The Grammys Get Profound


In the three days or so since the Grammys, there’s been much media celebration of “The Year of the Woman” in music.

And indeed, as award shows go, this one featured a mind-blowing array of female talent, and was smart, engaging and even history-making.

But going back to the ‘90s and even earlier, I’ve lived through too many “years” of the woman in various industries, only to result in backlash or even a gentle sense of loss, to buy into that phrase.

Still, on this year’s Grammys, there were two profound performances by female artists that have yet to leave my mind.

Truly, they will go down in music and television-making history.

The first, of course, was from Joni Mitchell.

I wore the grooves down on her albums in college. And as a baby-but-already-prodigious musician/singer/songwriter, she had already earned her place as a rock icon even by the time of Woodstock.



Yet despite her almost supernatural musical and writing gifts and willingness to take risks, (she’s also a master jazz performer), Jann Wenner didn’t see his way to including her (or any woman, or person of color) in his book  “The Masters,” in which he interviewed the men he considered rock gods. It was very telling lesson from the founder of Rolling Stone magazine.
What’s more, how is it that this master had never performed before at the Grammys?

No matter, because in a feat that seems fictional in its too-good-to-be-trueness, Joni came full circle. Now 80, and some nine years after suffering a near-fatal brain aneurism that stripped her of the ability to walk and talk, never mind sing, she performed “Both Sides Now” from her 1969 “Clouds” album. It’s kind of a brain-buster to think about how much form matches content here, performing her mature philosophical gem that she wrote at the ripe old age of 23:  “From win and lose, and still somehow… It’s life’s illusions I recall….I really don’t know life at all.”

On stage, she sat in a humongous chair that seemed more of a gilded throne, appropriate to her power, keeping time to her song with her silver cane/scepter, surrounded by her court of Brandi Carlile and other wonderful female backup singers and string musicians, and a male pianist. Visually, she was in full goddess mode, wearing an outfit festooned with stars and moons, (if not “Junes and Ferris wheels,”) with her long, Willie Nelsonesque braids hanging down from under her black beret.

She no longer has her high, impeccable voice. She sang in a deeper register and in a different way, with new scat-ish phrasing. The audience was in awe, watching her own her wisdom and willingness to go with her newvoice and her new authentic self.

She got a thunderous standing ovation, much deserved, not only for the miracle of the performance but also what it told us about time and endurance.

Then host Trevor Noah, who was at his best, presented her with her twelfth Grammy Award, for Best Folk album.

And that was the thing that hardly mattered.

The second epiphany came after a surprise entrance to the stage by a radiant Tracy Chapman, singing and strumming her guitar to “Fast Car,” her magnificent, matchless hit from 1988.

Looking illuminated and untouched by time, save for a bit of grey in her ‘locs, she was the same person who performed the song at the Grammys in 1989. That was before Luke Combs, the country artist dueting on stage with her, was born.

Here’s what we got: an unapologetically authentic, older, black, queer female musical genius dressed down in jeans, joyfully playing on stage with a younger white male Southern country singer, a beefy dude from North Carolina -- who, in the stereotype he embodied, could easily trade his cowboy hat for a red MAGA cap.

Instead, he was filled with reverence, even mouthing the words when it was Tracy’s  turn to sing her universal masterpiece about escape and  the American dream.(“That I could be someone…be someone…or leave tonight and live and die this way...”)

Combs, who released his own cover of the song last year, has said he’s loved it since he heard it on the car radio  when he was a little kid, growing up with his own financially struggling parents.

There’s always been an issue with  black representation at the Grammys, and for that matter, there are still plenty of problems facing non-whites who want to ”buy a big house and live in the suburbs…”

But after years of cultural turmoil and political rage,  this transporting moment on stage was  a first -- charming, calming  and unexpected. It suggested that hey, maybe we can all get along.

Another grateful outcome: the performance was so profound that minutes after they finished and Combs bowed to Chapman, and the audience went crazy for the performance, the 1988 original “Fast Car” shot to No. 1 on the iTunes Top Songs chart. 

Music that heals and brings us together is a dream, like racing away in a car.  Except that this time, we were all witness to it.


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