Billie Eilish has swept the Grammys, becoming the youngest and first female artist ever to win what are considered the event’s four major awards in the same year. Eilish and her co-writer and producer, brother Finneas O’Connell, looked by turns stunned, delighted and embarrassed as they repeatedly took to the stage to accept the awards.
Album of the year for When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, record of the year and song of the year for Bad Guy, a song that has become virtually inescapable in recent times even if you never stream music or listen to the radio, and best new artist. She also won the award for best pop vocal album.
Only Christopher Cross in 1981 has ever before swept the four major categories. Accepting the award for song of the year, Eilish – who recently turned 18 – said she thought Ariana Grande ought to have won for her nominated song 7 Rings. Addressing the other nominees, she added: “Your fans are going to talk shit about me for years because of this.”
O’Connell dedicated the win to shy music-making kids everywhere. “We just make music in a bedroom together,” he said. “This is to all the kids who are making music in their bedroom today. You’re going to get one of these.”
Returning to the stage for the second-last award of the night, album of the year, he admitted they had not prepared speeches because “we didn’t make this album to win a Grammy. We didn’t think it would win anything, ever. We wrote an album about depression and suicidal thoughts and climate change and being the bad guy, whatever that means. And we stand up here confused and grateful.”
Minutes later, taking to the dais once more to accept record of the year, all the pair could muster was a combined “thank you”.
Eilish had been expected to duke it out with Lizzo, the 31-year-old singer and classically trained flautist who was a contender for best new artist despite the fact her album Cuz I Love You is her third release, with her first, Lizzobangers, arriving in 2013. Grammy rules define a new artist contender as one “who releases, during the eligibility year, the first recording which establishes the public identity of that artist”.
Despite being pipped by Eilish in the big four categories, Lizzo did not go empty-handed, winning best pop solo performance for the single Truth Hurts, best traditional R&B performance for Jerome and best urban contemporary album for Cuz I Love You.
Flume, Rufus Du Sol and the Teskey Brothers were nominated but the only Australian winners were brothers Luke and Ben Smallbone, who record as For King and Country. The duo won best contemporary Christian music album for Burn the Ships, their third LP, and best contemporary Christian music performance/song for God Only Knows, their collaboration with country music legend Dolly Parton. The pair tweeted their surprise at the wins.
“We’re floored … and dedicate these to anyone needing a new beginning, a fresh start, and a new dawn,” they wrote. “These awards for us represent redemption for our family. If you’re wondering if your story can be used for good, it can be.”
The pair, who were born in Sydney but relocated to Nashville with their family in 1991, previously won two Grammys in 2015. Their sister, who records as Rebecca St James, is also a Grammy winner, having collected the award for Best Rock Gospel Album in 2000.
The Smallbones’ win did not make the telecast, however. Despite a running time of more than three-and-a-half hours, only nine of the 84 awards handed out by the Recording Academy were presented on air. But while the telecast was short on statuettes it was long on musical numbers and emotion.
The televised show opened with Lizzo saying “tonight is for Kobe”, the former basketballer Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others, on Sunday (US time). The ceremony was held in the Staples Centre, which is home to Bryant’s former team, the LA Lakers.
Host Alicia Keys echoed the sentiment, saying: “We’re all feeling crazy sadness right now, because America, Los Angeles and the whole wide world lost a hero and we’re all standing here literally heartbroken in the house that Kobe Bryant built. I know how much Kobe loved music,” she added, “so we’ve got to make this a celebration in his honour.”
Notably missing from the ceremony was any mention of the recent turmoil that has surrounded the academy in the wake of the suspension of president Deborah Dugan over claims she had sexually harassed a female staffer. Dugan, a former head of Bono’s charity Red who only joined the Recording Academy last August, has countered with allegations that her suspension was retaliation for her having uncovered misconduct and corruption within the organisation.
Dugan has claimed her predecessor, Neil Portnow, has been accused of rape, and that the nomination and voting process of the awards is manipulated to favour academy members. The telecast, though, was a scandal-free event, albeit one tinged with sadness and a sense of overcoming.
Both were exemplified by the powerful performance of Demi Lovato, the former Disney star who attempted to take her life 18 months ago, as she initially struggled to sing the song Anyone, written just four days before the incident, but went on to deliver a huge vocal performance and a plaintive plea for connection and understanding.