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Watching Reba McEntire's and Darius Rucker’s opening remarks at the Country Music Association Awards on Wednesday night, it was hard not to be reminded of a different performance entirely: Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga at the MTV VMAs this summer. Why? Because, unlike McEntire and Rucker, Grande and Gaga were wearing freaking masks. Look, this isn’t meant to be delivered from some high horse, and maybe everyone at the CMAs had the cleanest bills of health you’ve ever seen, but in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, watching any group of people gather in a room without face coverings is downright anxiety-inducing.
Frankly, that unease is a radically new sensation. Back in August, when the VMAs took place, it felt weird to watch pop stars perform and accept awards in an empty space, in a room without screaming Gen Zers. It made sense, but it was also slightly, well, sad. A reminder of how pushed apart everyone had become during coronavirus quarantine. (Remember concerts? Those were nice.) Yet, it felt safe. And even though rock ‘n’ roll isn’t really supposed to feel safe, in this case it was necessary. One day concerts may be possible again, and it would be nice if Grande, a long-time proponent of keeping your ass inside, was healthy enough to have one.
Perhaps it’s that short-sightedness that made the CMAs so uncomfortable to watch. McEntire is a legend in country music—and music in general—and watching her crack jokes about social distancing and sweatpants kinda felt like watching Nero fiddle. The US is currently breaking records for coronavirus hospitalizations, and the number of new cases being reported each day is inching toward 150,000. Several performers, including Lee Brice and a member of Rascal Flatts, had to cancel after positive Covid-19 tests, and even though the CMA producers were, according to a statement, “extremely diligent with our testing process in advance of anyone entering our footprint,” it still seems that the safest route would’ve been to not sit a bunch of maskless artists in a ballroom.
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Also, we know how to do this now. A lot of hay was made about the 130 cameras that went around the world to film nominees for this year’s Emmy Awards. But honestly? The awards ceremony wasn't that bad. Jennifer Anniston put out a fire in an evening gown, the Schitt’s Creek cast had the time of their lives, and Zendaya made history while also turning herself into an incredible reaction GIF. All in all, not bad. No one got to greet each other on a red carpet, but no one had to figure out if Dior makes PPE, either.
Look, it’s easy for this to get lost in the bizarre political battle currently being waged in America over face masks. But in a way, it’s bigger than that. Masks and social isolation aren’t fun, but until everyone is vaccinated and the spread of Covid-19 has stopped, they might be the best tools average folks have to protect their health. What people do on the world stage matters, and normalizing masks and social distancing is a part of that. (TBH, hearing people cheer in the audience of Saturday Night Live also freaks me out, even if they are only filling the room to 25 percent capacity.) It was nice to see McEntire and Rucker on the stage Wednesday—and surely fans enjoyed it too—but it could have been just as much of a hoot if they’d been in an empty room, or even on Zoom. The CMAs will always be country music’s biggest night, but only if everyone lives to see it.