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Why the Recording Academy awards young artists only when they act old

There is no surer way for a young musician to acquire a quick coat of gravitas than an appearance on the Grammy Awards. And there is no surer way for a young musician to speed the way to the Grammys than by already appearing to be old.

Such is the chicken-egg conundrum bedeviling the awards, and also the pop music industry, which coexist in uneasy alliance, looking askance at each other while furtively holding hands. At the Grammys, maturity is rewarded, and often demanded, putting it at direct odds with a music business that continues to valourise youth.

At the 64th annual Grammy Awards, which took place in Las Vegas on Sunday night, these tensions were on display in myriad ways. Take Justin Bieber, who began his performance of the glistening, slinky ‘Peaches’ sitting at the piano, singing earnestly and with pulp. For Bieber, 28, not generally regarded as a musician’s musician, it was a pointed ploy, or perhaps a plea.

Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak — performing as Silk Sonic — won both song and record of the year for ‘Leave the Door Open,’ a stunningly slick slice of 1970s-style soul. At the show, they nailed the yesteryear aesthetic too, from suits to hairstyles to mannerisms. Both men, masterful purveyors of retro sonic ideology, are 36.

Jon Batiste, the New Orleans jazz scion and late-night bandleader who won album of the year, delivered a performance that channeled second-line funk, classic soul, and just the faintest touch of hip-hop. He is 35.

These are the sorts of performances, and performers, the Grammys crave: appearing young but aiming to embody old-fashioned values of musicianship.

The artists nominated in the top categories were refreshingly democratic, in terms of genre and age, but Batiste and Silk Sonic bested them all.

That meant that the only one remaining for Olivia Rodrigo, nominated in all four, to win was best new artist, which she did. Rodrigo was the clear breakout star last year, and the prime placement she was given on the telecast, with one of the first performances, indicated the Grammys understood her power. She was a jolt of uncut youth, performing ‘Drivers License’ with a light eau de grunge, and then later thanking her parents when accepting the award for best pop vocal album for Sour.

But that was something of a head fake, as was most of the show’s opening run of performances, which also included precocious Grammy fave Billie Eilish, K-pop group BTS, reggaeton star J Balvin, and Lil Nas X, whose blend of raunch and wit felt slightly tamped down during his medley of recent hits. The only other moment the show approached a moment of honest freshness was when Doja Cat raced to the stage to accept her award for best pop duo/group performance after leaving the room for a bathroom break. She and her co-winner SZA giggled at the snafu, and Doja spoke in the unfiltered manner she has become known for, which felt fresh in this context: “I like to downplay a lot of (expletive), but this is a big deal.”

As for several other young stars, well, they declined to show up — Tyler, the Creator, who won best rap album; Drake, who withdrew himself from consideration in the categories in which he was nominated; the Weeknd, who, after the no-nomination debacle from last year, has stated he will never submit his music for consideration by the Grammys again; Cardi B, nominated just once. (Taylor Swift also did not attend, but that absence did not have the air of a protest so much as an acknowledgment that this year was unlikely to garner her any trophies.)

That lineup of no-shows could fuel an alternate award show, or concert (as was proposed by hip-hop mogul J Prince). And therein lies the Grammys’ Achilles’ heel: It needs artists like these, both for reasons of relevance and also as tribute-payers. As hip-hop has become the dominant sound of pop music, its stars are going to become the elders of tomorrow. If the Grammys continue to alienate its young titans, its attempts to honour the music moving forward will consistently fall flat. (That was emphasised by the oldest featured performer at the show this year: Nas, 48, who spent half of his set performing 20-year-old songs that deserved a Grammys stage long ago.)

This chasm — between the Grammys and youth, between the Grammys and hip-hop — means that the show has to double down on younger stars willing (and excited?) to be in dialogue with the sounds of yesteryear. Some of the most strikingly mature vocals of the night were by Rachel Zegler, singing Sondheim as part of the in memoriam segment. One of the most stirring moments came from R&B singer-songwriter HER, who has perhaps been over-indexed with awards-show acclaim in recent years. Her performance, alongside Lenny Kravitz, Travis Barker, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis, connected her to three generations of funk and rock.

And then there is Lady Gaga, the onetime pop disrupter who has become the embodiment of institutional legacy through her ongoing work with crooner Tony Bennett. Their latest album, Love for Sale, won best traditional pop vocal album, and Gaga performed a tribute to Bennett, 95 — who did not attend — singing two of the songs from the album, which originated in the 1930s. Her singing was sharp and invested, making a case for decades-old standards on a contemporary pop stage, the embodiment of the Grammys’ cross-generational goals.

It was easy to lose sight of the fact that Lady Gaga is only 36. And looking at the next generation of pop talent — Eilish, Rodrigo, Doja Cat, Tyler, the Creator, and beyond — it is hard not to wonder how long will they be allowed to be young before the Grammys insists they grow up.