Lizzo is precisely the kind of artist the Recording Academy would like to see receive a Grammy nomination for best new artist. She broke through this year with a fresh and vibrant single, “Truth Hurts,” which has been No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks running. She’s in a genre, hip-hop, that the Grammys were slow to embrace. She’s a woman of color who exemplifies body positivity — even if you don’t happen to look like Beyoncé.
There’s just one hitch: Lizzo may not technically qualify. She may have released too much product prior to Oct. 1, 2018 — the start of the current eligibility year.
The Grammys’ Category Description Guide plainly states: “The artist must have released, as a featured performing artist, a minimum of five singles/tracks or one album, but not more than thirty singles/tracks or three albums prior to the current eligibility year.”
Lizzo had released two previous albums, two EPs and two collaborative mixtapes prior to the start of the current eligibility year. If you add up all the tracks from those releases, you’re over 30.
But the Grammys have a little wiggle room. They sometimes don’t count releases that were on small independent labels on the grounds that that didn’t really allow the artist a fair chance at breaking through. Lizzo’s 2013 debut album, Lizzobangers, was released on Totally Gross National Product. (It was re-released in 2014 on Virgin.) Her 2015 sophomore album, Big Grrrl Small World, was released on BGSW — an acronym for the album title.
The Recording Academy may employ this loophole to let Lizzo compete for a nom this year. (The Academy does not comment on eligibility questions until the ballot is finalized.)
This wouldn’t be the first time the Grammys have let artists compete for best new artist even though they had a large number of previous releases. Three years ago, they allowed Maren Morris to compete when she was on her fourth studio album. They discounted her first three studio albums, which were released on small labels (Mozzi Blozzi and Smith). That same year, they allowed Chance the Rapper to compete when he was on his fourth mixtape (counting one collab), Coloring Book. Chance won the award. Morris was nominated.
In 2015, Meghan Trainor competed with her fourth studio album, Title. It was her first major-label album following three self-released albums. Trainor won the award.
The most extreme example of the Grammys’ flexibility came in 2000, when Shelby Lynne was allowed to compete for best new artist when she was on her sixth studio album, I Am Shelby Lynne. As a result, Lynne won best new artist more than 11 years after the release of her debut studio album, Sunrise.
Fountains of Wayne (2003), Los Lonely Boys (2004), Feist (2007), Ledisi (2007), Jonas Brothers (2008) and Esperanza Spalding (2010) were all nominated when they were on their third studio albums. Spalding won in an upset for the ages over Justin Bieber, Drake, Florence + the Machine and Mumford & Sons.
The Grammys have had a hard time striking the right balance in this category. Some years, they have been too restrictive. Whitney Houston wasn’t allowed to compete for best new artist of 1985 because she had released a pair of duets the year before with Teddy Pendergrass and Jermaine Jackson. The duet with Pendergrass, “Hold Me,” was a top five hit on what was then called Black Singles, but it fell short of the top 40 on the Hot 100.
Even more absurd, Richard Marx wasn’t allowed to compete for best new artist of 1987 because he had released one track on the Nothing in Common soundtrack in 1986. The track, “Burning of the Heart,” wasn’t even a hit!
Other years, the Grammys have been too accommodating. Crosby, Stills & Nash won as best new artist of 1969 even though all three musicians were well-known. As a member of The Byrds, David Crosby had received a 1965 best new artist nomination.
(Current rules don’t allow anyone to compete for best new artist who has received a Grammy nomination, much less won a Grammy.)
For 1962, Robert Goulet won best new artist, even though he had been prominently featured on the Camelot Broadway cast album — a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 for six weeks in 1961. (He sang the instant standard, “If Ever I Would Leave You.”) Goulet was allowed to compete in 1962 because that was the year his first studio album was released.
There was evidently some grumbling about that. The very next year another performer who had appeared in a Broadway show released her debut album but the Grammys had tightened up the rules. And that’s why Barbra Streisand wasn’t allowed to compete for best new artist of 1963 — even though the Broadway album that kept her out of contention, I Can Get It for You Wholesale, hadn’t sold a fraction as many copies as Camelot had.
In fairness to the Recording Academy, it’s all but impossible to write rules that will be fair in every situation. The business keeps changing. Music keeps changing.
We’ll find out later this month if Lizzo is allowed to compete for best artist. It will come down to how the Grammy organization answers this question: Is it more fair to stick to the rules as written, or to not let the rules get in the way of a nomination for a worthy artist?
I think they’ll find a way to let her in.