“Life is pretty tumultuous now,” said Kacey Musgraves, after winning the biggest award Sunday night at the 61st annual Grammy Awards, the Album of the Year Grammy for Golden Hour. “I would have nothing if not for songs. It’s all about the songs.”
In fact, it was a night all about songs. This year’s host, Alicia Keys, brought home that message by performing what she called a “medley of songs I wish I wrote,” ranging from Scott Joplin’s 1902 “The Entertainer” through the 1998 hit “Use Somebody” by Kings of Leon.
“Those songs live inside of you and live inside of me,” Keys said. “Finally, you write the song that you wish you wrote.” She then passionately performed her own standard, “New York,” which grew out of the famously infectious chorus she wrote and performed for Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind.”
This year, the Best Song competition was distinguished in several ways. As opposed to the usual five nominees, there were eight. It also had the greatest amount of songwriters all nominated for this award in one year: a total of 35. Not one nominated song this year was written by less than three people, while “The Middle,” performed by Zedd, Maren Morris & Grey, was written by seven songwriters.
As songs reflect the culture, cultural shifts influence this category. For the first time, the Best Song Grammy was awarded to a hip-hop song, “This Is America,” written by Childish Gambino (a.k.a. Donald Glover) and the Swedish film composer Ludwig Göransson. Göransson, who also scored Black Panther, said the song was born during a single collaboration session in which a lot of ideas emerged, but that three years passed before it could be completed.
“Donald spent a lot of time,” he said, “perfecting the verses to make it as relevant as he could when it came out. There must have been 30 or 40 different versions before we landed on the one that struck him. I knew it was special when we were recording it, and when the video came out, I knew it was going to be gigantic, and we’re seeing that.”
Asked about the impact of this song, he said, ”I think it’s a very significant moment that we’re in right now, and this song is very much about now. I think it talks to so many people. It talks about injustice, it celebrates life and it unites people at the same time. Not a lot of songs now do that. It is something so many people can connect with. I feel like this song really shook the world, and it seems like it needed shaking.”
That “The Joke” was nominated for Best Song was also unusual, as it’s rare for a country song or Americana song to be nominated. Brandi’s album By The Way, I Forgive You also broke the barrier this year, being nominated for Best Album. Though it won neither Best Song or Best Album, it did take home Grammys for Best Americana Roots Song and Best Americana Roots Performance for “The Joke.” Asked backstage how she felt about “The Joke” being nominated for Best Song, she said, “I found it heartening. It made me hopeful that country can be considered along with more popular music.”
She said she was intensely nervous before performing on the Grammys, but was calmed greatly by the presence of one person she saw standing there. “She had total peace on her face,” Brandi said. “It was Janelle Monae. It really touched me. I lost all my nervousness. And I just sang to her. And everyone else rose to follow her. I won’t ever forget that.”
Mark Ronson, who wrote “Shallow” with Lady Gaga, spoke to us before the Grammys about the birth of this song. “Working with Gaga,” he said, “is like getting strapped into the space station. You put on the headphones, and you’re off on a journey. Sometimes it’s like a maze I help her navigate through, careful not to pollute the emotion. Mostly, it’s like working with a great master chef, and I’m a sous chef. She’s making this giant wonderful stew, and I’m holding up celery and saying, ‘How about this? How about carrots?’ My job is simply to help her get it right.”
Still, he’d make gentle suggestions which made an impact. “I suggested she play with the word ‘shallow,’ so she did that ‘sha-la-la-la-low’ thing,” which is beautiful. Though it is a classic song, it has a little of that naughty Gaga thing.”
“The biggest change I suggested to it is the structure. She has that beautiful, soaring chorus, and we were going to it right after the first verse. But I felt if we waited and repeated the verses more before going to the chorus, it would be far more dramatic. It breaks the rules of Songwriting 101, to get to the chorus fast. But I think that made all the difference. Because it is such a powerful shift when you get there.”
“There’s a lot of emotion and power in the song. Though we were writing it for the film, it’s a personal song. Your own baggage, for better or worse, can’t help but find their way into the things you’re writing, no matter who you’re writing for. Some songs I work on have a lot of emotion, and get inside people, and that’s beautiful.”
Weird Al Yankovic won his fifth Grammy for Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package, along with art directors Meghan Foley and Annie Stoll. Asked how being a song parodist has changed since pop music has shifted away from traditional melody, he said, “Melody is not that critical. In fact, a rap song is easier to write. Because a pop song can be repetitive, and there’s no shortage of words in a rap song. It might be harder to determine what’s mainstream — a hit that everyone would know — because we don’t live in the mono-culture of the ‘80s anymore. But you deal with the hand you’re dealt.”
As to how he writes funny songs that last, he said, “You need to choose topics that are evergreen. People ask why I don’t do political humor. One reason is that it has such a short shelf life. These days anything in the political zeitgeist is old news literally 24 hours later.”
Blues legend Buddy Guy won the Best Traditional Blues Album for The Blues Is Alive And Well. Despite that title, he was less than optimistic about the future of the blues. “I am not sure it has a future,” he said. “You never hear it on the radio anymore. So I don’t know what to tell you. But it won’t stop me from playing the blues. I started the blues and I’ll finish the blues.”
The Grammy for Best New Artist went to UK singer Dua Lipa, who did a dynamic performance with St. Vincent, combining St. Vincent’s “Masseduction” with “Respect.” Of St. Vincent, she said, “I was such a fan of her’s. Soon as we started, we really gelled. We got into a room together, and hashed out ideas. We didn’t want it to seem like two artists put on a stage together that had never hung out before. And the great thing about it is that I really made a friend. She’s extremely talented, and so open to trying things out.”
Kacey Musgraves, in a radiant red dress that woke up the weary press, was the last one to come back. The unexpected winner for Best Album, she said the album came from working with people she trusted, who allowed her to stretch out artistically. “There are people who always want you to stay the same. Which is okay. But it wouldn’t do anyone any good if I didn’t change. We needed to experiment. We worked in a little backyard studio in Nashville where we could throw paint at the wall and it felt good. I couldn’t have done it any other way. A song has to resonate with me inside or I can’t sing it. It is not fun for me to try to construct something that doesn’t feel good to me. It has to be real or I can’t feel it.”