Going into Monday night's 58th Grammy Awards, the front-runner for album of the year felt like a toss-up between Kendrick Lamar's turbulent To Pimp a Butterfly and Taylor Swift's seamless 1989 - two very different albums about two very different Americas.

In Lamar's America, the system is broken and Los Angeles is on fire. In Swift's America, love is a game and New York is entirely hospitable. Grammy voters decided they liked Swift's America better.

But once the singer reached the podium to deliver her acceptance speech, the momentum of the evening pivoted in a completely unexpected direction, toward a particularly repellent lyric by another rapper who wasn't even in the building.

You had to listen for it closely in Swift's speech - a warning to young women hoping to follow the singular trail that she's still blazing: "There are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame.

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"But if you just focus on the work and you don't let those people sidetrack you, someday, when you get where you're going, you'll look around and you will know that it was you and the people who love you who put you there."

Who was this credit-taking undercutter? It was obviously Kanye West, who, earlier in the three-day weekend, released a song in which he suggests that his clash with Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards actually kick-started her super-stardom. Here are the lyrics: "I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that b**** famous."

So Swift, in her moment of triumph, used her time on the dais to punch back. She noted that she was the first woman to win two album of the year awards, and then, in a string of well-chosen words, found a way to shame her antagonist, offer guidance to her flock and give a shout-out to her loved ones. Instead of another polite gee-whiz, she stuck up for herself.

It felt like the first time we've truly seen the real Taylor Swift, at least at an award show.

Yeah, maybe the girl who accepts all of her trophies with two-hands-over-mouth disbelief, then spends the rest of the night lip-syncing a little too enthusiastically in her seat is the real Taylor Swift, too.

But in this moment, we saw a flash of the fierce self-possession that we can only assume has been coursing through Swift's being since day one.

You don't become one of the most famous people on this planet without a backbone. At the Grammys, she showed plenty of it.

Kiwi sensation Lorde made a post on Instagram saying 'my little heart overflows' after Taylor won the Grammy for best album. Photo / Instagram
Kiwi sensation Lorde made a post on Instagram saying 'my little heart overflows' after Taylor won the Grammy for best album. Photo / Instagram

And if this little amuse bouche of celebrity beef ultimately distracted us from the greater significance of the Grammys, blame the Grammys.

This year's slog of stately tributes and somber ballads made the telecast feel like one long In Memoriam segment - proof that the show's producers aren't interested in creating a program that music fans actually want to watch so much as one that they won't turn off.

Perhaps in effort not to offend the average Grammy-watcher's genteel sensibilities, most of the night's music was slow, serious and deeply nostalgic.

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As for the awards themselves, only the evening's biggest prize sent a coherent message: that the Grammys' perennial, abject neglect of hip-hop music isn't likely to change any time soon.

Then again, if "1989" hadn't won that little golden statuette for album of the year, we wouldn't have caught that glimpse of a Taylor Swift we should only hope to see more of.

- Washington Post