedom” earlier that night when he could barely contain his own energy, his feet hardly touching the floor as he danced around the stage and into the audience landing atop Billie Eilish’s table in a climactic and exhilarating expression of life. His humble, beautiful acceptance speech instantly leveled the playing field and enveloped the audience in a soulful testament to what it means to be an artist– and what that means for all of us: