Deborah Dugan, the exiled president and CEO of the Recording Academy, is right about at least one thing: There is an inherent conflict between the Academy’s stated goals of being transparent, diverse and progressive.
Starting in 1995, the final nominations in the “Big Four” categories — album, record and song of the year plus best new artist — have been decided by a select committee that reviews lists of the top vote-getters by rank-and-file members and selects the ones that it deems most worthy. The idea behind that in the beginning was to make the final nominations more progressive; more musically adventurous. In recent years, the committee’s main focus has appeared to be striking a better racial and gender balance.
In the committee’s first year, Pearl Jam‘s Vitalogy and Joan Osborne‘s Relish were nominated for album of the year. While it’s impossible to know for sure, it seems likely that neither album would been nominated if it had been up to rank-and-file voters. In the case of Pearl Jam, the voters of that era weren’t especially plugged in to the Seattle rock scene. Nirvana was never nominated in a Big Four category and didn’t win a Grammy in any category until nearly two years after Kurt Cobain‘s death in 1994. In the case of Osborne, her album and its lead single “One of Us” were just breaking at the point the nominations were announced. “One of Us” first entered the Hot 100 in the second week of December 1995. By the end of the year, Relish was only up to No. 46 on the Billboard 200. (Both album and single went on to make the top 10.) Also, Relish was passed over for a nomination for best rock album.
The committee was established after there was controversy in the industry over the 1994 nominations. Tony Bennett‘s MTV Unplugged and the Three Tenors’ The 3 Tenors in Concert 1994 were nominated for album of the year — while such more contemporary albums as Boyz II Men‘s II, Pearl Jam’s Vs., Pink Floyd‘s The Division Bell, R.E.M.‘s Monster, Snoop Dogg‘s Doggystyle and Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles were not nominated in that category.
The committee was also established to counter a tendency of rank-and-file voters to nominate their favorite artists year after year. Billy Joel received album of the year nominations with four consecutive studio albums from 1979-83. Bonnie Raitt was nominated with three consecutive studio albums from 1989-94. Sting was up for that award with three of his first solo albums.
But is the committee still necessary all these years later? The membership of the Academy has changed a lot since 1995. Many people who were voting members then have died or let their membership lapse or otherwise stopped voting. Many people who are voting now were too young then to be involved in the industry or the Academy. (A few young voters probably weren’t even born in 1995.)
Also the Academy has made some smart moves in recent years which have likely improved voting. They have cut down on the maximum number of categories that members may vote in on the final ballot. That number is currently 15, in addition to the Big Four categories. The thinking there was to limit voters to those categories they are most knowledgeable about.
If the Academy revealed the list of top vote-getters from rank-and-file voters, we could compare it to the final nominations and see for ourselves if the committee is improving the list, making substitutions but not really making it better or worse, or maybe even hurting matters. They don’t reveal the lists, so there’s no way to know.
But any time the committee elevates an artist who would otherwise not be nominated, it is, by definition, denying a nomination to someone who Academy members wanted to see nominated. There are only so many nominations slots in the Big Four categories: five, from 1958, the first year of the Grammys, through 2017, and now eight, starting last year.
This year, rank-and-file voters may well have chosen Lewis Capaldi as one of their top eight choices for best new artist. His “Someone Like You” was a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks, an impressive achievement for a traditional ballad in an era dominated by hip-hop and more uptempo pop music. The dramatic ballad is similar in style to Adele and Sam Smith, both of whom were crowned best new artist. But Capaldi failed to receive a best new artist nomination. So did Megan Thee Stallion, Summer Walker and Juice WRLD (who, sadly, died less than three weeks after the nominations were announced on Nov. 20).
The committee might point out that Capaldi is represented with a song of the year nomination. And they might say that were it not for their intervention, Black Pumas and Tank and the Bangas wouldn’t have received any nominations this year. That’s true. Their best new artist nods were their only nominations. The same is true of Maggie Rogers, though her best new artist nod wasn’t nearly as much of a surprise.
But for every artist who is elevated by the committee, somebody else is knocked out.
Ed Sheeran hasn’t been nominated in a “Big Four” category in four years. Two years ago, his smash hit “Shape of You” was passed over for record and song of the year nominations; his album ÷ (divide) was passed over for an album of the year nomination. Given Sheeran’s massive commerical success, these snubs suggest that the committee advanced other contenders instead.
While the committee determines the nominations, the winners are determined by the voters. Sheeran won in both down-ballot categories in which he was nominated: best pop solo performance for “Shape of You” and best pop vocal album for ÷ (divide).
You can’t have it both ways. You can’t be transparent on the one hand and diverse and progressive on the other — unless the membership is diverse and progressive. The Academy has aggressively recruited new members in the past two years, with a clear focus on bringing in more women, racial minorities and younger voters. By their count, 200 new voting members joined in 2018, followed by 590 more new voting members in 2019.
The Academy doesn’t reveal much about the nominations review committee process. But they have said that the committee reviews lists of the voters’ top 20 choices in the Big Four categories. And they have said those lists are presented to committee members in alphabetical order. So even the members of the committee don’t know if the broad membership ranked something first or 20th.
The Academy presents the list to the committee that way because it wants the committee members to judge the entries strictly on their own merits, and not be swayed by how the voters saw it. The policy is well-intentioned, but perhaps short-sighted. The members of that committee need to know if something was the voters’ first choice, or fifth, or 10th or 20th. Some members of that committee might want to honor the members’ wishes as much as possible, overriding them only when absolutely necessary. But they can’t know how the members voters if they’re not told.
Let’s say a mediocre record, album, song or new artist is No. 5 on the voting members’ list, and something really terrific is No. 6. I would be more inclined to support the committee making that substitution than I would if the committee was swapping out the voters’ No. 1 pick in favor of something they liked that was way down at No. 20. Where the contenders rank with the voters matters — or should.
As someone who has followed and reported on the Grammys for decades, I would like to see the day that the Academy disbands all its committees and allows the membership to have the final say.
But if the Academy wants to keep the committees, they should make sure their committee members have all the facts. How can the committee members do their job otherwise?