This year’s award season has had to operate—with all its attendant drama—under the same grim reality that every other fundamentally meaning-light public event over the last few months has had to labor beneath: Russia’s ongoing and bloody invasion of Ukraine. Past shows, like last week’s Oscars, approached the events in Ukraine with a relatively light touch, bringing out, say, Ukraine-born actor Mila Kunis to introduce a quiet Reba McEntire performance before flashing some text about the invasion up on the screen. (And then: The crypto ads!)
The Grammys did not take that tack tonight, to put it mildly.
Instead, we got a videotaped message directly from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, reportedly filmed in a bunker in Kyiv, and featuring reminders that the country’s musicians are currently wearing body armor, “not tuxedos.” In his message, Zelenskyy—who’s become a popular global figure for his front-line defense of his country in the face of the Russian invasion—called on the West to condemn Russia, naming Ukrainian cities damaged in the war, and reminding viewers that “our children draw swooping rockets, not falling stars.”
It was exceptionally sobering stuff, which was then followed by a performance by John Legend, who offered up an even-more-somber than usual rendition of his song “Free,” accompanied by Ukrainian musicians Siuzanna Iglidan and Mika Newton, and poet Lyuba Yakimchuk. (Accompanying chyrons included such emotional facts as the information that Yakimchuk just fled the country a few days ago, and that Newton’s family is still fighting in the country.)
It was a difficult moment to reconcile with the rest of tonight’s Grammys, which have been breezy even by awards show standards; it’s hard not to feel like those three minutes rendered everything before and after completely trivial. Which is, maybe, the consequence for putting something that actually matters in front of your cameras for a minute.