In 2024, music award shows are defined more than anything by what (and who) they’re missing. Who got snubbed? Who should’ve performed but didn’t? Who didn’t bother showing up at all? In a moment where panic about the fading relevance and impact of so many of our past cultural institutions is consistently palpable, these questions of absence are usually what drives the most discussion and engagement relating to shows like the Grammys — to the point where they often overwhelm whatever and whoever actually is there.
That’s what made it so conspicuous that the 2024 Grammys, which took place in Los Angeles on Sunday night (Feb. 4), felt so, well, full. The artists who’d defined the previous year in music were basically all present and accounted for: six of Billboard‘s top seven picks for the Greatest Pop Stars of 2023 were in the building, with Morgan Wallen (whose relationship with the Recording Academy remains understandably frayed) the lone holdout. The top categories were suspenseful, and the wins cathartic, occasionally historic. The performances were a dazzling mix of contemporary pace-setters and all-time legends. The energy on the floor was buzzing — sometimes even a little too audibly during the quieter on-stage moments. It was the extremely rare three-and-a-half-hour award show that felt… not necessarily shorter than that, but not significantly longer either, an accomplishment in itself.
It was as successful a Grammys in providing just about everything you could want from the show that we’ve had in recent memory, very possibly one of the greatest Grammys in the telecast’s 54-year history. But it wasn’t quite complete, as the dearth of representation from a genre at the core of the show’s greatest issues in recent years lingered uncomfortably at its center — even being loudly and specifically called out on stage by one of the defining figures in the genre’s history.
Of course, this being an award show in 2024, the night began and ended (in near-exact bookends) with Taylor Swift. The world-conquering pop star showed up to her table midway through host Trevor Noah’s introductory remarks, mere seconds after his first mention of her, invoked like an awards-show genie. Swift would not be performing on the evening, but as she proved at the MTV Video Music Awards and even the Golden Globes in recent months — not to mention however many NFL Sundays — she was more than capable of dominating the evening with her mere presence, a constant cutaway as she danced and sang along and palled around with fellow superstar (and designated bestie for the evening) Lana Del Rey. And as with the last two VMAs, Swift also came armed with a major reveal: the April arrival of The Tortured Poets Department, follow-up album to 2022’s Midnights, which she announced while accepting the best pop vocal album Grammy for the latter set — officially ending one album cycle by kicking off the next, just in case you mistakenly thought she might be putting her imperial phase on pause for 2024.
And of course, that wasn’t the last award of the night for Taylor Swift or Midnights: It also emerged victorious in the final category, for album of the year. The win was a historic one for Swift, breaking her tie with Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra and making her the lone recording artist in history with four album of the year Ws. You could argue about whether or not Midnights was definitely the most deserving winner — in a loaded AOTY race, it was one of multiple plausible candidates — but not about whether it made intrinsic sense that Swift should emerge the biggest winner from Music’s Biggest Night, shortly after wrapping up Music’s Biggest Year of the entire 21st century.
Perhaps the ultimate testament to the strength of the 2024 Grammys, however, was that even with Swift looming so large on the evening, the rest of the ceremony didn’t feel particularly stuck in her shadow: Dozens of other winners, performers and attendees also made their presences memorably felt. Superstar singer-songwriters Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish both added chapters to their growing Grammy legacies with strong performances, the latter even picking up her second song of the year trophy and sixth (!!!) career Big Four win for “What Was I Made For?” Victoria Monét capped one of the most satisfying breakout years in recent pop history with her best new artist victory, true mainstream validation for a veteran pop songwriter who’d too long been stuck behind the scenes. And it was nearly as rewarding to watch a different kind of overdue industry acceptance bestowed upon Miley Cyrus, who — 15 years after “Party in the U.S.A.” — finally took home the first two Grammys of her brilliant career, best pop solo performance and record of the year for “Flowers.”
You may notice a common theme among all the artists mentioned so far, and it was one that continued throughout the evening: Grammy night was, first and foremost, a night of women. Executive producer Ben Winston had mentioned to the Associated Press that he’d raised the idea of an a “ladies’ night” at the Grammys with an all-female roster of performers and rightly been shot down; such a heavy-handed setup would’ve felt wildly unnecessary when the women present were clearly more than capable of controlling the evening regardless. From Karol G becoming the first woman winner of the best música urbana album award (for Mañana Será Bonito) to the long-absent Tracy Chapman reclaiming the spotlight (and her signature song) on her “Fast Car” duet with Luke Combs to Annie Lennox paying heart-stopping tribute to Sinéad O’Connor with an appropriately tearful rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” — to, yes, four different women artists taking home the Big Four categories, for the second time in four years — women across genres and generations were centered throughout. The most hardened Grammys skeptic would still have to admit gender equity has come a long way at the awards in the six years since “step up.”
And even among all the greatness on display on the Grammy stage on Sunday night, including long-overdue stage returns from Chapman and the 30-years-gone Billy Joel, special mention simply must be made of Joni Mitchell’s spellbinding rendition of “Both Sides Now.” Nearly a decade after Mitchell’s health situation seemed dire enough for many publications to start writing pre-obituaries for the legendary singer-songwriter, to get any kind of performance from her on the Grammy stage (the very first of her career, unbelievably) would seem a small miracle. But to get a version of “Sides” — a song that has soundtracked and defined countless life-changing moments among listeners for 55 years now — audibly imbued with the full weight of Mitchell’s own 80 years of experience and her deepened, weathered, but still singular voice, was a moment as indelible as the Grammys has produced. You could see it in the cutaways to the folks (again, mostly women) in attendance, perhaps best in the fighting-back-tears shot of acting GOAT Meryl Streep and daughter Grace Gummer, no doubt reflecting the reactions of thousands of mother-daughter viewer pairs watching from home. It was as profoundly raw and beautiful a living-legend showcase as the show could’ve hoped for, and will undoubtedly go down as an all-time performance in award show history.
But as much progress as the Grammys has clearly made in recent years when it comes to the representation of women, it continues to come up short in doing the same for Black music. Monét’s best new artist win saved the Grammys from the nightmare scenario of an all-white Big Four, but SZA was arguably the people’s-champ pick in the top categories this year — particularly for album of the year nominee SOS, which topped the Billboard 200 for 10 weeks and was only held from topping pretty much every 2023 year-end critics’ list by the fact that it technically bowed at the end of 2022. No shame in losing to Taylor Swift in 2024, of course, but with echoes of the similar fate that befell Beyoncé and Renaissance at last year’s awards (to a dominant-but-not-Swift-dominant Harry Styles and Harry’s House), complaints of it seemingly never being certain Black artists’ turn would hardly seem unfounded.
The audience got a specific reminder of Bey’s career snubbing in the general categories — she’s still never won album of the year, despite being the preeminent pop and R&B albums artist of her generation — from her own husband, rap god Jay-Z, during his acceptance speech for the Dr. Dre Global Impact Award. In addition to memorably airing grievances on his wife’s behalf, Jay also voiced the longtime and continuing frustrations for hip-hop’s perpetually poor showing at the awards, dating back to the first best rap performance award in 1989, which several nominees (including winners DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince) boycotted due to the award not being televised on the broadcast. He admitted that he and other rappers — even those who boycotted back in ’89, only to watch the awards from their hotel — still care about the Grammys: “We love y’all and we want y’all to get it right… At least get it close to right.”
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see what Jay thought about this year’s hip-hop winners, because the Grammys decided not to air any of the rap awards — Killer Mike, a beloved and recognizable figure in hip-hop but not a true crossover star, won in three out of the four — and rap played a minimal part at best in the general categories. (SZA’s chances may have even been hurt by her modern hip-hop leanings; the Recording Academy has historically preferred to reward R&B artists who are more retro-minded.) The irony, given Jay’s ’89-invoking speech, was certainly not lost on many viewers. It’s easy to point to much-discussed downward trending in hip-hop’s preeminence and the relative dearth of obvious four-quadrant rap releases on the calendar last year and say it was understandable for the Grammys to give hip-hop short shrift this year, but even in a down year, the genre remains music’s biggest by a wide margin. To see the Grammys’ relationship with hip-hop only getting more fraught in 2024 is concerning.
And while hip-hop was also under-represented in the performances — a frustrated Travis Scott Utopia mini-medley that felt a bit like an afterthought, particularly following Mitchell’s showstopper, was rap’s primary representative for the night — it wasn’t the only essential 2024 genre to be lacking on stage. Not getting a single Spanish-language performance in such a massive year for Latin pop, reggaetón and música Mexicana was inexplicable, and the awards’ continuing lack of interest in (non-BTS) K-pop also remains disappointing. In fact, non-English-language pop music of any kind was strangely missing from the telecast, with Afrobeats star Burna Boy’s multi-song performance serving as the lone indication of pop’s rapid globalization of the 2020s.
But even with these obvious blemishes, there’s no denying that the 66th Annual Grammys was the most vital the awards have felt in some time. The performances were blessedly lacking in the kind of third-hour filler that have dragged the broadcast down in recent years, instead showcasing pop’s current best and brightest, along with some true icons of the past. Even when controversial, none of the wins were outright perplexing, uniformly rewarding artists and works that truly felt crucial to the past year. And, well, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé were both there — a good start to any event’s case for being must-watch, center-of-the-culture fare right now. We’ll remember this year’s Grammys much more for what they were than what they weren’t. And that’s closer to getting it right than the great majority of award shows can claim in 2024.