The announcement of the 2021 Grammy Award nominations on Tuesday (Nov. 24) resulted in one of the most surprising groups of general category competitors in recent memory, as the Big Four (album of the year, record of the year, song of the year and best new artist) was filled with both superstar nominees as well as out-of-nowhere newcomers. Yet the pop categories were, in some ways, just as intriguing, with household names leading the pack, A-listers shockingly snubbed from the competition, and a few noms genuinely making history.
Here are the key takeaways from the 2021 Grammy pop nominations, with a focus on the best pop vocal album, best pop solo performance and best pop duo/group performance categories (we’ll save the analysis of best traditional pop vocal album — with nominees like James Taylor, Rufus Wainwright and Burt Bacharach — for another occasion).
1. Taylor Swift and Dua Lipa are the pop category front-runners…
Both superstars have to be feeling pretty great about their Grammy night chances, with multiple nominations in the Big Four as well as in the pop categories. Swift, who’s won a pair of album of the year Grammys, could make it a hat trick in 2021 with Folklore, while her No. 1 hit “Cardigan” is up for song of the year; meanwhile, former best new artist recipient Lipa shows up in the three other general categories (album of the year for her lauded sophomore effort, Future Nostalgia, and record of the year and song of the year for its lead single, “Don’t Start Now”).
In addition to the Big Four showings, Swift and Lipa scored three pop category nods each, including best pop vocal album. While “Cardigan” and “Don’t Start Now” will compete for best pop solo performance, Swift notched a nomination in the best pop duo/group performance category for “Exile,” her duet with indie-rock favorite (and former best new artist winner!) Bon Iver. And Lipa shows up in the same category for her collab with J Balvin, Bad Bunny and Tainy, “Un Dia (One Day).” Because of their nods within and outside of the pop categories, Swift and Lipa could both conceivably dominate the 2021 Grammys, or end up splitting up the accolades between them.
2. …But don’t count out Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber.
Neither Gaga nor Bieber were able to score a Big Four nod, but both top 40 mainstays could still have a solid Grammy evening with multiple nominations in the pop categories. Bieber placed in three categories with three different songs — “Yummy” for best pop solo performance, “Intentions” with Quavo for best pop duo/group performance, and over in the country categories, his Dan + Shay team-up “10,000 Hours” for best country duo/group performance — and his Changes album could win best pop vocal album. Although his Purpose follow-up didn’t give him a second career album of the year nomination, Bieber, who’s been given one Grammy in his career, still has a shot walk away from the 2021 ceremony as a five-time career winner, even if that shot might be a little long.
As for Gaga, her Chromatica era earned her two noms this year, for best pop vocal album and best pop duo/group performance for her Ariana Grande collaboration “Rain On Me.” The longtime Grammy favorite, who won a pair of Grammys at the 2020 ceremony for her A Star Is Born work, shouldn’t be overlooked in the pop categories as she tries to add to her trophy case.
3. BTS (and K-pop) finally breaks through.
In the months leading up to 2021 Grammy nominations, the K-pop question kept surfacing: during a year in which Korean acts made incredible strides across the global pop landscape, would the Recording Academy finally recognize that cultural shift in a major category? At last, BTS has done it: after their Love Yourself: Tear album was up for best recording package at the 2019 ceremony, the world-conquering group has officially earned its first Grammy nomination, as their No. 1 smash “Dynamite” will compete in the best pop duo/group performance category.
The nomination should absolutely be viewed as historic: no modern K-pop act has been able to score a Grammy nod, and months after BTS scored a groundbreaking Hot 100 chart-topper with “Dynamite,” they’ve continued to expand the boundaries of what a K-pop artist can accomplish within and outside of the U.S. music industry. No, a potential Big Four nomination didn’t come to fruition for BTS or any other K-pop act — there was certainly hope for a record of the year nod for “Dynamite,” or acts like Blackpink and SuperM to show up in the best new artist race — but after performing at last year’s ceremony as part of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” remix extravaganza, BTS can roll up to the 2021 ceremony as nominees in their own right, and that shouldn’t be downplayed.
4. Harry Styles is golden, at long last.
Amazingly, Harry Styles had never been nominated for a Grammy — as either a member of One Direction or as a solo artist — prior to today, when he scored three nods thanks to his highly successful Fine Line era. “Watermelon Sugar,” Styles’ first career Hot 100 No. 1, is up for best pop solo performance, while Fine Line will compete for best pop vocal album; outside of the pop categories, his clip for “Adore You” snagged a nomination for best music video, where he’s the only pop representative of the five nominees.
The fact that One Direction was shut out by the Recording Academy over the course of the group’s five-album, stadium-conquering run was a bummer for Directioners, as was Styles’ 2017 self-titled solo debut being shrugged off. Fine Line has been such a huge hit that Styles was expected to capture at least one general category nomination, and while that didn’t happen, his first three Grammy placements is a pretty good consolation prize.
5. “Un Dia” provides a sneakily big nom for Latin pop.
Three years after “Despacito” became the first predominantly Spanish-language song to compete in the best pop duo/group performance category, “Un Dia (One Day),” the superstar team-up between J Balvin, Bad Bunny, Dua Lipa and Puerto Rican producer Tainy, has followed in its footsteps. The showing represents Tainy’s first career Grammy nod, while Bad Bunny’s YHLQMDLG album will also compete in the best Latin pop or urban album category.
Unlike “Despacito,” “Un Dia (One Day)” has not been a smash in the U.S. — the song has peaked at No. 63 on the Hot 100 chart. That makes its nomination here a bit surprising, but arguably even more important for the process of normalizing non-English singles appearing in the pop categories at the Grammys. Bilingual songs that aren’t necessarily record-breaking smashes can be recognized, too!
6. The Weeknd, Halsey and Selena Gomez lead the snubs.
There are some Grammy years in which a lack of major pop releases during the eligibility period makes it easier for newer artists to break through and snag an unexpected nomination or two. This was not one of those years: in fact, the pop field was so crowded that multiple A-listers were left out in the cold. The Weeknd must be considered the major snub of these nominations, with zero Big Four recognition after being penciled in as a front-runner — but being shut out completely, including in pop categories in which his After Hours album and No. 1 smash “Blinding Lights” figured to make noise, is nothing short of stunning.
Similarly, Halsey and Selena Gomez both had major albums that sported Hot 100-topping singles in “Without Me” and “Lose You To Love Me,” respectively, but neither could secure a single nod. There are other examples, too — Katy Perry will have to wait another year to try and win her first career Grammy, and 5 Seconds of Summer still hasn’t received a nod — which makes the relative newcomers who did score nominations this year, like Doja Cat for “Say So,” all the more impressive.
7. Billie Eilish, last year’s big winner, is back for more.
In January, Billie Eilish became the first artist in 39 years to sweep the Big Four categories at the Grammys, and did so at the age of 18. Pity those who thought her Grammy dominance could only be confined to one year: Eilish racks up four more nods today, including a repeat showing in record of the year and song of the year for her top 10 hit “Everything I Wanted,” which also places in best pop solo performance (the one category in which she was nominated but lost at the 2020 ceremony, when Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” toppled “Bad Guy”).
Eilish will enter the 2021 having won 5 out of 6 possible Grammys — that’s Adele-level consistency for converting nominations into wins. Time will tell whether Eilish racks up more wins with the first single she released after her album of the year winner When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, but underestimate her at your own risk.