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Pharrell's Grammy performance was a hopeful yet muddled statement about race in America

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Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

If you're not watching the Grammys for the awards or even the Twitter snark, you're watching for the performances, which can range from the understated to downright insane. Halfway into the night, things started to feel a bit like a dark revival, with Madonna summoning a band of roving bull men to attend to her while she sang and Annie Lennox slaying in her rendition of "I'll Put a Spell On You." Things really just got weird.

And then there was Pharrell, ready to perform yet another version of a song we've already heard a million times in the year and a half since its release. That the song could ever be used as a quasi-defiant statement against racial oppression in America is something I did not expect.

The iconography recalled years of racialized violence

It was hard to even see at first. This was Happy, the main track from Despicable Me 2, made to sound like something out of Inception. But underneath the bedazzled yellow shoes and tambourines, there was the iconography, recalling years of racialized violence all the way down to the present. The hoodies? Trayvon Martin. The up-raised hands? Mike Brown. Digging deeper, one can also recognize the long, racist history of the bellhop in early Americana. On a second watch, Pharrell confessing ominously that what he's about to say sounds crazy makes this song about uncomplicated joy really fucking complicated. And even brave. And necessary.

The thing is, the performance was still designed to be a spectacle. So even with the choir singers of color shouting for joy as if to give us a break from our pain, we were distracted by Hans Zimmer jamming on his electric guitar. Because how could you not be? The whole thing was a jumble, something with an artful message covered in a little too much glitter and makeup. And when that happens, people just miss the point.