Snubbed at the Grammys
Snubbed Series: Movies & films that didn't make the cut but should have.
by Natalia Barr
As many Grammy reaction articles have already suggested, the “Album of the Year” award has never been awarded fairly. It is the one fact that divided music listeners agree upon: Grammy awards rarely affect public opinion. Each year, the final award of the night is announced to gasps across living rooms in America, igniting angry Twitter feeds, and sprouting clickbait think pieces, until it all blows over mere days later. When was the last time the public was satisfied with the winner of the ceremony’s most coveted honor? As Jenny Holzer’s most famous truism said, “Abuse of power comes as no surprise,” except, perhaps, when the “right” musician, like Kendrick Lamar, does not win “Album of the Year.”
Still, something about the 2018 Grammys felt different. The “Album of the Year” category felt like a snub, but so did “Best New Artist,” and “Best Pop Solo Performance,” among others. When each of these awards felt like a misfire, new considerations were brought into the spotlight. What did all of this year’s snubs have in common with each other, and with snubs of years past? Ahead of the 2017 Grammys, New Yorker writer Carrie Battan wrote the article “Let’s Imagine a Better Grammys” about her hopes that the awards show would honor progressive voices in pop music.
“Time and time again, the voters—a vetted group of songwriters, producers, engineers, and other industry types—reinforce stodgy ideas of what popular music can and should be,” she wrote. “In a just world, the Grammys would reward the tide-shifting risk that Beyoncé took with Lemonade over the formal perfection of Adele, who nearly swept the major categories the last time she released an album.”
We all know how that story ended. Progressive voices and young people might dominate music consumption, social media platforms, or even the gun control debate, but they cannot influence the formidable Grammys. One year and two Grammys ceremonies later, nothing has changed, and it all proves that the Grammys are afraid of challenge.
If anyone was snubbed the most at the Grammys, it was women. 11 out of the night’s 84 awards went to women, and only one was televised. This single award went to Alessia Cara for “Best New Artist,” as she beat out Khalid, Julia Michaels, Lil Uzi Vert, and SZA. It would be incorrect to say that Alessia Cara did not deserve the award—the 21-year-old has been churning out pop hits like “Here,” “Scars To Your Beautiful,” and Zedd’s “Stay” since 2015 (the “Best New Artist” label simply means that the musician has never been previously nominated for a Grammy). But SZA had five Grammy award nominations this year—more than any other female nominee. When the “Best New Artist” announcement revealed that SZA would go home empty handed, fans were heartbroken, and rightfully so. Ctrl, SZA’s debut studio album of last summer, was one of the most innovative, open-minded pop albums of the past decade, capturing the ambivalent attitudes of young women around the world, particularly women of color, through confronting insecurity, admitting a hunger for intimacy in romantic relationships, and fearing getting older and pulling one’s life together. Ctrl feels universal to the adolescent female experience, and its lack of Grammy recognition teaches young women that the music they believe in matters less than an easily digestible pop hit.
Later in the evening, just before Kesha was joined by a choir of women in white to powerfully perform her song “Praying,” presumably written about her alleged abuser, Dr. Luke, the song lost in its category of “Best Pop Solo Performance” to the only man that was nominated for the award. Ed Sheeran, who did not even attend the ceremony, won the honor for “Shape of You.” As Kesha prepared to practically perform emotional labor for the Grammys telecast in the wake of the trending #MeToo movement, this blow felt particularly steep. It was also a lost opportunity for the Grammys to challenge themselves and make a statement in support of the cause, rather than asking women to illustrate it for them. Tayler Montague articulated this well for The Fader, writing, “Not only was it a moment to bestow an award of someone well deserving of it, it would’ve given a platform to and lent a voice to the women Kesha represent — the nameless women in the industry dealing with their own Dr. Lukes.”
The final, and certainly most tweeted about, snub at this year’s Grammys was Kendrick Lamar’s “Album of the Year” loss to Bruno Mars. Before this, Kendrick took home Grammys in every rap category, which felt like no surprise. If DAMN. had won, it would have been the third rap album to ever win the “Album of the Year” title. The Grammys have always liked keeping musicians of color within the confines of the genres they are associated with, whether it is rap, R&B, or the racist category of “Urban Contemporary,” which is basically a group of black pop musicians’ work. And even though Bruno Mars is a musician of color, 24k Magic is a pop album that never really questioned or threatened ideology or authority. Unlike Kendrick’s, it never challenged. The idea is reminiscent of Dave Chappelle’s interjection during Kendrick’s opening Grammy performance: “The only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America is being a black man being honest in America.” And it turns out that making honest music in America means giving up the chance for a Grammy award.