by Fiona Farrell
[originally published winter 2022]
Like most popular awards shows, the Grammys have endured their fair share of corruption allegations over the years, an accumulation which seemed to come to a head last year following a now-notorious Weeknd snub. Although his critically acclaimed album After Hours held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 chart for more than three weeks, along with his hit single “Blinding Lights,” the Canadian singer received approximately zero nominations.
Months after the snub, the Weeknd, along with a slew of other celebrities, took to Twitter to express their utter dismay at the nominations process. Halsey called it “elusive,” and Zayn Malik demanded a prompt end to secret nomination committees. Such committees would consist of 15-30 industry experts whose names would remain undisclosed to the public. Under the reign of these committees, rigging appeared inevitable; transparency, nonexistent.
Now, a year later, the Grammys have fortunately instituted an end to these secret committees. However, this change has not been a necessarily swift or victimless one. Former chief executive of the Recording Academy, Deborah Doogan, was one of the first to raise claims that committee members often pushed for artists whom they shared personal relationships with. She was almost immediately fired after raising these allegations. If change is happening, it’s not like the industry is embracing it with open arms — God forbid, insinuating it.
For the public, the curious question remains: how will these changes affect the Grammys itself, and thus, the trajectory of popular music at large? A cynic might say that maybe the first thing has nothing to do with the second; that the Grammys don’t represent the musical will of the people at all, and never have. Indeed, it’s certainly hard to argue that they haven’t in the past, at their peak of elusiveness. But what about this year, when the nominating process has changed? Is anything different? Do our nominees baffle us, surprise us, rejuvenate us in some profound way?
Perhaps we can start with the fact that, this year, there don’t appear to be any bewildering Weeknd-level snubs, at least at the nominations stage. But this is not to say that some nominations don’t appear to come a bit out of left field. Maybe for similar reasons to those that caused last year’s uproar. Then, we bemoaned the all-around neglect of a bestselling, universally appraised album. Now, technically gifted but commercially overlooked artists seem to be having their time in the limelight. Late Show-bandleader Jon Batiste has received eleven nominations. His album “We Are” only peaked at No. 86 on the Billboard 200, dropping off the next week.
This is by no means to say that Batiste is undeserving of his appraisal. He is an extremely versatile, talented player who is widely respected across jazz circles. Sadly, though, that might just be the point — the reason for why his nominated record “Freedom” has a meager 5 million spins on Spotify (Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License”, by comparison, just surpassed one billion).
The Grammys have created — or, at the very least, contributed to -– a world in which both Jon Batiste and the Weeknd are overshadowed. Despite their differences, both musically and commercially, they are united by their immense sums of talent (whether the public recognizes it or not). And yet, one is ostracized from the ceremony from a total lack of recognition; the other, from a surplus of it — for, to the degree that nominations are still meaningful, the Grammys is not a show that revolves around artists like Batiste. If it did, that might be good for music, terrible for ratings.
Some of the other nominations this year include ABBA, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, Doja Cat, Billie Eilish, Lil Nas X, Olivia Rodrigo, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, and, naturally, Taylor Swift. Such nominations, for a couple of these artists, represents their long game finally having paid off. Justin Bieber, who is frequently overlooked by the Recording Academy, received eight nominations this year. And it only took fifty or so years for the international sensation ABBA to receive a single nomination. Tony Bennett, on the other hand, has accrued 19 Grammys over the years. But it’s good to see that he’s still alive and kicking, especially, if alarmingly, when it’s beside Lady Gaga.
Besides these longtimers, it’s inevitable that young people took the forefront this year. Particularly, Lil Nas X with five nominations, and Olivia Rodrigo with seven. In the case of the latter, we might play the world’s smallest violin for Taylor Swift, who was removed from Rodrigo’s Album of the Year nomination due to a crediting error (along with St. Vincent and Jack Antonoff). This means that Swift only received one nomination this year, for her ninth studio effort Evermore. Nomination-wise, it seems that Kanye has upstaged her, although the two will, once again, be going head to head in the Album of the Year category — one which Donda found itself dropped into at the last minute.
When we look at this list of nominations, It’s difficult to say whether the Grammys have changed in any meaningful or valuable way this time around. Perhaps the elusive secret committees have gone away, but this does not mean that the Grammys stage antics are anywhere near expiring — and this list of artists seems to prove that. Even the “surprises” make the word feel like a bit of a stretch. We see old patterns still coming to light; young personae occupying center stage, the dying flame of old rivalries being sparked once again, and a categorical imbalance between those who deserve attention and don’t get it, and those who get attention and don’t entirely deserve it. So long as the Grammys exist, will they ever really be fair? And Is that something we want to see? Over 11,000 voters determined this year’s nominees. With such a large number, corruption is no longer confined to the interpersonal; it becomes a lot harder to pinpoint, a lot harder to label as corruption. The elusive is no longer necessarily what’s kept secret; it might just be what’s in front of us all.