LOS ANGELES — Women took center stage at the 61st annual Grammy Awards on Sunday night, with bold performances and wins in many top categories, a year after the awards came under withering criticism for its track record in gender representation.
The controversies of last year, when just one woman won a solo award during the telecast — and the outgoing head of the Recording Academy remarked that women in music should “step up” to advance their careers — were never far from the surface of the show.
Dua Lipa, a 23-year-old British 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,” she said. Backstage, she told reporters that the message of greater gender equity was immediately clear to her when the nominations were announced in December.
The award for album of the year went to Kacey Musgraves for “Golden Hour,” a collection of mellow, minimalist country ballads that has drawn deep respect from critics. She also took home three other prizes in the country field.
Yet many of the awards won by men highlighted the Grammys’ fraught history with hip-hop. Both the record and song of the year prizes — the second one awarded for songwriting — were won by Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” a thumping, confrontational song about racial injustice.
It was the first hip-hop song to win either award. But Donald Glover, the actor and musician who performs as Childish Gambino, was absent. He, along with Kendrick Lamar and Drake, the two most powerful and influential young rappers in music, were offered performance spots on the show but turned them down, reflecting the alienation from the Grammys that has taken hold among much of the upper ranks of hip-hop.
Drake 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 referenced 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.
The show began Sunday with the 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.”
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.”
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, Musgraves, 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.
H.E.R., the stage name for the 21-year-old singer and songwriter Gabriella Wilson, led a slow-build version of her ballad “Hard Place.” She won two awards, for R&B performance (for the song “Best Part”) and best R&B album, for her self-titled release “H.E.R.”
But when accepting the album honor, she seemed almost baffled that it was eligible. “It’s not even an album,” she said. “It’s an EP.”
Cardi B won the first Grammy of her career, the prize for best rap album, for “Invasion of Privacy.” Earlier, she performed “Money” dressed all in black like a supervillain, while dancers around her moved and spread their legs in synchronous motion. In the audience, the rapper Offset, her husband, stuck out his tongue suggestively.
Near the end of the show, Fantasia, Andra Day and Yolanda Adams performed a soaring tribute to Aretha Franklin, who died last summer.
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.
One barrier was broken with the award for best engineered album, nonclassical, which went to Beck’s “Colors.” Among its winners was Emily Lazar, a studio veteran who became the first woman to win as mastering engineer in that category.
And Claudia Brant, a seasoned songwriter for Latin artists who won best Latin pop album for “Sincera,” noted that for all the Grammys’ power, it is the daily studio work that matters the most.
“Of course it’s going to change my career, because it’s the biggest recognition I’ve ever gotten,” Brant said. “But tomorrow I’ll have a session in the studio with another artist that’s looking for good songs.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.