A Beyoncé song inspired by Black Lives Matter and a Taylor Swift album created in quarantine are among the recordings that will compete for the top-line prizes at the 63rd annual Grammy Awards, nominations for which were announced Tuesday morning by the Recording Academy.
“Black Parade,” Beyoncé’s sweeping yet fine-grained salute to Blackness released on Juneteenth, is up for record of the year and song of the year, while Swift’s quietly introspective “Folklore” earned a nod for album of the year. “Cardigan,” a single from “Folklore” about a lover’s renewing touch, will go up against “Black Parade” — along with tunes by acts such as Roddy Ricch, Post Malone and Billie Eilish — for song of the year, which recognizes songwriters, as opposed to the record award, which goes to performers and producers.
The academy’s latest anointment of Beyoncé (who scored nine nominations in total, more than any other artist) and Swift (who got six) signals something of an industry consensus on music’s biggest stars — even in a year as disruptive as 2020. For close-reading pop fans, the women’s head-to-head matchup at next year’s ceremony — set to take place in an undetermined manner on Jan. 31 in downtown Los Angeles — might also conjure memories of the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, when Kanye West famously interrupted an acceptance speech by Swift to proclaim that Beyoncé had been robbed.
Yet other nominations in the Grammys’ flagship categories show a lack of widespread agreement over pop’s leading male acts and about how hip-hop is regarded by the music industry’s most prestigious organization. A hint of disarray is nothing new for the academy, which was forced to rejigger the most recent Grammys telecast at the last minute when Lakers legend Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash mere hours before the show was due to begin; this time, organizers will have to contend with the unique challenges imposed on live events by the COVID-19 pandemic. But in a watershed year for female representation at the Grammys, much of the rest of the slate can seem especially haphazard.
Though widely tipped by insiders to receive multiple high-profile nominations, pop-soul auteur the Weeknd was completely shut out with his “After Hours” album, a runaway smash on streaming services, and his moody retro-electro single, “Blinding Lights,” which hasn’t left the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 since February (and likely won’t until after the singer’s performance during February’s Super Bowl halftime show).
Responding to his lack of nominations, the Weeknd took to social media on Tuesday afternoon and called the Grammys "corrupt," saying that the Recording Academy owes his fans and the industry "transparency."
Harry Styles, the former One Direction member turned open-minded rock idol, also came up empty in the major categories despite expectations that his boomer-approved “Fine Line” LP might finally surmount the Grammys’ historical bias against boy bands. Ditto K-pop’s BTS, which failed to land an anticipated record of the year nod with “Dynamite,” its ebullient No. 1 disco hit.
Styles and BTS were nominated for smaller-scale prizes including pop vocal album and pop duo/group performance. But their absence from the coveted all-genre categories leaves a muddled impression of record-business priorities just a year after the academy made a clear argument with the 62nd Grammys about the importance of fresh talent.
In January, newcomer Eilish swept album, record and song of the year, along with best new artist; other highly nominated debut acts included Lizzo and Lil Nas X, each enjoying their entree to the big leagues thanks to a blend of social-media know-how and time-tested showbiz razzle-dazzle.
What conclusions are to be drawn, though, from this cycle's unruly album of the year category that ignores some of 2020’s bestsellers and critical favorites — “After Hours,” certainly, along with rapper Lil Baby’s “My Turn,” country singer Luke Combs’ “What You See Is What You Get” and Fiona Apple's universally acclaimed “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” — yet makes room for little-heard LPs by Black Pumas, a psychedelic soul duo from Austin, Texas, and a baby-faced, ukulele-strumming Brit named Jacob Collier? (Other nominated albums include a pair of solid commercial hits in Post Malone’s “Hollywood’s Bleeding” and Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia,” along with Haim’s well-reviewed “Women in Music Pt. III,” Jhené Aiko’s trippy R&B disc, “Chilombo,” and “Everyday Life” by veteran pop-rock band Coldplay.)
One through-line is the type of old-fashioned musicianship the academy has always rewarded; detectable too is the Grammys' reflexive attraction to music that reaches across generational lines.
In an interview, Recording Academy Chair and interim President and CEO Harvey Mason Jr. said the all-over-the-map quality is a feature, not a bug, of a system in which the academy’s approximately 11,000 voting members make their selections with “an eye toward quality and excellence and not in evaluating who’s charted where or who has the most streams.”
“We got a little bit of everything, and for us that’s great, because that’s the membership we represent,” said Mason, who took over academy leadership in January after Deborah Dugan, the group’s first female CEO, was ousted in an explosive dispute involving claims of discrimination and vote-rigging. (Recordings eligible for consideration had to be released between Sept. 1, 2019, and Aug. 31, 2020.)
The nominations for record of the year and song of the year more closely reflect the larger conversation about pop this year, with nods in the two categories for inescapable singles like Ricch’s squeaky hip-hop hit, “The Box,” Lipa’s dance-pop jam “Don’t Start Now,” Doja Cat’s glittering “Say So,” DaBaby’s throbbing “Rockstar,” Malone’s rap-rock “Circles” and Megan Thee Stallion’s swaggering “Savage” remix featuring Beyoncé.
Yet an unanticipated nod for Black Pumas’ “Colors” for record of the year further demonstrates the Grammys’ quirk factor, as do best new artist nominations for a pair of relatively obscure rappers, D Smoke and Chika, who will compete against Megan Thee Stallion and Doja Cat along with dance music’s Kaytranada, singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, country up-and-comer Ingrid Andress and the latest member of the Cyrus family to get into music: Miley’s 20-year-old sister, Noah.
Artists and technicians with multiple nominations among the Grammys’ 84 categories include Brittany Howard (up for five awards), Eilish (four), Bridgers (four), jazz pianist John Beasley (four), classical composer Thomas Adès (three) and mastering engineer Emily Lazar (three). Lipa, named best new artist in 2019, tied Swift's six nominations, as did Compton-born Ricch, who won his first Grammy in January for rap performance.
Strongly criticized in recent years for overlooking work by women and people of color, the academy has sought to diversify its membership lately through a variety of initiatives and executive hires.
And indeed, female artists are better represented than they have been in the past in categories such as best new artist, country album and even the traditionally male-dominated rock performance, which this year recognizes women including Bridgers, Apple, Howard and the sisters of Haim. (One surprising exception is the Chicks, longtime Grammy faves whose well-regarded comeback album, “Gaslighter,” did not receive a nomination.)
Still, the academy’s hip-hop choices are unlikely to quell charges that the genre is routinely mishandled by an organization viewed by many as a bastion of old-white-guy values. Though DaBaby, Ricch and Megan Thee Stallion earned nods in the record and song categories, the only rap-related LP in album of the year is by Malone, who’s white.
In the rap album category, projects by Lil Baby, Lil Uzi Vert and the late Juice Wrld and Pop Smoke — all among 2020’s biggest streaming hits of any genre — were neglected in favor of less impactful late-career work by MCs such as Nas and Royce Da 5’9” whose names might’ve been more familiar to aging Grammy voters.
Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture,” which the 25-year-old Atlanta rapper released amid nationwide protests against racism and police violence, did pick up nominations for rap performance and rap song — nods that Mason pointed to, along with a song of the year nomination for H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe,” as indication of the academy’s attentiveness to Black Lives Matter.
“What’s going on in the world and in our country and our cities is reflected in the music that artists are making,” Mason said, adding that the effects of the pandemic could also be felt in nominations for music about “people being depressed and upset and isolated.”
“People are talking about things that are affecting them,” he said.
COVID will undoubtedly shape the Grammys telecast itself, which will follow a string of earlier productions, including this month’s Country Music Assn. Awards and American Music Awards, that have taken varied approaches to concerns about masks and social distancing.
Having cautioned that plans were subject to change “if the doctors and the politicians give us some different latitude” between now and Jan. 31, Mason said he hoped to have a limited audience for the ceremony, which will feature "The Daily Show's" Trevor Noah as host and will take place “in and around” the vicinity of Staples Center, where the Grammys have been held in recent years.
“It will be a huge spectacle,” Mason said, adding that the event will come on the heels of the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20. “Hopefully that’ll be a rebirth of renewed energy in the country, and we can use the Grammys show to highlight the fact that music brings people together through tough times.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.