Dance music is arguably having one of its biggest years ever at the Grammy Awards, led by our Queen Beyoncé, nominated in both best dance/electronic recording and best dance/electronic album for her club-oriented LP Renaissance and its life-giving lead single, “Break My Soul.”
That nomination caused a stir in the dance music community, with many celebrating its inclusion as a win for the Black and queer roots of dance music, the leading dance producers who worked on the LP, and the visibility of house music in the mainstream realm while others side-eyed it as not entirely of the dance world.
Beyond the presence of this pop icon, the rest of the nominees are tried and true Grammy favorites, with previous winners Diplo, Kaytranada, David Guetta and RÜFÜS DU SOL all up for awards along with seven-time nominee Bonobo and three-time nominee ODESZA.
What does it all mean? Ahead of the presentation of the dance categories on the Grammys pre-telecast this Sunday (Feb. 5), we hash it all out.
In 2023, the Grammys have fully settled into their post-nominations review committee era, meaning the dance categories, among others, were determined by majority vote rather than a panel of experts. How do you think the removal of these review committees has affected the dance nominees pool this year?
ZEL MCCARTHY: Do you remember a few years ago when a woman rode a horse into a nightclub in South Beach? I think they got as far as the dance floor before the horse got spooked, the rider got thrown and unbridled chaos was unleashed. Of course, it’s the album artwork of Renaissance that makes this club tale apposite, as Beyoncé, a divine being known primarily as a pop artist, rode a mirrorball-encrusted horse into the proverbial club that is the Dance Field this year and the result is chaotic. Disco visual aesthetics notwithstanding, “Break My Soul” is really a house-inspired record more than an actual dance track, but the Robin S sample is its stable pass into the paddock. Plus, as a tune, it undeniably slaps.
That said, Renaissance is not a dance album. The Grammys seem to know this, since two of the album’s tracks earned noms in the R&B and Traditional R&B fields. Given the exacting parameters each field establishes for itself, it strains credulity that some sort of nominations review committee-type invisible hand didn’t have something to do with leading this horse to the wrong starting line, perhaps in an effort to bolster the category’s star power, or maybe improve the jockey’s own record-breaking stats in this year’s derby. Either way, everybody knows that, when someone lets a horse into a club, you gotta shut it down.
KAT BEIN: I think the obvious knee-jerk reaction is to say, “Beyoncé’s inclusion in the dance category seems to be a clear-cut result of this change,” but in reality, the dance category has long been a haven for strange pop inclusion. Should David Guetta and Bebe Rexha‘s “I’m Good (Blue)” be nominated simply because David Guetta was once a serious French DJ and producer, and this track interpolates a Eurodance hit from 25 years ago? Yeah, it has synths, but it has more hallmarks of modern pop music than electronic history. It’s a pop homage to the dance world… which is basically what Beyoncé’s album is as well, although Bey brings a touch more art to the table.
I think the greater issue at play, if it is at all an issue (and people seem to think there is one), is how we define electronic dance as a genre versus modern pop, which is all made with synths and electronic sounds. That issue already existed. I don’t think The Chainsmokers have been a dance act since “Closer” came out and are rather a pop band, but we draw these weird lines to keep them in the “dance” category, as far as the industry seems to be concerned.
I don’t think much has actually changed in regard to nominations in the dance categories compared to anything that was nominated in the last five years. A major pop act just decided to make a dance record and submit for inclusion, and the timing is coincidental. We’ll see if the changes have any long-term effects.
KATIE BAIN: Without review committees in the mix to add a layer of tastemaking, it seems the dance Grammys have really settled upon a group of name recognition artists that feel safe and respectable, if not innovative, to nominate each year. No disrespect to any of these nominated acts, whom I’m generally all fans of, but to see the same artists over and over, and the same artists in both categories, in a genre that’s so incredibly diverse has to be at least partially a function of the review committees going away.
Is there anything surprising to you about this batch of nominees?
ZM: Given the bounty of excellent albums released this past year, it’s surprising that voters would have opted for three tonally similar albums of adult contemporary electronica and an album that is tantamount to a mixtape of singles from Diplo. Like, nothing here is technically bad, but is anything here inspiring?
On the recording side, the five nominees have so little in common with each other musically, it’s hard to compare them. Like the last few years, however, this category includes one or two tracks that are so forgettable, their inclusion speaks to the achievement of nomination campaigns above all.
KRYSTAL RODRIGUEZ: I wasn’t very surprised. I think many dance music fans would have predicted most of these artists, and some are also Grammy dance-category darlings. (Bonobo and RÜFÜS have each been nominated for best dance/electronic recording in three out of the last four years, for example.) What gets me is the overlap: not just in the nominees’ musical styles, but how many of them appear in both categories. Yes, these artists are very prominent in the dance community, but they represent only a sliver of what our vast world has to offer. Some diversity would be nice, along with new and fresh names.
KAT BEIN: I think people were surprised to see Beyoncé, but now that I sit with it, nothing is shocking.
KATIE BAIN: I’m both surprised and unsurprised by how unsurprising this batch of nominees feels.
Let’s talk about snubs! Who didn’t get the nod and should have?
ZM: The majority of dance and electronic music is instrumental and not song-based in the way pop, rock and other mainstream genres are. There are entire genres of house, techno, ambient and experimental music that are worthy of consideration, but it’s hard to expect artists to join the academy and seek that recognition given what the awards currently honor. For instance, if the membership does have an understanding of DJing and electronic music production as art forms, it isn’t reflected in the nomination of a cover version of a late ’90s novelty Eurodance record.
KR: I would have liked to see Eliza Rose & Interplanetary Criminal’s “B.O.T.A. (Baddest of Them All)” in contention for best dance/electronic recording. It represents so much of the last couple years in music — the rise of U.K. club music, TikTok-viral success stories, sampling an older song and updating it for today’s dance floors. It’s also just really cute and fun and good!
The lack of Fred Again.. in either category is also surprising. With huge tracks such as “Jungle,” a full album, a Swedish House Mafia collab, a sold-out tour and a widely talked-about Coachella debut, it was the kind of star-making year that you’d think would be capped off by a Grammy nod.
KAT BEIN: As Krystal said, was anything Fred Again.. released possible to nominate? He is literally the biggest thing in dance music right now. His music and hype is so omnipresent, the mere phrase “Fred Again.. vibes” has become a meme as artists in any corner of house music desperately seek to carve out a slice of said hype, ironically or not. I was at Portola Festival in San Francisco, and they had to shut the whole warehouse stage down because it was so full of people, they were gonna break a fire penal code. Not that popularity alone should demand nominations, but he’s everywhere else. Why not the nom list?
Also, I feel Shygirl would have been a great artist to nominate for almost anything. She works with incredible producers and brings a fabulous energy to her tracks, and definitely creates inside the rave music space. Her work is also pushing the envelope in an interesting way, which deserves reward. I also feel they should have given Swedish House Mafia some love as the legacy act! That album was really fun!
KATIE BAIN: I agree with everything that’s been said here, particularly how weird the exclusion of Fred Again.. is. Over at the Brit Awards, he’s nominated for album of the year, artist of the year and best dance artist. Given the incredible success he’s had and how widely beloved his music is, a nomination for him really could’ve marked a new type of dance music crossover at the Grammys. Feels like a missed opportunity. And yes Kat, I was also rooting for Swedish House Mafia.
If Drake‘s Honestly, Nevermind — which leaned fully into the sounds of the moment underground house — had been submitted to the Grammys, would these categories look different?
ZM: Even if 2023 Drake was cool with trophies like 2019 Drake was, it’s hard to imagine him getting behind Honestly, Nevermind. As an artist who feeds off of his audience, despite critical acclaim, it feels like there wasn’t enough of a popular response to the album to keep him interested in promoting it and thus, he fulfills the promise of the album title in the process.
KR: I don’t think so. Based upon the reactions following its release, Honestly, Nevermind was not particularly well-received. (I find that mildly bizarre, considering the success of his previous dance-inspired singles like “Take Care” and “Passionfruit.”) Maybe in an alternate world it slides into best album on Drake’s name alone, but beyond that, I don’t think it would be successful.
KAT BEIN: I am one of the biggest Drake fans, historically, and I just did not listen to that album in full. I started it and then I was like, “Honestly, nevermind.” I really liked seeing his Instagram posts from Ibiza, I will say that much.
KATIE BAIN: I love this album, but given the other nominees in this category, I’m not sure the Grammys are up to speed on the type of underground house it showcases. So, nah.
Best dance/electronic recording. Who will win? Who should win?
ZM: “Break My Soul” will win. Kaytranada & H.E.R.’s “Intimidated” is a worthy rival to Bey, but if the Queen deserves any award this year, it might as well be this one.
KR: “Break My Soul.” A hit, a moment, a lifestyle.
KAT BEIN: “Break My Soul” is an uplifting track with an uplifting music video, and she’s the winningest woman in Grammy history. Personally, I like the RÜFÜS song the most. It has the most dynamics and interesting sounds in it, which is I guess how I rate music. I also like the Diplo song, in spite of myself.
KATIE BAIN: “Break My Soul.” It will, and it should, win, particularly given that this category wasn’t even around when the music that inspired the song was in its heyday during the early and mid-’90s.
Best dance/electronic album. Who will win? Who should win?
ZM: Beyoncé should win, but not because Renaissance is a great dance album; it’s just a better body of work than the four other underwhelming nominees.
KR: A win for Renaissance is a win for Honey Dijon, Green Velvet, Luke Solomon, house music and disco.
KAT BEIN: Geez, my logic for Best Dance/Electronic Recording said Beyoncé, so maybe Beyoncé. Who should win? I think ODESZA did a really interesting excavation of themselves on The Last Goodbye, and I’m a sucker for interesting stories and artists who try. I have some friends who helped produce the Diplo album, and I would selfishly love to see them get Grammys. I think these are all good albums with merit, but I struggle to say these albums moved the needle forward for the art of electronic dance music in general. So, in a weird way, maybe Beyoncé does deserve to win by virtue of being the most conversational?
KATIE BAIN: Beyoncé will undoubtedly win and, as Krystal said, that’s undoubtedly a very good thing for further visibility of its collaborators and themes. I do have a soft spot in my heart for ODESZA, who probably thought it was theirs to lose until Beyoncé rode in on her crystal horse. Considering that there were five years between this and their last album, it also seems unlikely we’ll be seeing them again in this category for awhile.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
ZM: For the last year, the Recording Academy has touted its many reforms as being emblematic of a “new” academy. The televised show itself is operating in compliance with a highly touted inclusion rider, and all indicators from within and around the organization are that it is continuing to lead a recalcitrant industry towards meaningful improvements in equity and diversity. But the dance music industry has very quietly and deliberately resisted any such changes to the two dance field awards. Dance music power brokers have mollified concerns from Recording Academy leaders by upholding the existing categories as sufficient, and the overwhelmingly white and male nominees in those categories as accurate reflections of the state of dance and electronic music. Regardless, the music keeps on moving on. Maybe one day, the academy will catch up.
KR: I still think dance music and electronic music should be separate categories.
KAT BEIN: This was the year I acknowledged that I am indeed an “old head,” and if that colors my interpretation of things as a critic, I will acknowledge it, but I will not apologize.
KATIE BAIN: I’m obviously biased and I say this every year, so not to beat a dead horse (in the club), but the dance categories really do deserve shine on the televised ceremony, particularly given how the nominations often reflect their role as a tangent of mainstream pop. I thought Beyoncé could be the one to inspire that move to primetime this year, but, just like always, we’ll see you at the pre-telecast.