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10 takeaways from the 2023 Grammy Awards: Whose big night was it?

Harry Styles accepts the album of the year award for <em>Harry's House</em> during the 65th Grammy Awards on Feb. 05, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Frazer Harrison
/
Getty Images
Harry Styles accepts the album of the year award for Harry's House during the 65th Grammy Awards on Feb. 05, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.

The Grammys love to brand themselves as "Music's Biggest Night," so it's fitting that this year's awards honored so many of music's biggest names. Beyoncé, Adele, Harry Styles, Lizzo, Kendrick Lamar and Bad Bunny all took home trophies during Sunday night's telecast, but some won bigger than others. Here are the storylines and takeaways that dominated the night.

1. The Grammys will have you believe this was Beyoncé's night.

The star, whose RENAISSANCE was a towering career highlight, did set the biggest Grammy record of them all: With four wins Sunday, she has won the most Grammys of anyone, ever, with 32. In your face, Georg Solti!

But this was Grammy Groundhog Day for Beyoncé: She wins big in specialized categories — in this case ones centered on dance/electronic music and R&B — but gets shut out when it comes time for the general categories. She's never won album or record of the year (which is to say, the Grammys' biggest prizes of all) and she was shut out there again in 2023. RENAISSANCE lost album of the year to Harry Styles' Harry's House, while "Break My Soul" lost record of the year to Lizzo's "About Damn Time" and song of the year (a prize honoring songwriters specifically) to longtime Grammy favorite Bonnie Raitt and her song "Just Like That." Beyoncé made history Sunday, but there's a glass ceiling the Grammys just won't let her crack.

2. Expect more talk about Grammy voters.

The Grammys gave out awards in 91 categories Sunday, and in 87 of them, the voters cast ballots in categories that roughly correspond with their areas of specialty. But when it comes time for the Big Four — album, record and song of the year, plus best new artist — everyone gets a say. This system makes a certain amount of sense, but it means the Grammys sometimes go haywire when the general categories roll around: The voting body gets older, whiter and more traditional in its tastes, and that shows in the results.

Virtually no one, including Raitt herself, imagined Bonnie Raitt winning song of the year this year, great as she is. But she's catnip to music-industry veterans, who've now given her 13 trophies, including Album of the Year in 1990. Samara Joy is a wonderful young jazz singer, but her win as best new artist follows a lengthy tradition of the Grammys celebrating pop-friendly jazz throwbacks like Norah Jones. And, though Harry Styles wasn't exactly a Grammy mainstay before this year, Harry's House hews much closer to approachable mainstream pop and rock than Renaissance, for example, or Kendrick Lamar's barbed epic Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers.

Lizzo celebrates her win of Record Of The Year for "About Damn Time" during the 65th Grammy Awards on Feb. 5, 2023 in LA.
Frazer Harrison / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Lizzo celebrates her win of Record Of The Year for "About Damn Time" during the 65th Grammy Awards on Feb. 5, 2023 in LA.

3. Lizzo's big win was a major highlight.

The irresistible "About Damn Time" was one of 2022's biggest and best pop songs, and the star's win for record of the year provided one of the night's great moments. Lizzo has made a habit of knocking her awards-show speeches out of the park and this win was no different, as she shouted out Prince (an early supporter and major influence) and Beyoncé. The singer has talked often about the doors she's had to smash down as a plus-sized Black woman who sings of self-love and affirmation. Winning one of the biggest Grammys of them all felt like a welcome coronation, especially given that it's a category even Beyoncé hasn't conquered.

4. The sound wasn't great, but one performance ruled them all.

The night was full of grabby performances, bookended by Bad Bunny and a star-packed DJ Khaled extravaganza. But a medley celebrating 50 years of hip-hop — overseen by Questlove of The Roots — provided one of the most exhilarating performances in Grammys history. This list isn't comprehensive, but the artists on display included Black Thought, Run-DMC, LL Cool J, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Salt-N-Pepa, Rakim, Public Enemy, Ice-T, Queen Latifah, Method Man, Big Boi, Missy Elliott, The LOX, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, Nelly, Scarface, Lil Baby, GloRilla, Too $hort and Lil Uzi Vert. Every few seconds seemed to bring someone new, but the set never felt enervating or unnecessarily chaotic. There were quibbles — it could have showcased more Southern sounds, Lil' Kim was in the building but didn't perform, and so on — but the result was just glorious.

From left: The Lox, Questlove (rear), City Spud and Too Short  onstage during the 65th Grammy Awards on Feb. 5, 2023 in LA.
Kevin Winter / Getty Images for The Recording Academy
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Getty Images for The Recording Academy
From left: The Lox, Questlove (rear), City Spud and Too Short onstage during the 65th Grammy Awards on Feb. 5, 2023 in LA.

5. The "In Memoriam" segment felt more personal than usual.

It's always fraught to package a year's worth of music-industry deaths as an awards-show segment: You're trying to do justice to many lives and careers without cheapening the proceedings with a mawkish performance — or, worse, an applause-o-meter. This year, they tried something a little different, breaking the package into several pieces that prominently highlighted a few of the biggest names. Kacey Musgraves paid tribute to Loretta Lynn by performing "Coal Miner's Daughter" as various names and faces were shown on a screen behind her. Takeoff, the Migos rapper, was memorialized by his uncle and groupmate Quavo, as well as members of Maverick City Music. And Fleetwood Mac's Christine McVie received a tribute performance by Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt and Mick Fleetwood. Those personal ties gave the package added poignancy.

6. The Grammys sure have a curious relationship with country music.

Country was represented through several of the night's performances – Chris Stapleton popped up alongside Stevie Wonder (!), Kacey Musgraves paid tribute to Loretta Lynn and Luke Combs had the unenviable task of playing right after that amazing hip-hop tribute. But country was shut out of nominations in all four general categories this year, and the country-specific category that did get televised (best country album) went to someone who wasn't in the room: Willie Nelson won it for the album he'd released on his 89th birthday, A Beautiful Time. (Nelson also won best country solo performance earlier in the day.)

Nelson has been astoundingly prolific in recent years, so it's easy to lose track of which recordings might rise to the level of "Best Country Album." A Beautiful Time is his 98th record, an astonishing number that signifies both a world-class career and a need to pay the bills. But Nelson's wins Sunday also speak to the Grammys' uneasy relationship with the genre: They love cred-soaked traditionalists like Stapleton, youthful disruptors like Musgraves and venerated legends like Nelson, but they're not so big on the folks who actually get played on country radio.

From left: Kim Petras, Sam Smith, Violet Chachki and Gottmik on the red carpet of the 65th Grammy Awards,  Feb. 5, 2023 in LA.
Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images for The Recording Academy
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Getty Images for The Recording Academy
From left: Kim Petras, Sam Smith, Violet Chachki and Gottmik on the red carpet of the 65th Grammy Awards, Feb. 5, 2023 in LA.

7. Sam Smith and Kim Petras scored a major milestone.

It's hard to believe it was just 2016 when Sam Smith won an Oscar for the James Bond song "Writing's on the Wall," a song boring enough to stoke fears that some viewers might still be asleep seven years later. In the time since, Smith has come out as nonbinary and emerged as an almost infinitely friskier stage presence — thanks in part to "Unholy," their collaboration with German pop star Kim Petras. The pair's Grammy win, for best pop duo/group performance, was the first by an openly trans artist and the first by an openly nonbinary artist. Petras's victory speech shouted out Madonna and, more movingly, SOPHIE, the pop innovator who died tragically in 2021.

8. Speaking of milestones...

Okay, so "best audiobook, narration and storytelling recording" doesn't have the same ring to it as, say, best new artist or album of the year. But the category did make news Sunday, as Viola Davis's win made her the 18th person ever to achieve EGOT status — that's Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony. She's won 'em all, which if nothing else softens the blow of her borderline-inexplicable exclusion from the best actress field at this year's Oscars.

Viola Davis onstage during the 65th Grammy Awards on Feb. 5, 2023 in LA.
Frazer Harrison / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Viola Davis onstage during the 65th Grammy Awards on Feb. 5, 2023 in LA.

9. Having friends and family introduce the performances made for some sweet moments...

The Grammys tried out a cute twist when introducing many of the night's performers: They had friends, family members, colleagues and other admirers say a few words to illuminate their personal connections. This meant, for example, that Brandi Carlile was introduced by her wife and two sweet daughters, which made for a lovely scene. The intros were naturally a mixed bag, but the highlights — like the deeply welcome presence of Jayla Sullivan, a contestant on Lizzo's Watch Out for the Big Grrrls — won out in the end, giving the evening a nice personal touch.

10. ...but those fan-roundtable things were a better idea on paper.

On several occasions Sunday night, the Grammys set aside long stretches for roundtable conversations with fans of the artists nominated for album of the year. They were generally "influencers" of one sort or another, and it made a certain amount of sense to incorporate fans into the evening's proceedings. But... hoo, boy. The Grammys telecast runs nearly four hours, and grinding the show to a halt for those conversations made no sense whatsoever. This is music's biggest night! Literally hundreds of musicians are right there in the room, eager to perform for our amusement! Show, don't tell!

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)