It’s a Whole New Era for the Grammys

The 2020 Grammy nominations have been revealed, and there’s much to talk about. The freshmen have the run of the school now, as three artists have cornered the major categories with their breakout records. Lizzo, Billie Eilish, and Lil Nas X lead the pack. The Midwestern rapper, singer, and flautist’s Cuz I Love You netted eight nods, while the 17-year-old pop phenom and the net-savvy 20-year-old with the meteoric country-trap hit pulled in six apiece. This is a noteworthy change of pace for a show that has caught hell in this decade (as well as others) for choosing the old guard over new talent, and for siding with artists who write songs and play instruments over gifted vocalists and performers who use outside producers, writers, and/or session players. The Grammys made a lot of smart choices this year, but also a few offbeat ones.

Pumping new blood from breakthrough pop artists into this notoriously boomer-friendly show comes at a cost. Most of the nominees in general categories like Song of the Year and Album of the Year are riding in on big hit records. That means less space for quieter, critically acclaimed records. R&B singer-guitarist H.E.R. and country singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile are the only nominees in the big song and album categories who haven’t headlined a festival or had a No. 1 single or album. It seems like the voting group tried to make up for this by reaching beyond the beaten path for Best New Artist, where folk-pop singer Maggie Rogers holds court with funk and soul acts Black Pumas and Tank and the Bangas. This also means that pure rappers were overlooked in the cross-genre categories in favor of artists like Lizzo and Lil Nas X (whose music uses rap as building blocks but branches past it into soul, pop, country, and more).

Lizzo getting nods in pop, R&B, traditional R&B, and urban contemporary categories this year is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it speaks to the slippery versatility of both the album and the artist that she successfully pitched “Truth Hurts,” “Exactly How I Feel,” and “Jerome” to different genre categories. But if they all go her way in January, it could be a repeat of the Soul Train Awards war from this weekend, where Cuz I Love You beat out Ari Lennox’s Shea Butter Baby for Album of the Year, inspiring a negative response from Ari and a protracted, ponderous conversation about the limits of soul music and what kinds of sounds are and aren’t intended for black audiences. (Since black performers were present at the scene of the births of jazz, soul, rock, folk, and country music, the very idea of music that isn’t “for” us is jokes.) Ari is only represented here by the presence of Dreamville’s Revenge of the Dreamers III in the Best Rap Album category. Solange’s When I Get Home is nowhere to be found. With certain exceptions, it sort of feels like the academy is short-changing artists who work well within one very specific genre.

This is also true of Spanish-speaking artists like Bad Bunny, who had a big enough year to get nominated against himself for Best Latin Rock, Urban, or Alternative Album but didn’t get recognized anywhere else in the proceedings. A show that goes out of its way to point out differences between rock and alternative music; traditional R&B and “urban contemporary”; and country, Americana, roots rock, and bluegrass is showing its ass jamming multiple unique genres into the same category. It would be inconceivable for a rock artist and a rapper to get slotted in a category by their ethnic background. The rap categories won’t even let Post Malone in anymore because it was successfully argued that what he does isn’t exactly rap. Even if they don’t show them all on television — R&B and country fans know this struggle all too well — there should be more and better classifications and recognition, in a show that purports to be an authority on goings on in American music, for artists making an impact here albeit in a different language.

Speaking of snubs, missing from the Album of the Year nominees is Taylor Swift, whose Lover seemed like a lock to be shortlisted for the night’s top honor. Lover’s her second album in a row to miss this mark; back in February, Reputation lost its lone nomination, Best Pop Vocal Album, to Ariana Grande. Overlooking Lover is an interesting choice for a solid, successful record by a two-time AOTY winner. (Fearless and 1989 took it in 2010 and 2016, respectively.) Is Swift having a Meryl Streep moment? In 40 years of memorable performances, Streep has won the Oscar for Best Actress exactly twice, for Sophie’s Choice and The Iron Lady. It makes you wonder if there isn’t just some secret limit to the number of times you can clean house at an awards show. Katharine Hepburn and Daniel Day-Lewis are the only people in a century to win top acting Academy Awards more than twice. In 60 years, only Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, and Frank Sinatra have pulled a hat trick with Album of the Year.

Lightning round: While we’re splitting hairs about what’s pop and what’s not, it’s peculiar for Beyoncé’s Lion King album to be nominated next to Ed Sheeran in the Best Pop Vocal Album category when she almost always gets seated in the urban ones. Lil Nas X’s six nominations and Tyler, the Creator’s Best Rap Album nod feel like history for LGBTQ hip-hop artists, and especially in the latter case, since the most frequently awarded rapper in that category is Eminem, who in 25 years has never read the memo about who can and can’t use gay slurs. It’s unfortunate that the Pistol Annies’ Interstate Gospel and Maren Morris’s “Girl” didn’t get nods in the country categories; it’s a travesty that the Highwomen album didn’t come out a week earlier this year to make eligibility. It’s surprising to see Bruce Springsteen’s excellent Western Stars album absent from all rock categories. It speaks to the current confusion about what rock even is anymore (or, to an opening of the borders of popular guitar music) that Tool, Vampire Weekend, Gary Clark Jr., Brittany Howard, and the 1975 are all up for Best Rock Song. That’s the kind of powerful spread that would keep me in serious suspense as a kid. Will this ceremony restore the feeling? Will they just give everything to Bon Iver because he plays a mean guitar? Can Father of the Bride have its things? Time will tell.