Whatever controversies the 59th annual Grammy Awards may face, an Oscars-style #GrammysSoWhite hashtag campaign won’t be one of them. The five most-nominated artists at the Feb. 12 ceremony are all R&B or hip-hop artists, with Beyoncé claiming nine nods, followed by Drake, Rihanna and Kanye West with eight apiece and Chance the Rapper with seven. Even The Recording Academy’s wild card in the best new artist category is emerging hip-hop artist Anderson .Paak, who’ll doubtless benefit from the Grammys’ annual attempt at a star-is-born coronation.
Filling out the new artist category: another hip-hop act (Chance), the year’s most wildly successful pop/dance breakout (The Chainsmokers) and two female country singers (Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini). Even alt-country got a surprisingly big play with Sturgill Simpson as the outlier in the album of the year race, which otherwise happens to be filled with the four best-selling albums released during the time frame: Beyoncé, Drake, Adele and Justin Bieber.
What is notably missing? Alt-rock and baby boomer guitar acts, who are absent from the big four all-genre categories. Take album of the year, where slots that were widely expected to go to Radiohead and/or David Bowie instead went to Simpson and Grammy-deficient superstar Bieber, at last getting the love his camp has craved from The Recording Academy. The Grammys suddenly have a top slate that could easily be confused with an MTV Video Music Awards ballot — or, for that matter, the sales and streaming charts.
Not everyone in the Grammy-watching world immediately took to the idea of a roster so thoroughly dominated by artists who fall under an urban music banner, but “it’s a reflection of what’s being created,” says Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow. “There’s certainly no question that hip-hop and R&B have grown in scope and scale and are the mainstream not only in America but worldwide. And in the rock world, it would seem as if there has perhaps been less innovation, genre-bending and collaboration.”
Chris Anokute, a senior vp at Epic Records who has worked with such artists as Katy Perry and Iggy Azalea, knows some of his industry peers are alarmed by the “urban” takeover but couldn’t be more thrilled himself. “It’s a great representation of what’s really going on in America and what people want to listen to. And if 40 percent of the new artist nominations are hip-hop and another 40 percent are country? Yeah, I think that’s America. And if you think this is the new reality, give us another five years, when the millennials and Generation Z — the kids who didn’t grow up seeing genre or color — start taking over.”
But Portnow also doesn’t want to discount rock’s absence as coming down to a trick of the calendar. “We did have Beck [as an album of the year winner in 2015], so that wasn’t so long ago,” he points out. “And there may be a great rock album that came out the week after the eligibility period that’s going to be right up there next go-round.” But if Blackstar, Bowie’s most acclaimed album in 30 years — and, as his swan song, a sentimental favorite to boot — couldn’t beat the hip-hop tide, what odds do any of the next crop of modest indie bands face?
The calendar did work against Twenty One Pilots garnering more nominations than the five they or frontman Tyler Joseph received, as their slow-burning 2015 album straddled an earlier side of the Grammy eligibility divide. Other than that untraditional duo, Radiohead or Bowie, there were few obvious rock picks for the Grammys to look to — evident in genre-specific categories that had to be filled out by TV recordings from Alabama Shakes and Disturbed, an out-of-nowhere pick like the French metal band Gojira or by the year’s leading lady, Beyoncé, invading even the rock category thanks to her hookup with Jack White. Putting Simpson in also may serve as an accurate reflection of the fact that country and Americana are the other places disaffected rock fans have drifted to in lieu of serious excitement on the home front.
The need for a “confessional” album that was once the province of rock singer-songwriters? Fulfilled by Beyoncé’s wronged-woman song cycle… and also by, of all people, Bieber, whose crossover into both EDM and soul-baring finally made him irresistible even to a Grammy blue-ribbon panel. “Everyone in that category is deserving, but they didn’t face the same challenges as Justin,” says manager Scooter Braun. “They came in beloved and adored, while people were writing off Justin, thinking his career was over.”
And, of course, much of the R&B world has come to embrace Bieber as more or less one of their own, along with admiring six-time nominee Adele’s soul borrowings. For many music fans, then, the 2017 ceremony may represent a kind of coming together that was only dreamt of in the realm of politics in 2016: Black Americans and white Americans, united in their mutual love of… black music. In a divisive era where anything close to that kind of consensus is rarely achieved outside music, maybe Radiohead can wait.