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Music and scrutiny at the Grammys

LOS ANGELES — The 61st annual Grammy Awards began Sunday night, Feb. 10, with 21-year-old singer Camila Cabello performing her song “Havana” on a neon-colored city street scene, joined by a white-suited Ricky Martin, J Balvin and Young Thug.

But the first moment of major star power came a few minutes later, when Alicia Keys, the host, introduced “my sisters”: Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Michelle Obama and Jennifer Lopez. Each spoke about the inspiring power of music throughout their lives.

Obama, drawing a thunderous welcome from the crowd at the Staples Center, was nearly drowned out as she delivered her lines.

“From the Motown records I wore out on the South Side,” she said, “to the ‘who run the world’ songs that fueled me through this last decade, music has always helped me tell my story.”

The Grammys are struggling more than ever to remain relevant in a rapidly evolving pop scene and to meet demands for more equitable gender representation. And public uproar last year after a remark backstage by the head of the Recording Academy, the organization behind the Grammys, led to the establishment of a task force examining how the institution works.

Lady Gaga won the night’s first award, best pop duo/group performance, for “Shallow,” her duet with Bradley Cooper from their movie “A Star Is Born.” Tearful, she said she wished Cooper had been with her — he was in London for the BAFTAs, the British film awards — and addressed a theme in the film, in which Cooper plays an singer struggling with addiction.

“I’m so proud to be part of a movie that addresses mental health issues,” she said. “A lot of artists deal with that, and we’ve got to take care of each other.”

Women power the night

Producers of the show packed it with female performers and presenters, and men were often outshined or absent.

Shawn Mendes played his ballad “In My Blood,” crooning at the piano before a belting Miley Cyrus joined, with bright lights behind him. Janelle Monáe performed “Make Me Feel” with bits of inspiration from Prince and Michael Jackson, but focused on female sexuality, surrounded by female dancers in tight rubber outfits.

Lady Gaga took on “Shallow,” singing both parts herself. Dressed in a black sequined suit and high platform heels, she thrashed on the stage like a 1970s arena rocker, as pyrotechnics announced the song’s climax.

Diana Ross, appearing in a wide, lacy gown, celebrated her 75th birthday with two hits from her solo career, “The Best Years of My Life” and “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).” Winding up her performance, she ordered those in the crowd to wave their hands, saying: “Together we have no limits. You can learn, dream, unlock new doors. All is possible.”

She ended with, “Happy birthday to me!”

Dolly Parton had considerable cross-generational appeal, singing a five-song medley with Katy Perry, Kacey Musgraves, Miley Cyrus and Maren Morris that had Smokey Robinson and the K-pop group BTS all dancing and singing along in the crowd. It ended with a nostalgic singalong on “9 to 5” that seemed to pull in the whole arena.

Shortly thereafter, Musgraves won her third Grammy of the night — best country album for “Golden Hour” — and gushingly doled out thanks to her manager, the Grammys and her fans.

“I never dreamed that this record would be met with such love, such warmth, such positivity,” Musgraves said.

She also picked up album of the year, giving her four Grammys.

Cardi B won the first Grammy of her career, the prize for best rap album, for “Invasion of Privacy.” Earlier on the show, she performed “Money” dressed all in black like a supervillain, while dancers around her moved and spread their legs in synchronous motion like a bawdy Busby Berkeley sequence. In the audience, rapper Offset, her husband, stuck out his tongue suggestively.

After the Grammys came under harsh criticism last year for the representation of women on the broadcast — and Neil Portnow, the outgoing head of the Recording Academy, said that women in music should “step up” to advance their careers — the show’s producers pushed full-throttle to populate the broadcast with more women.

Dua Lipa, a 23-year-old singer who has established herself as a hitmaker, alluded to that when accepting the award for best new artist, saying she was honored to be recognized among so many other female artists.

“I guess this year we really stepped up,” Lipa said.

Near the end of the show, Fantasia, Andra Day and Yolanda Adams performed a soaring tribute to Aretha Franklin, who died last summer.

‘This Is America’

The first anticlimax of the night came when song of the year was awarded to Childish Gambino for “This Is America.” It was the first rap song ever to win the award — but Donald Glover, the actor and musician who performs as Childish Gambino, was not present to collect the honor. The song also won record of the year, best rap-sung performance and best music video.

Drake, who has been absent from the Grammy ceremony in recent years, was there to accept the award for best rap song, for “God’s Plan” from his blockbuster album “Scorpion.” Before his speech was cut off, he alluded to the gulf between the Grammy establishment and hip-hop culture.

“This is a business where sometimes it’s up to a bunch of people that might not understand what a mixed-race kid from Canada has to say or a fly Spanish girl from New York, or a brother from Houston,” he said.

“But the point is, you’ve already won if you have people who are singing your songs word for word, you don’t need this right here,” he added, holding up the Grammy.

Early prizes set the stage

The show’s 3 1/2 hours of network television time certainly represents the music industry’s highest-profile media real estate.

Most of the Grammys’ 84 awards were given out in a nontelevised ceremony attended by few of the night’s big stars. Brandi Carlile led the preshow portion with three wins in the American roots category, taking best American roots performance and song for “The Joke,” and Americana album for “By the Way, I Forgive You.” They were the first Grammys of Carlile’s career.

Lady Gaga and Musgraves each had two in the preshow. Lady Gaga’s “Joanne (Where Do You Think You’re Goin’?),” a piano version of a song first released more than two years ago, took best pop solo performance, and “Shallow” took best song written for visual media. Musgraves’ “Butterflies” won best country solo performance and “Space Cowboy” took best country song.

Lamar’s song “King’s Dead,” from the “Black Panther” soundtrack, tied Anderson .Paak’s “Bubblin” for best rap performance. The score for “Black Panther” also won an award for its composer, Ludwig Göransson.