When Bonnie Raitt’s name was called by presenter Jill Biden for Song of the Year at the Grammys on Sunday night, many on social media responded with confusion and even disgust. “Stop giving random people awards challenge,” wrote one user.
Anyone under 50 watching Bonnie Raitt take home song of the year #GRAMMYs pic.twitter.com/qN7qqrR2QE
— A (@AceMoore21) February 6, 2023
Raitt’s victory—which came at the expense of pop titans like Beyoncé, Adele, Taylor Swift and Harry Styles—was one of the more notable upsets in recent Grammys history; even Raitt herself was stunned. “Just Like That’ wasn’t remotely in the zeitgeist this year. It has one-sixtieth the number of Spotify streams as the second-least streamed song in the category, DJ Khaled’s “GOD DID.” To many, its victory was a perfect example of the Grammys being out of touch.
That critique is partly true: the song absolutely benefited from older Grammy voters who look upon music industry changes with contempt and long for the good old days. But it also happens that “Just Like That” is a terrific, poignant song, written from a perspective that is all too often boxed out of the cultural spotlight.
A vote for a more personal approach to music
There are many systemic reasons why a path was cleared for Raitt to take home her unlikely trophy. First of all, Raitt is a music legend, deeply respected by her peers of all generations. She is a mean blues guitarist and a devastating writer of songs about breakups and hard times. Her influence is deeply felt through two of her younger Grammy winners: Brandy Carlile, who once said she tells herself to “be Bonnie” in tough situations; and Adele, who called Raitt’s song “I Can’t Make You Love Me” “perfect in every single way,” and said it was an outsized influence in the creation of her monumental album 21.
Raitt was also likely aided by the fact that her connection with the Grammys is long and deep. She nabbed her first of 13 trophies in 1990—taking home Album of the Year for the Americana classic Nick of Time—and has remained a frequent onstage presence ever since. In recent years she’s gamely performed in an array of situations, whether duetting with Alicia Keys on an Etta James classic or helping Joni Mitchell read the teleprompter last year. She serves as a bridge both to an older generation and a younger one.
Raitt has succeeded at the Grammys not just for her overflowing musical talent, but because she’s the kind of artist that the Grammys want to honor, especially in the face of rapidly changing musical trends. Grammy voters tend to be old and white; they like it when artists play their own instruments, write their own songs, and uphold long-held traditions. Several anonymous voters admitted as much in a recent Variety article, with one complaining about the lack of “real musicians” on the ballot and how “the pendulum is swinging… way into ‘We must appease the TikTok generation.’”
A vote for Raitt, then, was a vote not just for the song, but for a generation, as well as a non-digital, highly personal approach to music. Song of the Year is supposed to be a songwriters award, and “Just Like That” was the only song on the ballot to only list one songwriter. It’s entirely possible that many older voters saw her solo name and picked as a rejoinder to a new era of pop songs written by committee. It’s also possible that many picked the song as a continued legacy vote for an artist who was already awarded with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award last year.
A unique story from an oft-ignored perspective
But all of this analysis ignores the quality of the song itself. “Just Like That” is a story song, an increasingly rare breed these days. Over a finger-picked guitar, Raitt sings through the lens of the fictional Olivia Zand, a grief-stricken mother who receives a stranger at her door. While the hardened, solitary Zand at first wants to turn him away, she lets him in and soon learns that he was the recipient of her dead son’s heart transplant. He has come to thank her for effectively saving his life. “And just like that, your life can change, look what the angels send/ I lay my head upon his chest and I was with my boy again,” Raitt sings.
It’s a story of how heartbreak can spring into hope, filled with suspense and haunting turns of phrase. Raitt delivers a lovely, understated vocal performance as a woman who has long buried her sadness before letting it unleash.
The song is reminiscent of another one of Raitt’s foremost hits, the John Prine-penned “Angel From Montgomery,” partially because both are written from a perspective rarely taken seriously in pop music, or pop culture at large, these days. Last week, TIME film critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote a piece pegged to the new film 80 For Brady about how the stories of older women have long mattered little to wider culture.
“As we age, nearly all women notice that they become somewhat invisible in the world, but in the golden era of the women’s film, older women really were expected to fade quietly into the wallpaper,” she wrote. “Just Like That” shows Raitt refusing to fade away; it shows that stories that are supposed to have been long-finished can be rejuvenated.
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If you went on social media last night, you would quickly absorb the opinion that Raitt’s voice has no consequence, particularly in relation to her blockbuster peers; that because the Grammys didn’t center youth or statistical streaming proof, they got it wrong. But “Just Like That” matters because it tells a unique story from an oft-ignored perspective—and because it’s a flat-out beautiful song that Adele, Taylor Swift, or Beyoncé would be proud to have written. And hopefully, when they all reach age 73 just like Raitt has, they’ll find that their stories still matter as much as the empowerment anthems of their youths, even if the users of the app that has replaced the app that has replaced TikTok don’t agree.