Surprisingly, there was lots to celebrate about the 2021 Grammy Awards. The performance-centric pandemic format, with nominees playing for one another, felt a bit like dropping in on a jam session with an astronomical production budget. The broadcast was actually entertaining, for once!
Plus, women swept the big four categories (and it wasn’t just Billie Eilish this time). Megan Thee Stallion won best new artist, H.E.R. nabbed song of the year for "I Can't Breathe," Taylor Swift’s Folklore took album of the year, and Eilish once again scored record of the year for "Everything I Wanted.” But when the 19-year-old musician took the stage to accept her Grammy, Eilish repeated a claim she made a year ago: somebody else deserved the recognition, not her.
"This is really embarrassing for me. Megan, girl... I was going to write a speech about how you deserve this. But then I was like, 'There's no way they're gonna choose me.' I was like, 'It's hers.’ You deserve this," Eilish said, addressing the Houston rapper directly. "You had a year that I think is untoppable. You are a queen. I want to cry thinking about how much I love you." The singer gushed a bit more, then implored the crowd: "Genuinely, this goes to her. Can we just cheer for Megan Thee Stallion, please?"
It was an awkward moment, despite Eilish’s good intentions. But it’s not the first time something like this has happened at the Grammys. “I can’t possibly accept this award,” Adele claimed in 2017 when she bested Beyoncé for album of the year. “The Lemonade album was just so monumental.” Three years before that, Macklemore apologized to Kendrick Lamar via text message for winning rap album of the year — then posted his mea culpa on social media. Before Eilish won album of the year at the 2020 Grammys, she was seen mouthing, “Please don’t be me.” When she took the stage to collect her trophy, she told everyone Ariana Grande should have won for Thank U, Next.
It’s a little sad Eilish has felt she’s had to downplay her accomplishments. In both instances, she was almost certainly hedging against backlash from fans of the artists who didn’t win. But even if people agreed with Eilish that Megan Thee Stallion (or Beyoncé, Dua Lipa, DaBaby, or even Doja Cat) deserved record of the year instead, saying it in your acceptance speech is embarrassing for everyone. It’s not like Eilish, Adele, or Macklemore are going to forfeit their Grammy in protest. (Nor should they, really.) But they’re the ones who’ll benefit from the material trappings that come with winning the award, no matter how much lip service they pay to other artists.
The underlying issue, of course, is that the Grammys and other awards have a less-than-stellar track record of honoring diverse artists. The Recording Academy was blasted for misogyny in 2018 when just one woman, Alessia Cara, won a major award and then-president Neil Portnow told female musicians they ought to “step up.” Three years down the line, the Grammys seem to be purposefully course-correcting, awarding all the big prizes to women. Similarly, artists of color have been passed over again and again in favor of white ones. Well, during the 2021 ceremony, we watched the Recording Academy self-consciously center Black voices throughout the broadcast. Many of those performers did, in fact, take home trophies.
But, of course, a lot of this newfound diversity feels super performative when the Grammys (and heck, the music industry) have ignored and taken advantage of Black artists for so, so long. That’s not Eilish’s fault. Nor Adele’s or Macklemore’s. Do they have a responsibility to advocate for inclusion because of the privilege they’ve enjoyed? Yeah, I’d say so. Should they apologize for winning an award that’s inherently corrupt and shouldn’t mean as much as it currently does to the music industry? Nah.