It’s a little funny — though maybe not to her or her fans — to think about how Beyoncé, now literally the most-awarded artist in Grammy history after her four wins on Sunday (Feb. 5), is also now the figure most associated with long-suffering frustration on Music’s Biggest Night.
Despite her 32 career victories — mostly across the R&B and pop categories (and even a Big Four win, song of the year for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” in 2010) — the discourse surrounding the Grammys has increasingly titled towards album of the year being considered, particularly for veteran stars, as the only award of true Recording Academy validation. It’s almost become like the NBA, where discussion of a player’s regular-season accomplishments is constantly held in the shadow of how many championships they’ve won, if any. And Beyoncé, despite her three prior album of the year nominations and general reputation as one of this century’s greatest album artists, had still yet to win the big one going into this year’s ceremonies.
It was a fact not lost on the producers, host or other nominees of this year’s Grammys — where, of course, Beyoncé was once again up for the top prize, this time for her unanimously acclaimed Renaissance set. Queen Bey’s regal presence was hyped up for at least an hour before she actually arrived at the awards — Trevor Noah joking about the L.A. traffic and promising “she’s on the way!” when she was nowhere to be found upon her “Cuff It” winning best R&B song early in the proceedings. Her record-breaking fourth win on the evening was much teased throughout the evening, and once it arrived (with Renaissance taking best dance/electronic album), much celebrated, including by an emotional Bey herself. Upon “About Damn Time” beating Renaissance single “Break My Soul” for record of the year, Lizzo paid special tribute to the artist she said she’d skipped her 5th grade literature class to see live decades earlier, calling her “the artist of our lives.” The spotlight on the album of the year award just got brighter and brighter throughout the proceedings, and whoever would ultimately rise up to accept it: Beyoncé or Not Beyoncé.
And when host Noah handed the microphone to 78-year-old Harry Styles superfan Reina to read the name of the winner, it was pretty clear Not Beyoncé would triumph for another year. The surprise win for Styles’ Harry’s House — as much as it can be considered a surprise when a monstrously successful and largely acclaimed album by one of the world’s biggest stars achieves basically anything — and fourth straight loss for Beyoncé may lead to a lot of tough questions for the Grammys in the days ahead.
Of course, it must be said that as much as the Grammys are often discussed as if the producers themselves are the ones autonomously deciding to reward artists of their choosing, the Recording Academy in fact has thousands of voting members — from all across various backgrounds and genres within the industry — who vote on the awards, with a variety of voting interests beyond what winners would be best for the Academy. And Beyoncé is far from the only all-time great to never take home album of the year; from Pink Floyd and Elton John to Prince and Madonna to Jay-Z and fellow 2023 nominee Kendrick Lamar, legends from nearly every genre and era can rightfully claim to have been unfairly snubbed in the category.
But Beyoncé’s continued shutout within the category, after being at least a co-favorite in each of her last three nominations, will certainly raise concerns about whether the right voting system (or voting body) is currently in place — either to recognize Beyoncé specifically or contemporary hip-hop and R&B artists in general. And at a time when superstars like Drake and The Weeknd are increasingly outspoken about their distrust of the Grammys, it’s also worth wondering how the Recording Academy will ever be able to prove credibility with fans or artists if the century’s most universally beloved and venerated pop artist keeps getting passed over for the Grammys’ biggest prize.
Grammy post-game discussions about why one album didn’t win invariably end up being unfair to the one that actually did. While the Recording Academy has long been accused of being out of touch with pop’s mainstream, that’s certainly not a credible criticism with regards to Harry’s House — one of the best-performing and best-liked pop albums released in 2022. It’s not an album many would argue necessarily pushed top 40 forward, and it was certainly less musically expansive than Renaissance (or other sets nominated from Bad Bunny and Lamar) but it was also undeniably vital to the year’s culture, and one with millions of passionate supporters no doubt elated today to see it awarded the music industry’s highest annual honor. As far as AOTY winners go, it’s nowhere near a catastrophic or indefensible choice. But it’s still Not Beyoncé — and in 2023, when Ms. Carter also has a rapturously received album up for the honors, that’s enough to make its selection controversial.
Styles additionally did himself (and the Academy) no favors with a bit of wording in his acceptance speech he’d perhaps like to have back, where he claimed that this kind of win “doesn’t happen to people like me very often.” He likely intended “people like me” to mean former boy band or teen-pop stars, in which case, he certainly wasn’t wrong; Big Four Grammy success has rarely come to anyone outside of Michael Jackson from those worlds. But as artists from so many marginalized groups are fighting so hard to be properly recognized and represented in the industry’s mainstream, for a good-looking cis white man — who’s spent nearly his entire career at the top — to claim any kind of underdog or outsider status doesn’t quite track, especially when a Black woman like Beyoncé — who’s been around for decades longer than Styles, performing at a consistently sky-high commercial and artistic level — still can’t get through that door.
It’s all also probably a little unfair to the Recording Academy, given the diverse spate of winners across their major categories this year. Black women did take two of the Big Four, with pop star Lizzo an ecstatic winner of record of the year and jazz singer Samara Joy emerging from the most wide-open best new artist race of recent years. While blues-rock veteran Bonnie Raitt’s “Just Like That” might not have been the most culturally urgent song of the year winner — it was the only of the 10 nominees to not reach the Billboard Hot 100 — it was a nice moment of recognition for an artist whose musical excellence has long outlasted her top 40 relevance (particularly in a songwriters category, where she hasn’t always been recognized). And it’s worth noting that while Styles’ gender and background may always give him a leg up in industry races like this, there’s hardly been a parade of white men taking home album of the year at the Grammys recently; Beck was the last one to win, for Morning Phase in 2015. (Guess who else was nominated that year, natch.)
The Grammys did paint themselves in a little bit of a corner with this year’s ceremony, though — both via the incredible emphasis placed on Beyoncé Watch throughout the evening’s proceedings, and with the massive hyping of this album of the year race. The award was given even greater focus this year than usual, thanks to a series of pre-filmed videos interspersed throughout the show, in which superfans of each of the 10 nominated artists pleaded their case for their fav to take home the honor, with the 10 fans (including victorious Reina) also appearing at the awards themselves. The combination made it feel like the entire rest of the evening — awards, performances and all — was just a prelude to the album of the year showdown, and that it wasn’t so much a 10-way competition for the top prize as it was Beyoncé vs. The Field.
And it also didn’t help that this year’s Grammys…. well, they really coulda used a Beyoncé win to give the show a little bit of an enduring identity. Despite running for over three and a half hours, the show often felt like it was a little thin on must-see material — with a lot of the biggest stars (Adele, Taylor Swift, Beyoncé herself) deciding they were better off spending the night as attendees rather than performers, and recurring bits like the album of the year segments (and performers getting extended introductions from real-life friends) starting to feel like more like padding as the evening progressed. There were still jaw-dropping moments, like Bad Bunny’s incendiary show-opening mega-mambo, Sam Smith and Kim Petras’ unprecedented win for non-binary and trans visibility, and a truly historic collection of rap legends passing the mic down the timeline for the show’s hip-hop 50th anniversary celebration, but they were far apart and felt disconnected. A closing Beyoncé win really would’ve tied the show together.
It wasn’t to be for 2023, though, and it’s hard to imagine what year it will be for at this point. If Beyoncé wasn’t willing to commit to a performance (or even necessarily an appearance) ahead of time this year — even in a year she was highly likely to make Grammy history regardless of whether or not she took home AOTY — perhaps next time she’s nominated, she won’t even be in the building, making it an unmitigated disaster for the Grammys whether she wins or not. It’s not right that the state of the Grammys should be tied this directly to the success of one artist in one category, but when that artist and that category are both given such an outsized degree of focus, it’s not exactly surprising, either. And if they’re going to continue down this path, they’re going to continue to find themselves in boiling-hot water when the “artist of our lives” isn’t the final artist called to their winners’ circle.