Critic's Notebook: Tough Love for Taylor Swift and Other Grammy Nomination Takeaways
This year brought some welcome diversity and singled out some worthy artists — Pusha T, Ella Mai and more — but generally suggested it’s business as usual for the music awards.
That little gramophone emoji is all over socials, which can only mean one thing: It’s Grammy time.
The 61st Grammy nominations rolled out this morning, after having been pushed back for — of all things — the funeral of George H.W. Bush. The annual telecast is a swollen affair, famous for featuring an ungodly number of categories — and, as such, every year a whole slew of narratives emerge as the industry whips you into a froth to reminder you that music is still good and vital in the streaming era. But all awards shows on the EGOT echelon are pure, uncut PR, of course, and this year is no different.
The Grammys have always been the butt of jokes around Hollywood, for one because it’s an exceptionally bloated event in a sea of other bloated events. It’s a silly ritual with silly parties. Perhaps its unpretentiousness (relative to, say, the Oscars) is one of the best parts about it. It’s not for the critics; it’s more for the people, those driving mainstream consensus. But as its nominations have expanded, the list of awards feels endless and in dire need of a massive trim-down (which, of course, will never happen).
This year, a clear overarching narrative has failed to emerge. Yes, the Grammys feel somewhat more inclusive than in years past. There are, for example, more women and women of color and at least one trans artist, Sophie. But this is still an industry that is rooted in inequality and poor representation.
The big procedural change-up for the Recording Academy was to expand the traditional big four categories (best new artist and album, song and record of the year) from five nominees to eight, which makes room for artists that might have otherwise gotten the classic snub. This feels like a win-win. The Recording Academy can pat itself on the back for appearing more inclusive, and more artists can partake in the promotional crawl from here until the Feb. 10 ceremony.
For those keeping count, singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile locked down six nominations and R&B chanteuse H.E.R. racked up an impressive five. Stalwart of awards shows Beyonce registered three noms, which now unsurprisingly makes her the most nominated woman in Grammy history.
On the flip side, problematic sad-boy SoundCloud rappers like 6ix9ine and the deceased XXXTentacion were shut out, the latter because of technicalities. Nevertheless, the Recording Academy is “mulling over” whether to included Tentacion in the "In Memoriam" segment. (Here’s a tip to anyone in the Academy reading this: Don’t.)
On the subject of omissions, Taylor Swift’s Reputation received one nom, and certain Swifties and journalists are already calling foul, with some underscoring that Bradley Cooper is nominated for more awards for A Star Is Born. But let’s be honest: Reputation is “divisive” because it’s not very good, and her loyalists just don’t want to admit that it’s a pretty unremarkable offering from the singer, who feels lost on that record. Let’s think of Swift’s omission less as a snub than as tough love.
Otherwise, the best pop vocal category is full of legit nominees like Ariana Grande, which is always nice to see in an era overrun with bad singers. And it’s hard not to root for “Boo’d Up,” by Ella Mai and produced by DJ Mustard, in the song of the year category.
The best rap album category is an interesting one, with Pusha T's ruthless Drake-dragging Daytona — perhaps the year’s most electrifying big-tent album (and the only good thing MAGA chud Kanye West was a part of this year) — going up against Mac Miller's posthumous Swimming (his first nomination) and Cardi B's Invasion of Privacy. It will be interesting to see if Pusha wins, if only to hear if he uses his acceptance speech to open any wounds in an all-time classic beef that has been simmering for months now.
For the most part, though, this year's crop of nominations shows that it’s business as usual in Grammyland. The perennials are all here. The red carpet will be rolled out and peppered with inanities. We all know the drill. The evening seems primed to tick all the usual boxes to drive more streams and brand-building. The fireworks — if any — will come on the night of the taping, when musicians will get a chance to speechify unscripted. And we’ll get to find out if the Recording Academy is foolish enough to memorialize an abuser in this cultural moment.