The 8 best performances from the 2020 Grammys

By Constance Grady

Billy Ray Cyrus and Lil Nas X perform “Old Town Road” during the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards at STAPLES Center on January 26, 2020, in Los Angeles.
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Oh, Grammy Awards: As our beloved host Alicia Keys so ably reminded us, you’re like ten thousand hours long, and for what? Especially now that we all know that you are maybe rigged, what excuse do you have to be so long?

Every year we ask this, and every year the Grammys make their best possible argument against our kvetching by bringing out their true reason for existing: a few live performances against which we find ourselves awed and defenseless. Sure, the Grammys are still too long and too self-congratulatory, and sure, there is now compelling evidence that they are at least somewhat corrupt — but nonetheless, these live performances are something the Oscars and Emmys can never quite match.

Here are the eight performances that had us happy we stayed up all night with the Grammys in 2020.

Lizzo, “Cuz I Love You/Truth Hurts”

If there’s a better way to open an awards show than with Lizzo powering through two of her most undeniable hits, surrounded by ballerinas in glowing tutus, well, we certainly can’t think of one. (In a nice nod to Lizzo’s philosophy of helping her fans love themselves, her ballerinas were all dancers of color who were larger than traditional ballerinas.) After dedicating the performance to Kobe Bryant, she kicked off the night with a jolt of energy that it would take many, many boring acceptance speeches to entirely melt away.

Alicia Keys, “Someone You Loved”

There’s something about Alicia Keys and the way her mannerisms suggest a gently stoned youth pastor that just puts us at ease. Alicia Keys wants to sit down at the piano and slow-jam about Donald Trump’s impeachment? We’re not going to say no! Alicia Keys wants to remind everyone that Grammys night is “ten thousand hours long / so keep the speeches short?” We consider ourselves in safe hands for the night! Sing us whatever you like, Alicia, we’ll count ourselves blessed.

Tyler, the Creator, “Earfquake/New Magic Wand”

Tyler, the Creator has cultivated a reputation for outlandish, exciting live performances since way back in his Odd Future days. (Never forget the group’s Late Night With Jimmy Fallon performance from 2011, where Tyler ended up getting a piggyback ride from Jimmy.) For his Grammys showcase, Tyler donned a blond bowl-cut wig for a riotous medley of two songs from his 2019 album, Igor. (Igor was nominated for — and won — Best Rap Album at this year’s Grammys.) Starting off with the standout single “Earfquake,” Tyler was accompanied by Boyz II Men and Charlie Wilson on backup vocals, all of them clad in identical garb. During the performance, the group fittingly set off an onstage earthquake of sorts, and Tyler followed it up with a firestorm for “New Magic Wand.” It was literally a fiery performance, and one that absolutely is worth rewatching.

Camila Cabello, “First Man”

As a pack of hardened cynics, we were initially resistant to this number. A sweet, simple ballad an hour into Grammys night? Yes, Camila Cabello has the voice of an angel, but look, wake us up when Tyler, the Creator sets something else on fire. But then the camera cut to Camila’s father openly weeping as she serenaded him, and well … we are not made of stone. We’re always willing to respect a show of genuine emotion when we see it. Now if you’ll excuse us, we have something in our eyes.

Ariana Grande, “Imagine”/“7 Rings”/“Thank U, Next”

Ariana Grande’s thank u, next represented a maturation for the artist, a vulnerable journey into the singer’s life following the death of her first love, Mac Miller, and the dissolution of her engagement to Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson. Ari’s beautiful trio of cuts from the album exemplified its greatest strengths: In “Imagine,” she is hopeful for a future in which she can find the happiness that has eluded her; “7 Rings” is a feisty kiss-off to the men she’s left behind her; “Thank U, Next” is a loving ode to herself and the woman she has become amid the ashes of her past relationships.

For the Grammys, Ariana stripped each song down to its core. “Imagine” was underscored by string orchestras, and “7 Rings” was preceded by a sweet cover of its inspiration (and the origin of its primary melody), The Sound of Music’s “My Favorite Things,” before erupting into something sensual and authoritative. And then “Thank U, Next” combined strong a cappella vocals with thoughtful, sweet, earnest pop. Ari’s been through some tough times over the past year and a half, but she’s doing just fine. And we love her for that.

Lil Nas X with BTS, Billy Ray Cyrus, Diplo, and Mason Ramsey, “Old Town Road”

Lil Nas X was joined by a supergroup to perform what must be the definitive version of “Old Town Road,” the anthem that made him a star last spring. The cowpokes who joined cowboy-in-chief Lil Nas X: Billy Ray Cyrus, BTS, Diplo, and Mason Ramsey, a.k.a. the Walmart Yodeling Kid. The crew had all previously guest-starred on remixes of the song, with the Billy Ray Cyrus version becoming the most well-known of them all, setting a chart-topping record on the Billboard Hot 100, and earning a Grammy nod for Record of the Year, to boot.

Getting all these artists together to take their horses down to the Old Town Road? An implausible dream that’s now our blessed reality, especially thanks to an amazing rotating set that gave each contributor a unique backdrop to perform against. (Did you catch the reference to Lil Nas X’s other hit single, “Panini,” via the Chowder clips shown in the first set? We also loved the Kobe Bryant jersey included in his onstage living room as tribute.)

And at the very end, Lil Nas X’s namesake Nas arrived to jam on another Lil Nas X song from 7 EP, “Rodeo.” Now that’s an ambitious crossover.

Demi Lovato, “Anyone”

Headed into the evening, Demi Lovato’s performance was notable because it marked the first time Lovato would perform live since the singer’s hospitalization in 2018. And perhaps it was because of pressure surrounding her comeback that Lovato, with a tear streaming down her cheek, needed to start her song, “Anyone,” over.

But once the piano restarted, and Lovato got through the first few lines, she showed off the signature soaring vocals we’ve come to expect from her and combined them with vulnerability and humanity.

It was just Lovato, a piano, and all eyes on her. And as she hit those notes and fought through her performance, it felt like a triumph for Lovato and a testament to her perseverance.

In a recent interview with Apple Music’s Beats 1, Lovato said “Anyone” was a cry for help that she didn’t really realize while she was writing it. “If I ever come back, I want to sing this song,” she said, explaining her thoughts during her hospitalization. And she did sing her song, beautifully.

Misty Copeland, the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, Joshua Bell, Gary Clark Jr., Cyndi Lauper, The War & Treaty, Ben Platt, John Legend, Camila Cabello, Lang Lang, and Common, “I Sing the Body Electric”

First of all: Is starting an absurdly lengthy performance honoring a rich man none of the audience has ever heard of at 11:28pm during an award show that’s supposed to end at 11:30pm legally a war crime? Probably yes! However! Are we such cretins that we’re going to complain when America’s treasure Misty Copeland is pirouetting her heart out in front of us? Friends, like Song/Album/Record of the Year winner Billie Eilish before us, we are not going to waste your time. The answer is no, of course not. Take your time, Misty. We will take whatever you condescend to give us.