Will politics strike a note of dischord at the Grammys?

February 11, 2017 GMT

Awards season has brought with it impassioned speeches from television and film luminaries about everything from the travel ban to transgender rights.

Now it’s music’s turn.

When the Grammys are telecast live Sunday from Staples Center, expect to see an entire other entertainment industry air its grievances and express its hopes — for peace, justice and tolerance in a time of heightened political awareness. Today, for instance, Super Bowl commercials are parsed for hidden meanings and critiques of the Trump administration.

The music community, in particular, has been long outspoken in favor of progressive causes, whether in the antiwar statements of Bob Dylan or the female empowerment of Madonna’s declaration to “Express Yourself.”

Yet Grammy television-viewing audiences Sunday night may be hard pressed to find that same sort of urgency in the nominated songs. The top nominees are largely apolitical, be it the nostalgia of Lukas Graham’s “7 Years” and Adele’s “Hello” or the pop frivolity of the Justin Bieber oeuvre.


Maybe Bey

Beyonce is one of the few top nominees whose 2016 work felt attuned to the mood of a divided and often angry nation. It’s in the same spirit of many of the films and television shows that have marked this awards season.

Compare the wish-I-were-younger sentiment of Twenty One Pilot’s “Stressed Out” or Mike Posner’s thoughts on pop stardom in “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” with the productions winning awards at the Emmys, Golden Globes or SAGs — “black-ish,” “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” “Veep,” “Hidden Figures,” “Moonlight.”

One could make the case that popular music has ceded its place as the rebellious, outspoken, countercultural sibling of the three big entertainment industries.

“The last decade has been somewhat passive in terms of popular music, less searching, less challenging, provocative,” says Neil Portnow, president/CEO of the Recording Academy and Grammy Foundation.

Yet recent work by Beyonce, John Legend, Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar — some of which is eligible for nomination this year, some not — does signal that a number of popular music’s most cherished artists were leaning in rather than out.

‘People just need a break’

This year’s Grammys will likely capture that shift, one that no doubt will only become more pronounced with a highly divisive, conservative administration.

“Sometimes people just need a break, to catch their breath, but it certainly appears that there is again a resurgence of music being made now that’s a combination of a reaction to politics and forward thinking; to inspire people toward agendas that have just been sitting there awhile,” Portnow said.


Grammy telecasts have seen their fair share of politicking, be it the very intentional duet of Eminem and Elton John in 2001 after the rapper was criticized for homophobic lyrics, Springsteen shouting “Bring ’Em Home” in 2006 at the height of the Iraq war, or Kendrick Lamar walking out as part of a chain gang during his “The Blacker the Berry” performance last year.

The topical music up for awards this year — Beyonce’s “Lemonade” and Chance the Rapper’s “Coloring Book” — are more abstract in the way they react to adversity. Chance the Rapper’s gospel-infused hip-hop, for instance, finds hope in the communal strength of Chicago’s inner city.

“Popular music is most powerful in affecting change when it does not address politics head-on, as in topical songwriting,” says Alice Echols, professor of history at the USC and author of several books about the music of the ’60s and ’70s.

“Most songs of the 1960s, for the most part, they weren’t overtly political,” says Echols. ”‘Dancing in the Streets’ by Martha and the Vandellas. Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect.’ These are songs that are big enough to do a lot of cultural work, and … they’re inseparable from the civil rights movement that was going on. Janis Joplin didn’t sing directly about (equal rights), but she became a symbol of that because of her voice, her longing, the sense of something missing.”