Grammy Watch: From 'That's What I Like' to 'This Is America,' The Varied Winners of Song of the Year

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Bruno Mars and Childish Gambino

How could such wildly different songs both win in this category, and in back-to-back years? The members of the Recording Academy have varied tastes; they prize different things.

The last two winners of the Grammy for song of the year -- Bruno Mars' "That's What I Like" and Childish Gambino's "This Is America" -- have very little in common, besides chart success. "That's What I Like" sounds almost like a radio jingle. "This Is America" is highly charged commentary on the state of life in urban America.

"That's What I Like" isn't the first song that sounds like a jingle to win in this marquee category. "Up, Up and Away" (1967) was such a catchy earworm that TWA licensed the song for a long-running ad campaign. Likewise, "This Is America" isn't the first song with social commentary to win. "We Are the World" (1985) and "Streets of Philadelphia" (1994) were both designed to move hearts and minds.

Still, the question arises: How could such wildly different songs both win in this category, and in back-to-back years, yet? The members of the Recording Academy have varied tastes; they prize different things. Something similar happened in 1993-94, when "A Whole New World (Aladdin's Theme)," a glossy Disney song, and "Streets of Philadelphia," Bruce Springsteen's raw song about the AIDS crisis, were back-to-back winners.

The first two song of the year winners, Domenico Modugno's "Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)" and Jimmy Driftwood's "The Battle of New Orleans," were also very different from each other. "Volare" was a staple of lounge singers of that era. "The Battle of New Orleans" was a folkloric saga that became a country smash.

Here are 14 songs that broke new ground when they won.

"Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)" (1958)

The only foreign-language song to win. Modugno's song is in Italian. Note: John Lennon and Paul McCartney's "Michelle," the 1966 winner, has some key lines in French.

"Theme from Exodus" (1960)

The first song from a motion picture to win. The Ernest Gold composition was the title song from a Paul Newman film. It's also the only instrumental hit to win. (The rules were subsequently changed to require nominated songs to have both music and lyrics.)

"What Kind of Fool Am I" (1962)

The first song from a Broadway show to win. The Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse showstopper was the finale number from Stop the World—I Want to Get Off. Two more Broadway songs won the award: Jerry Herman's "Hello, Dolly!" (1964) and Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" (1975).

"Little Green Apples" (1968)

The first song to win both song of the year and best country song. (There was no best country song award in 1959, the year of "The Battle of New Orleans.") "Little Green Apples," written by Bobby Russell, was a country hit for Roger Miller and a pop hit for O.C. Smith. "Always on My Mind" (1982) and "Need You Now" (2010) also won both awards. "Bring My Flowers Now," co-written by Brandi Carlile, Phil Hanseroth, Tim Hanseroth and Tanya Tucker, is nominated for both awards this year.

"Games People Play" (1969)

The first song with social commentary to win. The Joe South song was relevant, to use a buzzword of the era, with mild anti-establishment protest lyrics: "And they wile away the hours/ In their ivory towers."

"You've Got a Friend" (1971)

The first song of the year winner written or co-written by a female songwriter (Brill Building alumnus turned solo superstar Carole King).

"Bette Davis Eyes" (1981)

The first song of the year winner co-written by two female songwriters (Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon). "Not Ready to Make Nice" (2006) was the first song of the year winner co-written by three female songwriters (Dixie Chicks members Emily Robison, Martie Maguire and Natalie Maines, with Dan Wilson). "Always Remember Us This Way," nominated this year, is the first song of the year nominee co-written by four female songwriters. Lady Gaga collaborated on the song with Natalie Hemby, Hillary Lindsey and Lori McKenna.

"We Are the World" (1985)

The first song of the year winner written or co-written by African American songwriters (Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie). This was in the 28th year of the Grammys. (Better late than never.)

"Somewhere Out There" (1987)

The first song to win both song of the year and what is now called best song for visual media. (This was the first year of the latter category.) Brill Building veterans Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil co-wrote the ballad from the animated film An American Tail with composer James Horner. Three subsequent songs have won in both categories—"A Whole New World (Aladdin's Theme)" (1993), "Streets of Philadelphia" (1994) and "My Heart Will Go On (Love Theme From Titanic)" (1998).

"Streets of Philadelphia" (1994)

The first (and, to date, only) song to win both song of the year and best rock song. Note: U2's "Beautiful Day" (2000) and "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" (2005) both won song of the year, but weren't entered for best rock song, an award they would probably have won.

"Beautiful Day" (2000)

This ebullient song, written by the four members of U2, was the first song written by four or more songwriters to win. In the first 42 years of the Grammys, every winner for song of the year was written by one, two or three songwriters. In the last 19 years, eight have been written by four or more songwriters. The song of the year winner with the most collaborators is "That's What I Like." It took eight (count 'em) songwriters to come up with that ditty.

"Fallin'" (2001)

The first song to win both song of the year and best R&B song. Alicia Keys wrote the song, which was her breakthrough smash. Two subsequent songs, "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" (2009) and "That's What I Like" (2017), also won both awards.

"Royals" (2013)

The first song written or co-written by a teenager to win. Lorde, who co-wrote the song with Joel Little, was 17 when it won. Another teenager, Billie Eilish, 18, is nominated this year for co-writing "Bad Guy" with her brother, FINNEAS.

"This Is America" (2018)

The first hip-hop song to win. Childish Gambino co-wrote the song with Ludwig Göransson and Jeffery Lamar Williams. Oddly, it was passed over for a nomination for best rap song. So some future song will become the first to win both song of the year and best rap song.

2020 Grammy Awards


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