The controversy over The Weeknd’s failure to receive a single nomination in the 63rd annual Grammy Awards has threatened to overshadow the nominations themselves.
Many saw The Weeknd’s instant classic single “Blinding Lights” as a front-runner, maybe the front-runner, to win record of the year. It wasn’t even nominated in that category—or for song of the year, best pop solo performance or best music video, other categories in which it was entered.
Sources close to the situation stated: “There were many conversations between the Grammys and The Weeknd team about his performance slated for the 2021 Grammys. There was an ultimatum given resulting in a struggle over him also playing the Super Bowl that went on for some time and [it] was eventually agreed upon that he would perform at both events. The Grammys had their nomination ballots as of Oct. 12 and had all these convos with The Weeknd team in the past month and today on Nov. 24, The Weeknd had not one nomination and is now completely ignored by the Grammys. This was the year that they were supposed to rise up. What is the process and where is the transparency?”
That’s pretty blunt, but it’s nothing compared to a tweet from The Weeknd himself: “The Grammys remain corrupt. You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency.”
Asked for a response, Harvey Mason Jr., the Recording Academy’s chair and interim president/CEO, supplied a statement to Billboard that read in part, “We understand that The Weeknd is disappointed at not being nominated. I was surprised and can empathize with what he’s feeling. His music this year was excellent…We were thrilled when we found out he would be performing at the upcoming Super Bowl and we would have loved to have him also perform on the Grammy stage the weekend before …To be clear, voting in all categories ended well before The Weeknd’s performance at the Super Bowl was announced, so in no way could it have affected the nomination process.”
Told, through a publicist, that a fairly tepid statement wasn’t going to quell this controversy, Mason got on the phone with Billboard for a brief Q&A.
First, a few clarifications. First-round Grammy voting did indeed end on Oct. 12, the date cited in the missive from The Weeknd’s camp. The Nominations Review Committee met to determine the nods in the Big Four categories—album, record and song of the year plus best new artist — on Oct. 27-28. The announcement of The Weeknd’s Super Bowl headlining gig was made public on Nov. 12.
The Recording Academy declined to say whether “Blinding Lights” was among the top 20 vote-getters from rank-and-file voting members in the record and/or song of the year categories, or whether The Weeknd’s album After Hours was among the top 20 vote-getters in album of the year. If they were, those entries would have been presented to the Nominations Review Committee. If they weren’t, they would not have been (per an Academy explanation of their process). The Academy has never divulged who is on the initial lists from which the committee picks the final nominees, despite calls for greater transparency.
The Academy revealed that The Weeknd’s camp entered After Hours in the best progressive R&B album category, the new name for best urban contemporary album, where The Weeknd won two of his three Grammys to date. In the Grammy screening process, the album was moved to the best pop vocal album category.
The Grammys have the prerogative to move recordings to the categories where they think they fit best, though that particular move may have cost The Weeknd a nomination. His past Grammy history shows his strength in the urban contemporary (now progressive R&B) category. Also, that category is much less congested. It had 77 entries this year, compared to 186 for best pop vocal album.
Nominations in the pop field are not reviewed by a committee, so The Weeknd’s failure to receive nominations for best pop solo performance for “Blinding Lights,” best pop duo/group performance for “In Your Eyes” (featuring Doja Cat) and best pop vocal album for After Hours is simply due to the fact that these titles didn’t get enough support from rank-and-file voting members.
The best music video category, where “Blinding Lights” also failed to be nominated, is committee-reviewed.
The Weeknd isn’t the Grammy nomination magnet you might imagine him to be. He has received 10 nominations over the years, but just eight for his own recordings. The other two are for featured roles on recordings by Wiz Khalifa and Beyoncé. He received seven nominations for his 2015 blockbuster Beauty Behind the Madness, but just one for its follow-up, Starboy, and none for his 2018 EP My Dear Melancholy.
The Weeknd opened the MTV Video Music Awards on Aug. 30 with a performance of “Blinding Lights” atop a New York skyscraper. It was one of the most captivating awards show performances in memory. In a story at the time, I wrote “Top that, Grammys.” It looks as if the Grammys won’t even have the chance to try.
Billboard: The scuttlebutt is that the Grammys’ relationship with The Weeknd became strained when he was planning to perform on both the Grammys and the Super Bowl. And that the Grammys retaliated by denying him any nominations.
Harvey Mason Jr.: No. First of all, the Super Bowl performance is [one week] after our show, so at no time would we be upset if he were to perform on the Super Bowl…Our show producer, Ben Winston, and CBS had some preliminary conversations. We would have loved to have him on our stage. I think he was working toward that happening.
Do you know The Weeknd?
I do not.
He used a strong word in characterizing the Grammys—“corrupt.” Your reaction to that?
It saddened me. I try to empathize with where that came from, but it was difficult to hear. I can understand he’s disappointed [at being shut out]. Everybody at the academy understands that he’s disappointed. I was personally surprised that he was not nominated.
This omission of “Blinding Lights” isn’t quite as egregious as when Prince’s “When Doves Cry” wasn’t nominated for record of the year in 1984, but it’s up there. “Blinding Lights” is a great record, a smash hit, impeccably crafted. It seemed to have everything that the Grammys historically have been about. I thought it was the front-runner to win record of the year.
I thought it had a shot [at winning] as well.
Have you reached out to him to try to talk to him today?
I have, yes. I have not spoken to Abel [Tesfaye, The Weeknd’s birth name], but I have spoken to his representatives and his label.
What did you tell them?
I think it’s probably best that I keep that conversation between the two of us. We had a couple phone calls.
Did you ask to speak to Abel?
No, I did not.
You’ve been nominated for five Grammys as a songwriter or producer and have lost them all, so you know what it’s like to have a disappointing experience with the Grammys.
I can imagine what he’s feeling, but I don’t pretend to put myself on the level of The Weeknd as one of the biggest artists in our industry. But I can imagine that he’s disappointed.
Might he still perform on the show?
The Weeknd has always been someone that the Academy has respected. I think a decision of that magnitude as far as the show would be made by Ben Winston. We’ve had him on the show [twice] in the past, and he’s always done incredible performances for us.