It was one of the most jaw-dropping moments at the 2023 Grammy Awards on Sunday Feb. 5, when last year’s best new artist winner, Olivia Rodrigo, announced her successor.
It was a wide-open field, with no obvious winner such as Rodrigo or Billie Eilish, the 2020 champ. Latto and Måneskin were widely seen as the front-runners, with several other artists (Anitta, Muni Long, Molly Tuttle and Wet Leg) thought to be within striking distance.
The award instead went to Samara Joy, a 23-year-old jazz singer whose chances of winning were discounted by many pop-focused fans. They had much the same reaction 12 years ago to another talented jazz artist, Esperanza Spalding, and she wound up winning too — even among some stacked pop competition.
Joy won a second award on the night — best jazz vocal album for her second album, Linger Awhile. (She beat, among others, Cécile McLorin Salvant, a three-time winner in that category.)
Three of this year’s other best new artist candidates also went home with Grammys. Wet Leg won two awards – best alternative music album for Wet Leg and best alternative music performance for “Chaise Longue.” Long won best R&B performance for “Hrs & Hrs.” Tuttle won best bluegrass album for Crooked Tree (a collab with Golden Highway).
The other nominees in the category this year were Omar Apollo, Tobe Nwigwe and DOMi & JD Beck, whose Not Tight was nominated for best contemporary instrumental album.
So how did Joy pull off this surprise win? Here are six factors that likely played a role:
Jazz fans are well-represented in the Recording Academy.
The Recording Academy’s 12,000-plus voting members were asked to identify which genres they are most aligned with. (Respondents could choose more than one genre.) Pop came out on top with 23%, as you might expect. Jazz came in at a surprisingly high 16%, followed by rock (15%), R&B (15%), American roots (13%), alternative (10%) and classical (10%). Less than 10% chose country.
These numbers help explain why jazz occasionally breaks through and scores wins in the widely watched Big Four categories: album, record and song of the year plus best new artist. Two jazz albums have won album of the year: Stan Getz and João Gilberto’s Getz/Gilberto (in 1965) and Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters (in 2008). “The Girl from Ipanema,” a track from Getz/Gilberto, also won record of the year.
And now, two jazz artists – Esperanza Spalding (in 2011) and Joy – have won best new artist.
She was an outlier in the category.
In any awards competition, the outlier often has an advantage, if only because the one who stands out for whatever reason is more apt to be noticed. This was a highly diverse field of new artist nominees, but Joy stood out – as did Brazilian star Anitta, Italian rock band Måneskin and bluegrass singer Molly Tuttle.
When you look back on Esperanza Spalding’s win for best new artist from that perspective, it’s much easier to understand how she won. The other nominees in the category 12 years ago (Justin Bieber, Drake, Florence + the Machine and Mumford and Sons) were all in the broad pop/rock/hip-hop mainstream. Spalding was not.
Female solo artists have an edge in the best new artist category.
Some have suggested that voters like to give talented, promising new female artists a warm hug of encouragement. That sounds sexist, but look at the facts: Since 2000, female solo artists have won best new artist 15 times. By way of comparison, in that same period, three male solo artists, five groups and one duo have taken home the prize.
Of course, this doesn’t explain why Joy won and not one of the four other female solo artists in the category: Anitta, Muni Long, Latto and Molly Tuttle. But it’s probably a factor in the mix.
Several high-profile new artists weren’t nominated.
This is the first time in six years that none of the best new artist nominees was nominated in any other Big Four category. Steve Lacy, who was a top contender for both record and song of the year for his Hot 100-topping smash “Bad Habit,” wasn’t eligible because he had received two previous nominations – one as a member of The Internet and one solo. Gayle, a song of the year nominee for the delightful “abcdefu,” was eligible for best new artist but was passed over for a nod.
Gayle wasn’t the only artist who was entered and eligible for best new artist but simply didn’t receive enough votes to make the final 10. The same was true of Dove Cameron, who won best new artist at the MTV Video Music Awards in August 2022; Lainey Wilson, who won new artist of the year at the CMA Awards in November; and Cody Johnson, whose “Til You Can’t” won single of the year at the CMA Awards (and best country song at the Grammys).
Other noteworthy candidates who were passed over for nods (despite being entered and eligible) include Em Beihold, Breland, Zach Bryan, Becky G, GloRilla, Conan Gray, Joji, Hayley Kiyoko, Tate McRae, Flo Milli, Orville Peck, Pink Pantheress, Rina Sawayama, Lauren Spencer Smith, Soccer Mommy, Yungblud and Bailey Zimmerman.
Joy was featured on Terri Lyne Carrington’s album New Standards Vol. 1, which won a Grammy last night for best instrumental jazz album. Joy sang “Two Hearts (Lawns).” Carrington is a four-time Grammy winner.
Also, Joy is also signed to Verve Records, one of the top labels in the jazz field. Linger Awhile was the fifth Verve album to win best jazz vocal album, following two albums by Diana Krall and one each by Dee Dee Bridgewater and Shirley Horn. Moreover, Verve has released three album of the year winners – Getz/Gilberto, River: The Joni Letters and last year’s Jon Batiste album, We Are.
She’s really good.
Joy proved that when she sang the jazz standard “Can’t Get Out of This Mood,” the opening track on Linger Awhile, on the Grammy Premiere Ceremony.
In light of her best new artist win, the Grammy producers are probably kicking themselves that they didn’t find room for her on the telecast. This is only the fifth time since 2000 that the best new artist winner has not performed on the telecast on which he or she received the award. The other new artist winners who did not perform (presumably because they weren’t asked) were Bon Iver, Spalding, Evanescence and Christina Aguilera.