Alex Corns looks back on some of the most unforgettable performances of Grammys history
Kendrick Lamar, 2016 – ‘The Blacker the Berry’, ‘Alright’, ‘Untitled 3’
As Kendrick meandered onto the Grammys stage in 2016, bound by chains to other black ‘inmates’, it was clear that this was not going, nor intended, to be a feel-good performance. This was a confrontation: “You hate me, don’t you?” he asked White America. “You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture.”
With a huge bonfire burning behind him and appearing in a trance-like state, electrified by his own words, Lamar’s message was plain: “Conversation for the entire nation this is bigger than us”, he concluded, to a standing ovation. “This is modern-day slavery” and it is up to everyone to address it. The power with which he dictated such a message left everybody paying attention.
Lady Gaga, 2011 – ‘Born This Way’
Remember when Lady Gaga arrived on stage inside a translucent egg? Of course you do. Remember when she played the organ adorned with decapitated heads during the same performance? Yeah. Gaga has always been a little… outlandish, but with her 2011 Grammys performance she outdid herself. “There’s nothing wrong with loving who you are” was the message, and it couldn’t have been illustrated more spectacularly.
Eminem & Elton John, 2001 – ‘Stan’
When considering ‘solidarity’, one wouldn’t often imagine the term appearing before the word ‘with’ and the name of a straight, white male. Elton John’s expression of such solidarity with Eminem – facing accusations of homophobia and protests at his performing at all – certainly raised eyebrows.
An immense cheer from the crowd as soon as John began to sing the song’s dark chorus may have betrayed amazement as well as joy, and their hug and mutually raised arms at the song’s conclusion certainly made a statement. Whether that statement was a positive one is still, 17 years later, up for debate.
Michael Jackson, 1988 – ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, ‘Man in the Mirror’
Michael Jackson was permitted a full ten minutes to perform by The Grammys, and he made every second count. Starting with a slowed down version of ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, his mere silhouette had the audience going wild, and much can be gathered about his performance from the fact that he was able to go 30 odd seconds without singing (at this point lip-syncing) and still remain captivating.
As soon as he was handed a mic, though, things went crazy. Joined by a choir and a backing singer who at one stage felt the need seemingly to double-check that MJ was still breathing (spoiler: he was), this was Jackson at his rawest, purest, and best.
Jennifer Hudson, 2012 – ‘I Will Always Love You’
The news of Whitney Houston’s death broke a day before the 2012 Grammys and, in need of some form of tribute, the producers hastily ushered in Jennifer Hudson to perform one of Houston’s signature tracks.
What they got in response was an immensely powerful performance, sung with only a piano as backing and concluding with an ad-libbed “Whitney we love you”. Hudson was visibly moved, but her performance was one Houston would have been proud of.