The Grammys pulled off an impressive feat in its 60th year: giving its biggest prizes to the safest possible work—and still making it feel like a shock.
When Bruno Mars, the 32-year-old master craftsman of nostalgic pop, swept Song of the Year (for “That’s What I Like”), Record of the Year (for “24K Magic”), and Album of the Year (for 24K Magic), it could hardly be called a surprise. Mars makes hits as reliably as Nestle makes chocolate bars. The Grammys are notorious for rewarding broad-appeal pop grounded with traditionalist musical chops. More than one viewer cracked that we could now think of Bruno Mars as the new Adele, even though the multiracial Mars does break a decade-long whiteness streak for Album of the Year.
But Mars’s wins also prevented a few milestones. Hip-hop has not produced a winning Record or Song of the Year in Grammys history, and it hasn’t produced an Album of the Year since 2004. If ever there would be a time for the spell to be broken, it would have seemed to be the year rap/R&B became America’s most-listened-to genre, the year of monster commercial and critical success by nominees Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Logic, and others.
Mars, to be fair, has real talent and works hard to be so huge, and he’s not unconnected to the rap world. Take for evidence his performance of “Finesse,” a New Jack Swing confection featuring emcee of the moment Cardi B. With its kindergarten color palette and early ’90s bounce, it was the kind of throwback that somehow feels novel. You could also take as evidence his suave Album of the Year acceptance speech, in which he hinted there was something political in making everyone dance. But when he closed by shouting out Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich and president Neil Portnow, it reinforced the suspicion that he was mainly being rewarded for paying industry insiders’ rents through a steady stream of content viable at Super Bowls and Supercuts.