In spite of every curveball 2020 has thrown — one particularly tumultuous presidential election season, a disastrous pandemic of near-biblical proportions — the year has yielded some truly spectacular music. From Taylor Swift’s new indie-folk sound on her surprise album, Folklore, to the first English-language drop from the global sensation BTS, musicians continued to do what they do best: filter the universal feelings of joy and pain, and the need for connection through it all, into sublime works of sound. Perhaps that’s why, when the Recording Academy announced the nominations for the 2021 Grammys on Tuesday (November 24), many fans and artists were left scratching their heads.
Many were quick to point out surprising, if not altogether glaring, holes in the nominations; one headline even described the list as “a total disaster.” Notably absent from Album of the Year was Fiona Apple’s timely opus Fetch the Bolt Cutters, the first to receive a perfect Pitchfork rating in almost a decade, as well as anything from The Weeknd, who had a banner 2020. The Academy’s selection in this category has been widely scrutinized throughout the years. In 1985, for example, Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down beat out Prince’s Purple Rain; in 2000, Outkast’s Stankonia lost to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.
Elsewhere, Justin Bieber expressed a mix of gratitude and confusion over Changes‘s nomination in the Best Pop Vocal Album category, rather than be recognized as an R&B composition as he intended. “I am very meticulous and intentional about my music,” he wrote on Instagram. “With that being said I set out to make an R&B album. Changes was and is an R&B album. It is not being acknowledged as an R&B album which is very strange to me. I grew up admiring R&B music and wished to make a project that would embody that sound. For this not to be put into that category feels weird considering from the chords to the melodies to the vocal style all the way down to the hip hop drums that were chosen it is undeniably, unmistakably an R&B album!”
Arguably most puzzling, and certainly the most widely publicized, was the case of The Weeknd. His chart-topping hit, “Blinding Lights,” for which he won Best Video and Best R&B at the VMAs in August, was eligible, as well as his latest album, After Hours. Yet neither received a single nod, leading to speculation that the artist was intentionally snubbed over a rumored ultimatum given between performing at the Super Bowl or the awards themselves; he will headline the halftime show on February 7, just a week following the Grammys on January 31.
“The Grammys remain corrupt,” The Weeknd tweeted a few hours after the nominations were announced. “You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency.” In a subsequent tweet shared on Wednesday (November 25), he alluded to talks of a performance on the award show stage, writing, “Collaboratively planning a performance for weeks to not being invited? In my opinion zero nominations = you’re not invited!”
The backlash to the nominations arrived on the tail end of a particularly rocky year for the Recording Academy. In January, its former president and CEO Deborah Dugan, was placed on administrative leave five months after taking over for Neil Portnow in August 2019, and 10 days ahead of the 2020 Grammys; in March, she was fired. In her place, Recording Academy Chair Harvey Mason, Jr., became interim CEO on a volunteer basis, but the search for a new head was slowed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In a statement following the release of the list, Mason responded to The Weeknd’s criticism.
“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, and his contributions to the music community and broader world are worthy of everyone’s admiration,” he said in a statement shared with Variety. He also addressed the rumor of the Super Bowl ultimatum, adding, “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. All Grammy nominees are recognized by the voting body for their excellence, and we congratulate them all.”
In an interview with Pitchfork published the following day, Mason also responded to Bieber’s qualms. “We always want to respect the artist’s wishes. Art’s a funny thing because it’s so subjective, and at the Academy our goal is to honor excellence,” he said. “If he felt that was that type of a record, then, you know… I’ll just leave it at that. We try really hard to make sure people’s art is respected and evaluated in the right category.”
Though the nominations have left many sour, there is also a lot to celebrate. This will be the first Grammys since the word “urban” was dropped from many category titles, following widespread criticism for its lack of diversity and call-outs from artists for the term’s racialized connotations. Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion’s star continues to rise in spite of the traumatic assault she suffered earlier this year, earning a nomination for Best New Artist. And leading the nominations, Beyoncé became the most-nominated female artist in the award ceremony’s history with 62 overall.
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