2020 Grammy Nominations Once Again Undermine the Pageant as Farce

Meta: The 2020 Grammy Awards will be filled with the same farce and pageantry we’ve come to love and hate. Is it possible to praise and criticize in equal measure?

The Grammy Awards are a farce. Before this reads like a spurned lover indictment resulting from this writer’s favorite artists never winning (they don’t), let’s clarify the boundaries of that not entirely original thesis, especially as deeper concerns about the legitimacy of the nomination process (in addition to troubling “boys club” accusations) have come to light in allegations brought against the Academy by former CEO, Deborah Dugan

Throwing a dart from twenty yards is more accurate than pinning medals on a particular artist or song or record in any given year. (Sometimes they can’t even get the year right.) So while the Grammys are absolutely a farce, they’re also attempting to perform an impossible task – weighing and measuring the human emotional response to sound wave patterns, arguably the most personal and elusive of all artistic evaluations. There’s a reason that Pitchfork’s reviews read like LSD-fueled prose poems

The Grammy Awards exist for the same reason as any other major awards show. They’re a self-congratulatory marketing campaign masquerading as a quantification of merit. One could toss about the term “subjective” in defense of the National Academy of Recording Artists choices, but that anticipates a certain amount of evaluation in measuring one song against all the others – but that’s an impossible undertaking, even under the most noble conditions.

People tune in to the Grammys to watch live musical performances from buzzy pop musicians selected to draw more eyes to the television in order to legitimize the proceedings by claiming that 19.9 million viewers watched the January 26th broadcast of the Grammys on CBS (check the nominees list for your favorite or less than favorite artist). We’ll continue to watch. They’ll continue to broadcast. But for the sake of every musician out there struggling to make a dollar in this business, let us not pretend that the nominees represent the best music created during the prior year – even though the voting members are instructed to consider quality alone

Even if you refuse to call the Grammys a “farce,” consider using the term “charade,” which acknowledges the false pretense without implications of overt humor. 

The Grammy nominations reflect the best music that the most people heard. When jazz musician Esperanza Spalding bested Justin Bieber for the 2011 Best New Artist trophy, online Bieberbabies vandalized Spalding’s Wikipedia page with death threats. If there’s any category which is going to elicit vengeful memes, it’s the granddaddy of the Grammys. All of these potential pitfalls come together in the damning Album of the Year nominations.

The Album of the Year Fallacy

2020 Nominees:

i,i, Bon Iver

Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Lana Del Rey

When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Billie Eilish

thank u, next, Ariana Grande

I Used to Know Her, H.E.R.

7, Lil Nas X

Cuz I Love You, Lizzo

Father of the Bride, Vampire Weekend

The typically snubbed indie-rock darlings came out in full force for the Album of the Year, but the choices highlight one of the most unfortunate aspects of the nomination process. While Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! has been hailed as a career defining masterpiece and one of the great records of the decade, the Academy also selected Bon Iver’s i,i and Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride – two choices that feel lesser in direct comparison to prior efforts (For Emma, Forever Ago and Modern Vampires in the City, respectively, both of which were nominated for awards with lesser stakes attached). These indie artists were only allowed a spot in the big dance because they were pre-vetted by past critical successes. The Academy has a troubling track record when it comes to recognizing greatness before greatness has been established elsewhere. (More on this in a bit.)

Meanwhile Lizzo and Billie Eilish caught a zeitgeist with their debut albums. As the newest, buzziest acts of the year, their positive critical appraisal served as bonus points on top of the millions of records sold. Ariana Grande feels like an elder stateswoman in comparison. H.E.R.’s I Used to Know Her might be her weakest album, but a devoted fan base boosted her 2019 profile.

And then there’s this confounding love for Lil Nas X. It seems like he gained some kind of weird corss-generational credibility by working with Billy Ray Cyrus on “Old Town Road.” The genre mashup comes with the added boost of being a TikTok meme and forcing Billboard to reassess its definition of country music. That’s powerful anti-establishment sauce. However – and this is a big however – it doesn’t really seem like anyone listened to his other songs. Just shy of 19 minutes, the underbaked (and widely panned) EP only features six tracks that aren’t “Old Town Road,” and those six feel like internet fads for which we’ll have to apologize to future generations.

It’s time for Taylor Swift – who recorded a full 18 mature cuts on her well-received Lover – to write her Grammy break up song. Swift’s three nominations, only one major, will be seen as one of the major snubs. Consideration for Angel Olson’s existential, angsty All Mirrors would have been nice, but we can’t expect miracles.

Here’s where things could go sideways, Esperanza-style. There’s something interesting about the three frontrunners for the prize. Below you’ll note the name, followed by their album’s 2019 year-end Billboard chart position. 

Billie Eilish: 1
Ariana Grande: 2

Lana Del Rey: 182

My pick: Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell! and watch the world burn. It’s not often that my pick for album of the year gets a nod. Lana won’t necessarily the “WHO THE *#%# is Lana Del Rey” tweets like Bon Iver, but the sheer volume of incensed Billie Eilish, Ariana Grande and Lizzo fans would inundate the Internet with scathing memes. Which is why I’ll be shocked if the Academy doesn’t toe the popularity line. 

Who Will Win: With a wink and a sneer, Eilish has fostered an enormous amount of critical and commercial enthusiasm. It’s the safe selection and won’t encourage angry mobs of teenagers to grab their pitchforks.

The Decline of the Mainstream

At their best, the awards serve as a critical evaluation of the most popular songs and artists. In 2020, genre and listenership have become so fragmented that even “pop music” doesn’t captivate a broad audience anymore. It’s cliché to say that there will never be another Beatles or Michael Jackson, but there really won’t ever be another Beatles or Michael Jackson to reach a controlling share of the human population. At their worst, however, the awards are a glorification of the fragmented, increasingly narrow gaze of popular culture. Either way, it’s a horse with blinders being led by 24 sparkly carrots.

While they claim to recognize “musical excellence” and advocate for “the well-being of music makers,” the Grammys celebrate the music that has already been singled out by consumers. Few risks are taken. Surprises come when attempting to appeal to a new generation (awards shows must maintain relevance and viewership). Unlikely winners and nominees arise to appease and honor past success – but just as often not. Less commercial artists and genres don’t register unless they’re explicitly celebrated within their own category and in recent years the Grammys have actually reduced the number of awards available to these supposedly fringe artists. See: Regional Roots.

The “Regional Roots” Melting Pot of Impossibility

2020 Nominees:

Kalawai’anui, Amy H?naiali’i
When It’s Cold – Cree Round Dance Songs, Northern Cree
Good Time, Ranky Tanky
Recorded Live at the 2019 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Rebirth Brass Band
Hawaiian Lullaby, Various Artists

I won’t pretend to have listened to any of these artists before reading the nominations, but the Grammy’s have created one of those impossible paradoxes of music criticism. How does anyone compare traditional Hawaiian with jazz-fueled South Carolina spirituals with New Orleans brass with Native American powwow music? 

During the great purge of 2011, the Academy compressed multiple music categories into something called the Best Regional Roots Music Album. Maybe there were too many awards… but they weren’t being broadcast on TV anyway. Who even noticed the contraction? Oh, right. The artists. I think the artists might have noticed when their chances of a gramophone shrank exponentially. What the hell — let’s pick a winner anyway. 

My pick: Gullah folk band Ranky Tanky weaves spirituals and regional gospel music into more familiar jazz orchestration and R&B vocals — and it’s clear I don’t really have an ear for traditional Hawaiian or Cree Dance Songs, but I’d throw Ranky Tanky on even without provocation from my editors to write about the Grammys.

And there’s there’s the flaw in presenting these awards as a pure “merit-based” competition. Isn’t the winner generally going to be the most broadly accessible nominee? It applies here, but the argument also carries over into categories that would seem more manageable. 

Let’s look at the Best Rap Album category.

The Rap Album’s Boys Club (Again)

2020 Nominees:

Revenge of the Dreamers III, Dreamville

Championships, Meek Mill

I Am / I Was, 21 Savage

IGOR, Tyler, The Creator

The Lost Boy, YVN Cordae

Looking at this list of nominees, you’d be tempted to call this a down year for rap music. It’s true that none of these artists managed crossover nominations in other categories, but I’m wondering who forgot to send invites to the ladies. Cardi B won the category in 2019 for Invasion of Privacy, which suggested a positive trend regarding the genre’s acceptance of female MCs. In order to be a trend, however, the trend must continue onward and upward.

The obvious fan-favorite oversight is Megan Thee Stallion, who brought all kinds of sass on her debut full-length, Fever. I’d add the lesser known U.K. MC Little Simz to this list. Her GREY Area displayed an oversized confidence, and sooner or later the guardians of the industry are going to have to accept her as a force of nature. And nobody would have scoffed at a surprise nomination for Rapsody’s Eve, an original and social-conscious concept album.

This category also features the notable absence of DaBaby’s Baby on Baby, but he’s not a woman, just a curious omission (and a cunning linguist). Tyler, The Creator snuck into this category based on name recognition, but it wouldn’t be hard to argue that IGOR isn’t a rap album at all (but I also wouldn’t know where else the Grammys would celebrate it, so…)

Looking at this category, it’s not clear to me that the voting body actually listens to rap music. (Don’t @ me.) Subjectivity comes into play, of course, but I’d be hard pressed to pick any of these options (IGOR, excepted) in a head-to-head battle against the aforementioned ladies, DaBaby, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s Bandana, BROCKHAMPTON’s GINGER, or Dave’s PSYCHODRAMA

My pick? Of the nominees IGOR’s an easy choice. But since you asked, I’ll order off the menu and add some extra drama. I’ll call it a draw between Little Simz’s GREY Area and Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s Bandana. Rap music’s not dead — it’s spreading in exciting new directions, but you can’t rely on the Billboard charts to point the way forward.

The Reasons We Watch the Grammys

The Grammys entertain us as both farce and spectacle, a source of celebrity voyeurism and pop-culture skepticism. Let’s not place too much faith that Sunday’s recipients will have excelled at anything other than reaching the broadest possible audience. Whether you watch or hate-watch, it would be unfair to begrudge the winners and nominees for choosing to embrace a moment that celebrates the product of their blood, sweat and tears. 

Here’s the rest of the drama we’ve earmarked on our Grammy schedules.

Go Yola

As one of the most pleasant surprise nominees, British soul-singer/songwriter Yola received four nominations, including one in that coveted Best New Artist category. She represents one of the rare instances where an artist’s critical applause (and celebrity adulation) overshadowed lesser commercial success. The honor will garner deserved attention for Yola’s Walk Through Fire (produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach). Her other nominations are in Best American Roots Performance, Best American Roots Song, and Best Americana Album. 

Carly Rae Jepsen to the Grammys: “Call Me Maybe?”

The Canadian pop princess hasn’t sniffed a nomination since 2013 when “Call Me Maybe” received attention in the “Song of the Year” and “Best Pop Solo Performance.” A cute song, but let’s get real for a moment. 2015’s E*MO*TION has been hailed as one of the great pop records of the decade (and one could argue the album of B-sides was equally infectious). 2019’s Dedication received positive press for her “combination of self-aware innocence and mature restraint.” The continued disavowal of her talents has become inexcusable. It’s because she’s Canadian, isn’t it? This Jepsie deserves an explanation. It’s almost as if someone’s always nudging her out of the spotlight. 

Speaking of Billie Eilish… (because aren’t we always?)

17-year-old Billie Eilish becomes the youngest artist nominated in all four main categories. She could become the youngest artist to win Album of the Year, stealing the crown from Taylor Swift. who was 20 when she won for Fearless in 2010. She also just became the youngest artist to ever record a James Bond theme. Movie over, Tay-Tay. This angsty young lady’s come for your thunder. 

Wherefore Art Thou, Boss?

The universally praised Western Stars (and first new material since 2012) failed to garner any nominations for Bruce Springsteen, and his movie, Springsteen on Broadway, didn’t get any love for Best Music Film. It’s a stunning shunning of the 20-time Gramophone winner. Out with the old, eh, Academy? But he wasn’t the only Grammy darling told to stay home…

Maren Who?

The country star has earned prior 10 nominations and won one for “My Church,” but has only one in 2020 for Best Country Duo/Group Performance for “Common” with Brandi Carlile. Oh, and by the way, her album Girl just won Album of the Year at the CMAs. Maybe it was her refusal to give up crop-tops in her third trimester. You wear your crops, Maren. The Academy can stuff it. 

In With the New

The Academy spread first-time nominees far and wide. Lizzo (eight), Billie Eilish (six) and Lil Nas X (six) found real estate in all kinds of major categories outside that Best New Artist category. It’s a surprising turn for a ceremony often criticized for fogey-ism – but one that also feels a little like overcompensation. It’s worth remembering all the ways that the Grammys have butchered the Best New Artist category over the years so you can question their ability to judge new talent. Now apply this potential madness to all major categories in 2020 and you’ve got a preview of the many ways this show can go wrong.