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The Snubs and Surprises of the Grammy Award Nominations

The Snubs and Surprises of the Grammy Award Nominations

Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Dua Lipa led the 2021 Grammy nominations on Tuesday, topping a list filled with smaller names (and missing some of the bigge

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Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Dua Lipa led the 2021 Grammy nominations on Tuesday, topping a list filled with smaller names (and missing some of the biggest players in pop). Who got left out, and what do the picks say about both the past year in music and where the Grammys are heading? Our chief pop music critic Jon Pareles, pop music critic Jon Caramanica, pop music reporter Joe Coscarelli and music business reporter Ben Sisario discussed the day’s big takeaways, snubs and surprises.

JOE COSCARELLI Another year, another set of mostly anticlimactic, head-scratching surprises from the Recording Academy.

Silly me, but I expected that because of the pandemic, which stifled a lot of releases and made breaking out as a new artist more difficult — as well as the Grammys’ commitment the last few years to at least nodding toward both diversity and cultural relevance — we would see a fairly predictable crop of big names: Taylor Swift and Post Malone, sure, but also the Weeknd, Harry Styles, Pop Smoke, BTS, Lil Baby, Roddy Ricch, Juice WRLD. Maybe Luke Combs, the Chicks and even Bob Dylan.

But across the major four categories, we instead got a bizarre hodgepodge of headliners (including Beyoncé and Billie Eilish, for off-cycle one-offs) and then names like … Black Pumas, Jhené Aiko, Jacob Collier, Coldplay (!) and D Smoke, which I could’ve sworn was a typo for “Pop Smoke.” (Nope, he’s from that Netflix hip-hop show and he’s up for two awards including best new artist.)

The Weeknd is by far the biggest snub. I don’t know if “After Hours” is his best work — critics? — but he was everywhere during this coronavirus-plagued year, and is headlining the Super Bowl halftime show (also airing on CBS!) the week after the Grammys. “Blinding Lights” was massive and inescapable, and Abel Tesfaye just played the role of Pop Star with such commitment, and the proper blend of art, commerce and costumes. There’s plenty of other nit-picking to do up top — whither Sam Hunt and Halsey, whose biggest Grammys look remains “A Star Is Born”? — but this complete “we don’t know him” for the Weeknd, resulting in zero nominations, feels loaded to me. (Email me if you Zoomed into one of those secret committee meetings.)

Thoughts?

JON CARAMANICA The Nashville oversights are baffling, particularly Luke Combs, whose album “What You See Is What You Get” is likely the biggest commercial juggernaut the genre has seen recently. I presume Hunt is passed over for having good taste? And though it’s Nashville-adjacent, it is striking to see the Chicks all but ignored, given how frequently their prior work was lauded by the Grammys, both pre- and post-country music banishment. (Their producer Jack Antonoff was nominated for producer of the year, nonclassical.)

ImageLuke Combs, one of country music’s biggest stars, received no nominations.
Credit…Jason Kempin/Getty Images

In regards to the Weeknd, here’s a thought. What he’s become in recent years is a maestro of the synthetic — he’s not alone in making grand-scaled pop music, but he is singular in nailing the pristine plasticity of 1980s arena-pop. That makes for huge smashes — “After Hours” is an excellent album, and surprisingly quirky for a battleship of its size. But it has little to do with the show-your-work (alleged) gravitas that Grammy voters tend to favor. Plus, even though the Weeknd now shows his face, it’s often costumed in some way; he’s keeping his internal self at a remove, and in this ecosystem, that’s a liability, no matter how big the hits.

BEN SISARIO Conservatism at the Grammys used to mean that the big categories were lifetime achievement proxies, like when Ray Charles won five awards in 2005, a year after his death (and 18 years after he received the actual lifetime achievement award).

Now, the Grammys often seem to save a few slots to recognize old-sounding music by youngs, especially for the kind of thing that the word “hit” does not apply to. Two years ago, such a spot was held by Brandi Carlile. This time around, it belongs to Black Pumas, whose song “Colors” sounds like a perfectly adequate rock-soul nugget from 1973.

These choices always draw eye rolls among journalists, who (with good reason) want the Grammys to reflect the pulse of contemporary music. What they really are is an assertion of values by the Grammy deep state, communicating to the rest of the industry that whatever wacky trends may come along, an unchanging bedrock of “classic” songwriting, rooted in the rock, soul and folk of the 1960s and ’70s, will always be treasured and rewarded … at least by the people who hold the keys to the Grammy nomination process.

Do they win? Not usually. But they don’t need to win to make their point. Had you ever heard of Black Pumas before?

CARAMANICA [Googles “Black Pumas”]

Allow me to break the fourth wall for a moment: I understand at least part of my role here is to publicly head-scratch about the striking amount of nominations this band has received, given its relatively low commercial profile and its negligible critical profile and perhaps its general lack of popularity, notwithstanding the fact that it was nominated last year for best new artist. And in major categories to boot: album of the year and record of the year.

(A potentially ominous omen: they were nominated for the “deluxe” version of their album, because the original version came out before the eligibility window. I’m sure every label that extends the life of their artists’ albums with overblown deluxe editions is taking note.)

We know the Grammys prefer to honor the year’s best music that sounds like the music of some long-gone year, and this band appears to fill that requirement. So then I began to wonder about its representatives: Are they unreasonably influential? (Not really.) Maybe they have shaken a lot of hands and played a lot of small gigs for local Grammy chapters.

JON PARELES Seems to me like the Grammys just hit the snooze button and rolled over. Back when they started, in 1958, the Grammys did their best to ignore rock ’n’ roll. You’d think the boomers and younger members who eventually replaced that initial Grammy “deep state” — a great formulation, Ben — would have learned from past embarrassments. Apparently not yet. But at least now the timeline is advancing. This year, they can also indulge their nostalgia by embracing the 2019-2020 disco revival with those nominations for Dua Lipa and Doja Cat. Which brings us to … the late 1970s?

COSCARELLI Jacob Collier, it turns out, loves his digital studio tricks and is worth about 35 gecs, by my count, for his version of those Ed Sheeran collaboration projects. He’s already won four Grammys for arranging, dating back to 2016, and I think you’re seeing some big looks this year for artists that the Grammys invested in early on. You always hear about the Academy Awards liking to anoint young stars and then reward them for life, and I wonder if that explains Collier; Black Pumas (best new artist nominee, 2020); Julia Michaels (song of the year and best new artist, 2018); and H.E.R. (10 nominations over the last two ceremonies). “I Can’t Breathe” by H.E.R. and “If the World Was Ending” by Michaels and JP Saxe have topical resonance, but I’m still surprised to see them in the song of the year category.

CARAMANICA For what it’s worth, I occasionally caught myself derailed by the brutal sincerity of “If the World Was Ending” when it came on the radio in the car. But then, I like Lewis Capaldi.

SISARIO [Spits coffee]

PARELES Collier and H.E.R. both appeal to the Grammy voters’ preference for old-school, hands-on virtuosity. There’s clearly still a sizable Grammy constituency — longtime studio musicians, perhaps — that apparently doesn’t believe that programming is making music: that if you haven’t practiced those scales and chords for hours on end, or if you don’t have calluses on your guitar-playing fingers, that you’re not a “real” musician. Collier shows off all kinds of pyrotechnics on his album; H.E.R. calmly picks up a guitar or sits down at a keyboard and plays with complete command. Technicians respect technique. But that still doesn’t explain the mysterious absence of the Weeknd, who can sing, write songs and command a stage.

Credit…Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

CARAMANICA The truth is that there is a whole level of success for a musician that has little to do with radio play, streaming success, album sales or touring scale. It is about being seen as the sort of musician that other musicians respect. (No idea if this is lucrative!) Black Pumas and Collier fit in here. And D Smoke might seem like a total outlier, but in this context, he’s not: His brother is SiR, a singer who’s signed to Top Dawg Entertainment, known as the home of Kendrick Lamar. In a(nother) year with no Kendrick album, D Smoke is a familiar alternative, and a reminder of the sorts of music — hip-hop included — that Grammy voters tend to favor: earnest, technique-driven, either shopworn or fine-tuned depending on your lens. That’s made manifest in the best rap album category (D Smoke, Nas, Freddie Gibbs, Jay Electronica and Royce Da 5’9”). If you teleported those albums (many of which I love) back to the mid-1990s and slipped them into the Walkmen of the Carhartt-and-Timbs-wearing fans of that era, they likely wouldn’t raise an eyebrow.

That said, it is notable that there are no hip-hop producers in the producer of the year category, likely because Grammy voters don’t bother investigating young producers like Jetsonmade, responsible for so many DaBaby hits and also Jack Harlow’s “Whats Poppin,” or even give thought to the Alchemist, who has become the go-to beatsmith for modern-day golden-age revivalists, and in the last two years has released strong projects with Freddie Gibbs, Boldy James, Conway the Machine and Action Bronson.

COSCARELLI I really did think we were going to see a push for two of the posthumous releases that dominated streaming, “Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon” by Pop Smoke and “Legends Never Die” by Juice WRLD, neither of which was even nominated for best rap album. Pop Smoke, who I naïvely thought had a shot at best new artist, is represented through a single nomination, best rap performance for “Dior.” Lil Baby’s “My Turn” and Roddy Ricch’s “Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial” were also left out, though each got nominated for songs, with “The Bigger Picture,” Lil Baby’s Black Lives Matter protest song, earning two nominations and “The Box” getting three.

To pull back for a moment, we should issue our usual caveat: These, of course, are just the nominations, so it’s possible that Swift, Eilish and Beyoncé could sweep most of the major awards and leave this all feeling pretty Grammys-typical when all is said and done.

SISARIO The Grammys are the only time when you can truly feel sorry for Beyoncé. She was already the show’s most nominated woman. But with the latest news she has gotten yet another nine nods, bringing her lifetime total to 79. That puts her up there with the most nominated people ever, tying Paul McCartney and just behind Quincy Jones and, um, Jay-Z (both with 80).

And she might well win a few. But her chances are slim in the major categories, which are the ones that truly matter. In her career so far, Beyoncé has won 24 Grammys, taking home the genre trophies but, in almost every case, blanking on the big ones. She has lost album of the year three times (“I Am … Sasha Fierce,” “Beyoncé,” “Lemonade”), record of the year five times (“Say My Name,” “Crazy in Love,” “Irreplaceable,” “Halo,” “Formation”) and song of the year twice (“Say My Name,” “Formation”). The only time she has won a top award was song of the year, for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” on which she was one of four credited songwriters.

As much as the Recording Academy now struggles to change their organization and invite new, young and racially diverse voters, legacies like these will be awfully hard to overcome. (Want more examples? Check the track records for Kanye West, Jay-Z, Drake and Kendrick Lamar.) Even if by some miracle “Black Parade” does take a big award, it will look less like a victory than a consolation prize.

Credit…Rich Fury/Getty Images

CARAMANICA It would be churlish of me not to cheer the handful of legitimately interesting nominations this year. Even though I’m still mixed on Phoebe Bridgers’s latest album, I think the acknowledgment of her work with four nominations is very promising. Same with Fiona Apple, who made one of the few critical-consensus albums of this year, and who received three nominations. The nomination of Mickey Guyton’s “Black Like Me” for best country solo performance feels particularly pointed. And I’m grateful to see Power Trip nominated in best metal performance, but frustrated it comes after the death of frontman Riley Gale.

Also, the best new artist category is fairly stacked, with only two nominees, Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion, with a significant popular profile. It’s rounded out with intriguing talents like Bridgers, the lite-country singer Ingrid Andress, the rapper Chika and the soulful dance-music producer Kaytranada.

For album of the year, though, things do seem like a setup for a Swift win for what, as is apparently widely known, is my least favorite Taylor album, but the one that, after a long, ambitious, largely successful run at centrist pop success, once more acknowledges the crucial boomer market.

PARELES Going back to Bridgers and Apple, they’re both nominated in best rock performance, which used to be where graying male arena acts were pastured out. This year, it’s all women — a sea change, though it leaves no room, alas, for Bob Dylan as a performer or songwriter for his 2020 album “Rough and Rowdy Ways.” Meanwhile, in categories no one pays much attention to, a lot of good music gets noticed. Check out the clunky but worthwhile American Roots Music section; it has Sarah Jarosz, Courtney Marie Andrews, the Secret Sisters, Sierra Hull, Bettye LaVette and more. Hard to go wrong there.

But with the awards that will get the prime-time treatment, it’s another story — one the Grammys keep telling, about experience leading only to inertia or nostalgia, and about technique outweighing crazy inspiration. Music doesn’t work that way — and our ears know it.

Source: | This article originally belongs to Nytimes.com

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