Our relationship with the Grammys is analogous to a toxic, ill-fated relationship with a partner that just can’t kick old habits. Time and time again we put our faith in an institution that considers itself the preeminent “arbiter of music excellence”, knowing full well we’ll be left wallowing in disappointment when our deserving favourites are shunned. Still, we come back every year with the hope that change is on the horizon.
The Grammys have always been prone to controversy, conveying an ineptitude to incentivize truly innovative works. When the 2021 nominations were announced yesterday, it was a case of same old story but the vociferous reaction on the Twitterverse, replete with meltdowns, rants and hot takes, was truly something to behold.
Here’s the Clash breakdown of this year’s nominations...
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Album of The Year
In an attenuated 2020, where fewer albums saw the light of day, the Grammys could have opted for albums in their top category that captured a sense of insurgency in one of the wildest years in recent memory. Taylor Swift’s nomination was always a shoe-in. Her foray into pastoral folk - recorded during the height of lockdown – was also a mammoth commercial success. Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, dominated both the airwaves and critics list, her placement on the nomination list ticking the “pop” quota.
Psychedelic soul outfit Black Pumas also found themselves on the AOTY list. Their nomination derived from something of a technicality is a contentious one: the duo’s self-titled debut album was released back in 2019, but the deluxe issue was released in August of this year, within the eligibility period, featuring live renderings and bonus tracks. Should it have been nominated this year?
As for Coldplay, many didn’t even know a new album existed. Post Malone’s 'Hollywood Bleeding' once again conveyed partiality by the Recording Academy towards pseudo hip-hop performed by white rappers: a built-in feature, this tells you all you need to know about what hip-hop looks like in the hearts of Grammy voters. Jhene Aiko’s nomination is the solitary “R&B” pick, a quick allocation on the Grammys’ part to satiate the “urban crowd”. Jacob Collier and his brand of left-field jazz is the outlier in the category. A talented multi-instrumentalist, Collier’s nomination still comes as a shock - even with the Quincy Jones co-sign, even with his previous Grammy wins.
Where is the most universally-acclaimed album of the year 'Fetch the Bolt Cutters'? Or 'Punisher'? Or 'Ungodly Hour'? Or 'Sawayama'? Or 'Limbo'? Or 'RTJ4'? Or 'Rough And Rowdy Ways'? As tradition has it, the nominations for Album of the Year, are once again tone deaf and thankless, the spirit of discovery and progression lost in favour of palatability.
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The Weeknd Snubbed
Let’s be honest, this snub of all snubs is a different strain of forfeiture. The Weeknd, arguably the odds-on favourite to scoop the most prizes before nominations were announced, has all the hype and hysteria surrounding him this year. The Canadian artist’s fourth album After Hours is the biggest-selling album of the year so far in the US, while ‘Blinding Lights’ is the longest-running top 10 hit in US chart history. You would think the sheer omnipresence of ‘Blinding Lights’ would lead to Song or Record of the Year nomination - alas not even one nod in a genre-specific category was received.
This erasure stands out as just another exemplar of an awarding body rooted in anti-blackness, who even after promises to diversify their ranks and regulate their voting process, continue to prop up white artists at the expense of black musicians. According to the Grammys, The Weeknd’s “pop revolution” was deemed unworthy, his contributions unmerited because “black music can never be pop.”
In a tweet, The Weeknd accused the Grammys of corruption, with reports of a conflict of interest arising as a result of his 2021 Superbowl halftime performance and his presence at next year’s Grammy telecast, which takes place within one week. The interim President of the Recording Academy, has since dismissed any suggestion that the star's award nominations had been negated as a result of these negotiations. The plot thickens.
The Grammys remain corrupt. You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency...— The Weeknd (@theweeknd) November 25, 2020
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First time nominees
A first Grammy nomination still means something to an artist and their respective flight path and some of this year’s nominations reflected musicians who’ve demarcated their own mark. BTS became the first K-Pop act to receive a Grammy nomination; the committee rewarding the proliferation of the genre from a regional success story to a global takeover. 2020’s success story Megan Thee Stallion and Chika garnered their first Grammy nominations, most notably for Best New Artist; a vindication for the new wave of female rappers redefining the parameters of rap.
Harry Styles racked up a slew of nominations in the pop categories for his album 'Fine Line', completing his transformation from the realm of manufactured pop to adult contemporary star. Phoebe Bridgers triumphed in the rock categories, her songwriting prowess bestowed with a sought-after Best New Artist nomination. British-based, Canadian-born Jayda G and her brand of underground anthemics was nominated for the first time in Best Dance/Electronic Recording, as was experimental auteur Arca, who garnered a debut nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album. There was *some* joy to be extracted from last night’s nominations.
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Beyoncé reigned supreme in her “off year” with a leading nine nominations. Beyoncé earned two nominations in the record of the year category – setting a record as the most nominated artist in this category ever - for her affirmation anthem ‘Black Parade’ and her remix of Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘Savage’. She received seven more across a further seven categories, demonstrating her versatility across R&B, rap and film-making and her commitment to continually pushing the boundaries of audio-visual art.
Accruing 79 nominations across the span of her career, Beyoncé extended her record as the most-nominated female artist of all time, and second most-nominated artist overall. Still, Beyoncé may be one of the most decorated winners in Grammy history, but she’s only ever prevailed in the “Big Three” categories once out of 11 nominations. The awarding body have side-lined black progenitors recurrently in the top categories, exploiting their legerdemain as the top performers during the telecast. Some retribution would be nice.
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All-Women Rock Parade
In a rare occurrence for the Grammys and after heavy censure for perpetuating a gender imbalance in rock categories,
Best Rock Performance was brimming with some of the best artistic feats of the year, and for the first time since its inception, the six nominees were all women: Fiona Apple's for ‘Shameika’, Phoebe Bridgers for ‘Kyoto’, Haim for ‘The Steps’, Brittany Howard's for ‘Stay High’ and Grace Potter for ‘Daylight’ or woman-fronted, Big Thief's Adrianne Lenker for ‘Not’.
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The Grammys have always subverted the rules of genre to suit their picks of the year, but this year’s choices seemed to further amplify the dissonance between consumer and committee. What constitutes a pop number? What defines an R&B song? Is “Progressive R&B” any better than “Urban Contemporary”? Is it just another superfluous variation of a “black category”?
The truth is, the Grammys have never been able to classify artists who genre-bend at whim; white artists are dissected less when distinguishing their sound than their black counterparts, rewarded for their creative license. The Weeknd’s omission from the pop categories for arguably one of the poppiest releases this year speaks volumes.
The raging debate came to head with Justin Bieber, who in a misplaced Instagram rant, questioned the Grammy committee for positioning his album ‘Changes’ in the Pop Vocal category, and not the R&B categories. Are genre-based awards obsolete? That’s a question for another day.
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Best New Artist
What constitutes a new artist? Don’t ask The Grammys.
Kaytranada’s inclusion in the Best New Artist category left us collectively squinting our eyes, much like Lizzo’s inclusion in the category a year prior. The Montreal maverick released his first album '99%' in 2016, but had been shaping the landscape of electronic music with re-worked editions of classics since before then.
Phoebe Bridgers, also a nominee, had released a LP prior to 'Punisher', in addition to a slew of EPs. Maybe it’s poetic justice, a redress for talent that should have been venerated years ago?
Cue Nicki Minaj, who in one fatal tweet, addressed the discrepancy and upended the whole Grammy infrastructure, reminding us that when she was at the height of her stardom, when she had “7 songs simultaneously charting on billboard & bigger first week than any female rapper in the last decade - went on to inspire a generation. They gave it (Best New Artist) to the white man Bon Iver.” Ouch.
Never forget the Grammys didn’t give me my best new artist award when I had 7 songs simultaneously charting on billboard & bigger first week than any female rapper in the last decade- went on to inspire a generation. They gave it to the white man Bon Iver. #PinkFriday— Mrs. Petty (@NICKIMINAJ) November 24, 2020
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The 63rd GRAMMY Awards is taking place on Jan. 31st, 2021.
Words: Shahzaib Hussain