Grammy hand-wringing: It's a thing!
During the final hour of the Grammy telecast Sunday, it became clear that Adele was on her way to a “historic night.”
With each statuette she won, the cameras panned to Beyoncé, her Columbia Records label mate and fellow nominee in several of the major categories. The Queen Bey — whom Adele hailed as her idol — appeared serene, gracious in “defeat.” By the time Adele took the stage to accept the Album of the Year award, she felt compelled to acknowledge sheepishly that this award somehow belonged to Beyoncé.
“I can't possibly accept this award,” she said through tears. “Wonderful speech,” host James Corden said. And it was. And then the credits rolled. So everything was cool. Kumbaya. Right?
Nah. Social media turned predictably into a hot mess of insults and accusations. “Adele Says Beyoncé Should Have Won Album of the Year, Not Her.” There were threads upon threads about white privilege, ruminations on how Grammy votes are counted, who votes, the fact that those voters aren’t even required to actually listen to the nominated music, and on and on. There were a couple of posts urging women to stick together, but most of those sentiments were trampled and trashed. I saw one tweet that lamented that Beyoncé was relegated to the urban categories (she was actually nominated for Best Rock Performance for a song she did with Jack White, which she probably could have won but did not).
As to not accepting the award, well, she did, in the end. And rightly so. She won.
Adele won five awards, the first artist to win the “top four” prizes — album, song, record and pop solo performance — on two separate occasions. Beyoncé won two Grammys (for her visionary “Lemonade” video album and for Best Contemporary R&B album). But those just don’t count as much to some, because only one was televised and that was a “genre” win, thus recognizing her work but not in a mainstream category.
It's worth noting that Beyoncé is the most-nominated woman and the second most-awarded woman in the show’s history. Both she and Adele are certified bad-asses, and these are what we call “luxury problems.” But the hue and cry over who wins and the percieved injustice of it all is noteworthy, particularly because it’s a recurring conversation over the past few years. Beyoncé has now lost in the Album of the Year category to Taylor Swift, Beck and Adele. That fuels indignation among “Lemonade”’s many fans and the Beygancy. Certainly, the optics of it aren't great. Add to this that it is a much more culturally relevant work than any mainstream pop release of the past couple of years, including the four albums it was up against Sunday.
For those who have a hard time accepting this year’s result, let’s get into it. How did “25” win Album of the Year?
It’s pretty simple. She won because a) she made the biggest-selling album of the past year, b) it’s impeccably sung and produced and loaded with hits and heart and c) the votes for other nominees were split to such a degree that she was a lock. I would have bet my mortgage on her winning. Here’s a great little explainer from Vox. This also gets at why so many R&B and hip hop albums in the modern era have failed to win the top prize (an interesting characterization, given how the pop culture conversation has declared the album dead, but that’s another conversation).
Look at last year. Taylor Swift won for “1989” over superior albums by Kendrick Lamar and The Weeknd. As with Adele’s “25,” “1989” was the biggest seller by a wide margin. Add that Kendrick and Abel split the votes of their core voting constituencies. We can chalk up Beck’s 2015 win over Beyoncé’s superlative eponymous album to the old rock guard falling in line with one of their own, and yeah, that’s got a racial component to it, but it probably had more to do with that old guard's resentment of anything pop. Beck made a sublime album, but she should have won. Daft Punk’s 2014 win was well-deserved, and then-newcomer Kendrick didn’t have that groundswell of support to challenge it. 2013’s Mumford win over Frank Ocean feels all kinds of wrong now, but again sales told that story. (Here’s more on who won the top award each year and who didn’t, for kicks.)
There are other factors in Adele’s win. The biggest was in abundant evidence when she flubbed her George Michael tribute during Sunday’s show: even when she makes a mistake, she is charming and beloved. Beyoncé is beloved, too, of course…but for being perfect, almost superhuman. That was all on full display in her jaw-dropping performance during the show. I’m sure that for a sizable portion of Grammy voters who just couldn’t decide between the two, the difference in how they perceive each artist played a big part. It’s that truism about why people vote for politicians. “I feel like I could have a beer with that person.”
Never mind that they’re never going to have a beer with EITHER ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE.*
We can also assume that for Grammy voters, most of whom are progressives still smarting from the election of the 45th president of the United States, Beyoncé’s heady mix of sociopolitical and personal perspectives on “Lemonade” was simply too challenging, even if they agree with everything she is putting across. The beautifully crafted love songs on “25” offered solace. It’s the same reason we’ll see “LA LA Land” win a bunch of Oscars later this month, when “Moonlight,” “Lion,” “Fences” and “Hell or High Water” have INFINITELY more to say about where we are as a country, as people.
So, here we are, a couple of days later, still seeing chatter about the Grammy for Album of the Year. I have a modest solution that could make everyone feel better about it, even if it doesn’t necessarily change the outcomes. Here goes.
If we are going to continue to make Album of the Year the analog of the Oscars’ Best Picture, we should borrow a page from Oscar’s playbook and expand the category.
After all, the whole notion of “The Top 10” came FROM the music business. Let's own that and expand the list of nominated albums to 10. You’d immediately see a broader range of artists in the mix. As it stands with 5, there is often a programmatic pressure to have each nominated title carry the weight of an entire genre. Usually, a slot is given to hip hop title, one to a country album, and the remaining three to some mix of pop, R&B, and rock. This year, Drake and Sturgill Simpson got the two definable genre spots, while the remaining slots went to three very different pop albums. It’s safe to assume that the many in the hip hop voting bloc supported Drake’s excellent “Views.” Arguably, not nearly as many country voters lined up for the superb Sturgill album (because he has vociferously positioned himself outside of the Nashville mainstream, and good on him). I have a good guess where those anti-Sturgill country voters landed, and it wasn’t with Justin Bieber. Let’s assume those came down to Adele vs. Beyoncé. Let’s even be charitable and assume that those votes split evenly. That left this squarely up to the remaining at-large voters, a mix of pop, rock, R&B, classical, jazz, roots and others. The rock voters probably tipped just enough towards Adele. Just enough pop voters went to Bieber to siphon away from Beyoncé.
Now, let’s throw five more worthy albums into the mix. Here’s what I would add.
- Chance the Rapper “Coloring Book.”
- Radiohead “A Moon Shaped Pool.”
- Maren Morris “Hero.”
- Rihanna “ANTI.”
- David Bowie “Blackstar.”
First, how much cooler did I just make the Album of the Year list? It looks like a legitimate Top 10 list you’d see in an respected industry publication, or from some august rock critic. (For what it’s worth, Anderson .Paak’s brilliant “Malibu” should be on here, but that’s how the star chamber committee played out in my head.) The main purpose here is to take the WEIGHT off of the slots in terms of representing an entire genre. Here, you have two hip hop albums, two R&B pop diva masterworks, two strong country albums (one determinedly mavericky and the other more Nashville-friendly), two great and interesting rock albums, and two pop albums (Adele in the tradition of Carole King and Bieber in the high-grade bubblegum lane).
I still lay strong odds that Adele wins against this expanded field. But I’d have to imagine she wouldn’t get nearly the amount of rock voters she got. They’d be split between the Bowie and Radiohead albums. And maybe Beyoncé would lose some votes to Ri-Ri (“ANTI” is better than “Lemonade,” but that's another argument). The biggest upside of this 10 album idea is that those titles get the marketing boost that comes with an Album nomination. And the music industry LOVES marketing boosts. The other upside, it would spread the votes more, compelling voters to do more of the required listening.
Yes, labels would fight against this, arguing that it would split votes up even more and mess with their well-established ways of doing things. But ultimately, SOMETHING is still going to win album of the year. And this scenario makes it more unpredictable. And exciting. And the Grammys are supposed to be exciting.
That’s my modest proposal for adjusting things. I don’t guarantee that it would fix the perceived problem entirely. Hell, it could just create more fights. In the end, this all is about prizes for best art, which is a reductive and stupid to begin with. You’re all pretty and talented. That should be enough.
Besides, we all know who the real winner was Sunday: Blue Ivy. That suit, right?
* I have had a beer with one of them.