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Searching for "Good TV" at the 2017 Grammys

On the pants-less, flask-slinging, award-breaking moments

Last week, Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich and writer David Wild used their appearance on a Rolling Stone podcast to shed some light on Frank Ocean's recent differences of opinion with the awards show. They claimed any chilly feelings stemmed from Ocean's widely critiqued 2013 performance of "Forrest Gump," in which he stood in front of a projection screen that made it look like he was running down a road.

"Frank had a very definite idea of exactly what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it,” Wild said. “Ken said, 'That’s not great TV,' and what he’s taught all of us is, we’re not putting on a radio show. We’re not making a mixtape. We’re broadcasting on CBS to tens of millions of people, to the whole world, and you have to make it a TV moment and a musical moment that works on television."

Ocean promptly responded in a Tumblr post, acknowledging that his 2013 performance was "absolute shit" — but also critiquing the implicit bias and out-of-touch air of the Grammys as a whole. "Your show puts [viewers] to sleep," he wrote. "Use the old gramophone to actually listen, bro." His comments point toward one of the biggest questions left unanswered by Wild and Ehrlich's complaint: What even is "good TV" when it comes to the Grammys?

The 2017 Grammys seemed to be defined as much by their blunders as by any groundbreaking TV moments. Adele stopped her perhaps too-somber tribute to George Michael minutes into the performance to announce a re-do, tears in her eyes, and to let a few curse words fly. Lady Gaga's performance with Metallica was marred by the fact that James Hetfield's microphone was off for a huge chunk of the song. Twenty One Pilots, upon accepting their award for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, decided to do so pantsless. It was ostensibly a callback to a tradition from their younger days of watching the Grammys in their underwear — but it played more like a joke on the ceremony itself. Isn't it crazy we've just won a Grammy? Let's make it even weirder by going up on this legacy stage in our underpants. And don't even get me started on having no one around to accept David Bowie's posthumous award for Best Rock Song except for The Chainsmokers.

There were highlights, of course — particularly Beyoncé's stellar, spiritual performance and a much-needed, explicitly political stance from A Tribe Called Quest. But those moments were far and few between. Confined to tiny, minimalist stages, most artists were paired together in ill-fitting mash-ups or tributes: Demi Lovato sings the Bee-Gees? Kelsea Ballerini and Lukas Graham combine their weepy odes to man-children into one song? Often the most thrilling thing about the Grammys seemed to be Rihanna, who did not perform or win in any of her seven nominated categories, but frequently took swigs from a bedazzled flask in the audience. "I think it's time to take a shot," she mouths in a widely shared clip.

Many fans think of the Grammys as the stuffier, more mature and middle-of-the-road counterpart to awards shows like the MTV VMAs or the BET or Billboard Music Awards. One big reason is that the Recording Academy voting body has taken far too long to acknowledge hip-hop as American popular music’s lingua franca — or to duly recognize the work of people of color in general. "The voting bloc is still too white, too old, and too male," said an anonymous R&B producer in an article last year on the Grammy voters. Several musicians, like Drake, Justin Bieber, Kanye West, and of course Frank Ocean, decided to ditch the 2017 ceremony entirely. Last year Rihanna didn't even show up, and she was performing.

So it doesn't exactly help an awards show struggling to remain relevant when many of the most talked-about moments the next day are the cracks in its facade, many of which were hammered there by artists themselves.

"I can’t possibly accept this award," Adele said in her acceptance speech for Album of the Year, with tears in her eyes, as the camera then panned to Beyoncé, who also had tears in her eyes. "And I’m very humbled and I’m very grateful and gracious. But my artist of my life is Beyoncé. And this album to me, the Lemonade album, is just so monumental." At the end of the night, Adele broke her Grammy in half, Mean Girls prom-tiara-style, reportedly so she could give Beyoncé a piece.

It seems that "good TV," if it exists when it comes to the Grammys, happens when artists speak frankly about the failings of the very stage they're on. We live in an age when bad TV registers instantly — and while that noise is typically separate from the charades we watch onscreen, where people are perpetually gracious and thankful for being acknowledged, the 2017 Grammys felt different. This is a show where we were excited to see the shiny trinket awarded to music's "best" get broken in half, in a direct affront to the voting body's way of doing things. For once, it's artists, not viewers, crying about how wrong the Grammys are, in real time, from the stage. Perhaps it's time for the producers to think harder about what "good TV" really means for a modern awards show.