Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
Illustration by Susan Burghart

Grammy Preview: Why So Many Legendary Songwriters Don't Have Song of the Year Wins

For the first 61 years of the Grammy Awards, the record and song of the year prizes went to the same piece of music slightly more often than not: 31 times. At the first Grammys in May 1959, Italian composer and crooner Domenico Modugno walked off with both awards for his lounge-lizard classic “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare).” At the most recent Grammys in February, Childish Gambino’s politically charged hip-hop smash “This Is America” -- a song with almost nothing in common with “Volare” -- also took both awards.

That the awards have gone in tandem so often suggests that many Grammy voters don’t really distinguish between the two categories. Broadly speaking, if voters really like something, they seem to vote for it in whatever category it appears.

The Recording Academy’s category description guide includes a capsule summary of these two awards, but it doesn’t shed light on the distinction between them.

In a 2017 post on Grammy.com, the academy’s Nate Hertweck attempted to explain. “Simply put, record of the year deals with a specific recording of a song and recognizes the artists, producers and engineers who contribute to that recording, while song of the year deals with the composition of a song and recognizes the songwriters who wrote the song. That’s it in a nutshell!” If you’re singing a song in the shower, or humming it as you walk down the street, that’s the song. What you hear on the radio, with a specific arrangement, performance and production, is the record.

Through the years, the roster of song nominees and winners has accumulated some major oversights. Bob Dylan, widely regarded as the most important songwriter of the modern era, has yet to be nominated for a Grammy for song of the year and has yet to win in any songwriting category. That’s presumably a source of great embarrassment to the academy, which has long since sought to make amends. It awarded Dylan a lifetime achievement award in 1991, and Dylan has won 10 Grammys in various album and performance categories.

The only Beatles song to win song of the year is “Michelle” (1966), a charming ditty that probably wouldn’t rank among the group’s top 25 on most fans’ lists. Grammy voters at the time seemed to be impressed by the way the group incorporated some lyrics in French.

The songwriters who have received the most song of the year nods (six each) are Paul McCartney and Lionel Richie. The songwriters with the most song of the year wins are Henry Mancini & Johnny Mercer (the only songwriting team to win twice), James Horner, Will Jennings, U2 (the only group to win twice) and Adele (the only female to win twice).

The roster of song winners reflects changes in the music industry during the past six decades. In the ’60s and ’70s, three winners emerged from Broadway shows, but the last was in 1975. In the past couple of decades, an increasing number of song of the year winners have come from genres other than pop. “This Is America” was the first hip-hop song to win. Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’ ” (2001), Luther Vandross’ “Dance With My Father” (2003), Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” (2009) and Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” (2017) came from the R&B field; U2’s “Beautiful Day” (2000) and “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own” (2005) from rock; and Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice” (2006) and Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” (2010) from country.

Also, an increasing number of song of the year winners are written or co-written by the artists who made them famous. In the last 20 years, just one song of the year winner wasn’t written or co-written by the star who recorded it (Jesse Harris’ “Don’t Know Why,” recorded by Norah Jones). By contrast, 12 songs from the Grammys’ first 20 years meet this description, as do 11 songs from their second two decades.

This reflects the post-Dylan, post-Beatles belief that a complete artist should be able to write and record his or her own material. That may be unfair to nonwriting artists, from Frank Sinatra to Whitney Houston, but it remains a prevalent attitude in the music business.

For many years, ballads prevailed in the song of the year category. This reflected the mindset of that era that ballads were more likely to become standards -- songs that would be widely covered, sung in nightclubs and go on to have a life apart from the original recording.

In 1977, the Eagles’ “Hotel California” became the first rock track to win record of the year, while song of the year went to a pair of movie ballads, “Evergreen” from the Barbra Streisand remake of A Star Is Born and “You Light Up My Life” from the movie of the same name. (They tied for the award.) The richly textured “Hotel California” was a great single, the thinking went, but nightclub singers will be singing these other songs forever.

This pattern -- nonballad wins record of the year, ballad wins song of the year -- has repeated several times. For 1982, Toto’s propulsive “Rosanna” won record; “Always on My Mind” (recorded by Willie Nelson) won song. For 1983, Michael Jackson’s MTV classic “Beat It” won record; Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” (recorded by The Police) won song. For 1986, Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” won record; “That’s What Friends Are For” (recorded by Dionne & Friends) won song. For 1994, Sheryl Crow’s frisky “All I Wanna Do” won record; “Streets of Philadelphia” (written and recorded by Bruce Springsteen) won song. (In all of these cases, both hits were nominated for both awards.)

The Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” (1979) was the first midtempo pop-rock song to win both record and song of the year. When it beat “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” (made famous by Streisand and Neil Diamond) for song of the year, it was one of the first signs that the Grammys were changing.

Two years later, another midtempo pop-rock song, “Bette Davis Eyes” (recorded by Kim Carnes), won both record and song of the year. It’s no longer a surprise when a song other than a standard-type ballad wins both awards. Santana’s propulsive “Smooth” (featuring Rob Thomas) and U2’s exhilarating “Beautiful Day” were back-to-back winners of both awards in 1999 and 2000.

The Grammys have 13 categories that are open to songwriters and composers, which is nearly one-sixth of the 84 total categories. The only major genre in which the Grammys don’t have a best song award is pop. The Grammys have long believed that the nominees for best pop song would overlap too much with the nominees for song of the year. There’s probably something to that, but that’s scant consolation for pop-leaning songwriters. As the Grammys make an ongoing effort to diversify their nominations in the Big Four categories, including by genre, they might consider adding a best pop song award. In a diverse musical era, the overlap between song of the year and best pop song might be less than the Grammys think.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of Billboard.

2020 Grammy Awards


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