grammys 2024

The Soul-Stirring Triumph of Tracy Chapman and Joni Mitchell at the Grammys

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Consider me shocked: The Grammys finally lived up to advertising as “music’s biggest night.” After years of waning viewership and struggles to attract talent, it came back roaring, with so many bigwigs in attendance that I worried the PopCrave staff might go into cardiac arrest. There were the main pop girls: Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, Dua Lipa, SZA, Billie Eilish, Lana Del Rey, Kacey Musgraves. An older generation of legends graced the stage: Céline Dion, Billy Joel, and Stevie Wonder. It was all so much that Trevor Noah — who keeps getting booked to host this thing, for some reason — was reduced to pure fawning: “There are so many stars gathering in one place. Neil deGrasse Tyson is getting aroused.”

The evening’s acts were lavish, entertaining, and often a little crazy. (Somehow, U2 beaming in from a $2.3 billion glowing orb in Las Vegas seemed like a minor event.) But the night’s most impactful performances did not involve baroque displays of pageantry; they were patient, soul-stirring sets from musical luminaries who had retreated from the public eye. They didn’t require frills because the mere fact of return was enough of a triumph.

Early in the ceremony, Tracy Chapman made a rare appearance, dueting her 1988 hit “Fast Car” with Luke Combs. The song was nominated for three Grammys when it was initially released, and Chapman won Best New Artist, but it got a second lease on life last year after Combs’s faithful rendition shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. In a long overdue recognition, Chapman became the first Black woman in history to win the Country Music Awards Song of the Year in 2023. Dressed humbly in a black button-up and slacks, she glowed while strumming her guitar and trading verses with Combs, who looked over at his elder with shining reverence. It was a blessing. The crowd bobbed their heads and belted along, then gave her a standing ovation. Within minutes, “Fast Car” hit No. 1 on the U.S. iTunes charts — 36 years after its original release.

At the tail end of the evening came Joni Mitchell, seated in a guided armchair, wielding a cane like a scepter, and flanked by a royal court of musicians. After suffering a near-fatal brain aneurysm in 2015, Mitchell relearned the guitar and gathered a crew in her California home for living-room “Joni Jams,” eventually bringing them to the stage, including at a surprise performance at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival. The live recording of that performance, Joni Mitchell at Newport, had won Best Folk Album earlier in the night; at 80 years old, she performed at the Grammys for the first time ever. Onstage, she radiated poise, her voice raspy and sonorous as she delivered “Both Sides Now” like a sermon. Her disciple, folk singer Brandi Carlile, had introduced her as the “matriarch of imagination, a true Renaissance woman,” and though I wished Carlile was less long-winded, the essence of her speech was right. Mitchell is the godmother of every one of today’s singer-songwriters, including Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo, whose somber, rapt looks suggested that they were absorbing wisdom they’d carry on for the rest of their lives.

I enjoyed the extravagance of the Grammys, but something that occasionally got lost amid the celebrity showboating and gossip-stoking — Jay-Z subtweeting nameless nominees in a rant against the Recording Academy, Swift awkwardly seizing upon her acceptance speech to announce a new album, Miley Cyrus delivering Carnival Cruise flamboyance with a hair-sprayed mane — is why we listen to music, at an elemental level. So much of what dominates headlines today is about music as commerce: record labels pulling tracks off TikTok, icons selling their catalogues to venture capitalists and repackaging old anthems into new moneymaking schemes. But music, it seems banal to say, is also about spiritual transformation, something that both Chapman and Mitchell’s performances reaffirmed. It was heartening watching legends stand in front of, and alongside, the artists whose lives they’ve changed with the gift of song. Just a guitar, a voice, and a little bit of self-conviction can transport you far, offering, in the words of Chapman, a “ticket to anywhere.”

The Triumph of Tracy Chapman & Joni Mitchell at the Grammys