This year, for the first time in 27 years, the final nominations in the Grammys’ Big Four categories were determined by the Academy’s 11,000 voting members without being second-guessed by a review committee.
For the most part, the nominations are what you might expect. Olivia Rodrigo’s “drivers license,” Silk Sonic’s “Leave the Door Open” and Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” are right in the Grammys’ wheelhouse. They’re well-crafted records that did well with just about every constituency – fans, critics, radio, the industry. They were going to be in the finals, committee or no committee.
ABBA’s record of the year nomination for “I Still Have Faith in You” is a shocker. For one thing, the group had never previously been nominated for a Grammy in any category, though its masterminds Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus were nominated individually for their work on the Mamma Mia soundtrack (Andersson) and the Chess musical cast album (both of them). It seems reasonable that the committee might have bypassed that record in favor of something else.
What might the committee have favored? Perhaps Wizkid’s “Essence” (featuring Tems), a mellow, vibey track that is the front-runner to win in the new best global music performance category. The record peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 two weeks before first-round voting closed on Nov. 5, which is ideal timing. While we’ll never know for sure, “Essence” probably made the top 20 in the vote of regular voting members. If it did, the committee, were it still in place, likely would have given it a push into the top 10.
The album of the year nomination for Bennett & Gaga’s Love for Sale and the record of the year nod for their spry recording of Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” also may not have happened if the committee were still in charge. Bennett hadn’t been nominated in a Big Four category since 1994, when his MTV Unplugged won album of the year. That win, and a nomination in that category that same year for The Three Tenors in Concert 1994, caused some grumbling that the Grammys were out-of-touch.
That wasn’t really a knock on Bennett or The Three Tenors (José Carreras, Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti with conductor Zubin Mehta). It was just a reflection of the fact that hip-hop and alternative music were the most vital genres in music at that time, and neither was represented in the album of the year nominations. (The other three nominees that year were Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt, who had both won in the category previously, and Seal.) The controversy led Mike Greene, the Academy’s president/CEO at the time, to install a nominations review committee the following year.
Bennett has won 12 Grammys in competition since his 1994 album of the year win, but until now he had not made it back to a Big Four category. Bennett and Gaga’s first joint album, Cheek to Cheek (2014), wasn’t nominated for album of the year, nor were either of his best-selling duets albums: Duets: An American Classic (2006) or Duets 2 (2011).
It’s as if the committee was afraid that he might win again if he was nominated in a Big Four category – which might have triggered another round of complaints about the Grammys being out-of-touch or stuck in the past.
Favoring legacy artists, at the expense of more contemporary stars, is a longstanding Grammy practice. Legacy artists are hard to beat. They have decades worth of friends, associates and admirers in the Academy.
At the 1990 Grammys, Quincy Jones won album of the year for Back on the Block, which was smartly marketed as reflecting his journey “from be-bop to hip-hop.” It beat Mariah Carey’s debut album and M.C. Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, the first hip-hop album ever nominated in the category.
The following year, Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable With Love, a sentimental tribute to her father, Nat “King” Cole, won album of the year. Their silky duet version of “Unforgettable,” first a hit for the elder Cole in 1951, took record of the year, beating R.E.M.’s masterful “Losing My Religion” and Bryan Adams’ megahit “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You.”
No one questions the artistry of Jones or either of the Coles. But it sometimes seemed like every time the voters had a chance to salute a legacy artist, they took it. This goes way back in Grammy history.
In both 1965 and 1966, Frank Sinatra beat The Beatles for album of the year. In 1966, Sinatra’s A Man and His Music, a two-disc set in which he re-recorded songs from throughout his career, beat Revolver, one of the Beatles’ most prized albums.
The two acts – two of the greatest names in recording history — competed again in 1967 – for the third year in a row. This time The Beatles finally prevailed with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which beat a Sinatra collab with bossa nova giant Antonio Carlos Jobim. (If The Beatles hadn’t won for Sgt. Pepper’s, one of the most classic and impactful albums of all time, the Recording Academy’s credibility would likely never have recovered.)
Even after the nominations review committee was in place, if they let a legacy artist compete in a marquee category, the voters would often flock to that artist. Ray Charles won album of the year posthumously for 2004’s Genius Loves Company – beating three red-hot contemporary Black stars, Usher, Kanye West and Alicia Keys, as well as Green Day.
Three years later, Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters won album of the year, beating albums by West (again) and Amy Winehouse, among others.
The Academy’s voting membership is different today than it was in 1994 or 2004 or 2007 – through natural attrition as well as through the Academy’s concerted effort to expand and diversify its membership.
Harvey Mason jr., the Academy’s CEO, alluded to that in an interview with Billboard this week. Asked if he was at all nervous about what the voters might do, left to their own devices, he replied: “I wasn’t nervous. I felt like we’d done a lot of important work on our membership. We’ve done a lot of outreach into different communities that we felt were maybe underrepresented in our voting membership. … So I felt like the timing was right for our membership to be able to directly decide who the nominees were. That’s why we felt good with removing the nominations review committees at the time that we did it.”
Asked about Wizkid not making the record of the year finals, Mason said “It is a great record. He’s a very talented artist. I can’t speak to why it didn’t make it, but I do really love the record.”
Mason reported being pleased overall with the nominations. While he expressed some concerns, such as the nominees in the rock categories skewing toward older, veteran artists at the expense of younger stars, he felt more confident than he did on Nominations Day 2020, when he had the unenviable assignment of talking up nominations that included not a single nod for The Weeknd.