DIVERSITY DOMINATES THE GRAMMYS
This year’s Grammy Awards may have represented a changing of the guard in the music industry.
A diverse group of nominees opened up the possibility of the industry moving forward; however, the artists who brought home trophies reminded the music world of the passivity and conservative decisions of Grammys past.
Over the last few decades, the Recording Academy (the group that hands out the Grammys) has rarely been called representative of the culture at large. They have been seen as out of touch, lacking a feel on the artistic pulse of the nation.
The list of nominations included stalwarts in rap and crossovers into R&B from Kendrick Lamar to Childish Gambino, and a number of recent winners and perennial favorites were absent. Adele and Beyoncé didn’t drop albums this year, and Taylor Swift’s Reputation and Sam Smith’s The Thrill Of It All came out too late for the Sep. 30 cutoff date. Drake’s More Life received critical and commercial respect, but isn’t really an album in the classic sense (it describes itself as a playlist and has been called a mixtape). Harry Styles came out with a hit “Sign of the Times” that Rolling Stone called its Song of the Year but was shut out by the academy.
One of the biggest surprises was the lack of love towards Ed Sheeran’s song “Shape of You,” which broke Billboard records for most time spent in the Top 10. We all have heard it, probably too much by now, but it has been certified as the most streamed song ever on Spotify, with over 1.5 billion listens. Even Sir Elton John is reported as having said Sheeran got “short-changed.”
It did get a win for Best Pop Solo Performance, but that’s small potatoes for an artist with such a dominant grip on the songwriting landscape. He didn’t even bother to show up to the ceremony.
There is a general consensus that says that the four most prestigious awards comprise the Mt. Rushmore of the Grammys, situated above the other awards. The top four categories are Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best New Artist.
This year, the Best New Artist nominations share little overlap with the other three categories.
The top three categories for established artists are album, song and record, with Song of the Year being a songwriting award and Record of the Year going to producers and performers.
There is an obvious change in the type of music selected for the most prestigious awards. Pop music is temporarily out of the spotlight. The love for rock and alternative music has faded, with country taking a backseat this year as well. Jay-Z led the way with eight nominations, with Kendrick Lamar and Bruno Mars following with seven and six respectively.
This is a far cry from just five years ago, when Album of the Year went to Mumford & Sons for Babel. The 2013 class of nominations for that award include four “white men doing alternative rock.” Aside from Mumford’s litter, there was the problematic Jack White solo debut, maligned for White’s apparently negative views on women, along with the solid choices of The Black Keys and Fun. (remember them?). Next to those, Frank Ocean’s R&B odyssey Channel Orange stuck out like a sore thumb (on a very caucasian hand).
This year, of the 15 acts nominated for the top three categories, only two fell under the academy’s classification as pop music. There are eight rap and five R&B songs or albums, with none of the pop works having been favorites to take home the prize (this is not counting Bruno Mars as pop, as he technically falls under the R&B category for the first time this year).
Of the ten nominees spread across the two categories of Best Pop Solo Performance and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, only Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee was up for the two major song awards. A remix of their song “Despacito,” which features Justin Bieber, has been crushing international radio all year due in part to its catchy melody.
Unbeknownst to many of its listeners, the song (mostly performed in Spanish) carries fairly raunchy sexual themes. Not all listeners though: in July, the BBC reported that Malaysia had banned state-owned broadcasters from playing it over their stations due to public complaints.
It’s not simply the genres that were diverse: it’s the players themselves.
One version of the song includes Justin Bieber singing in Spanish; Bieber was the only white male artist nominated for a major three award.
For the other top four category, Best New Artist, there was more diversity in the nominations than there has been in the recent past as well. This award has been thought of as the kiss of death at times in the past, with the winners sometimes falling into obscurity in the ensuing years.
Two of the five nominees this year featured on one of the songs of the year, Logic’s “1-800-273-8255.” Khalid and Alessia Cara (who took home Best New Artist) also share songwriting credit with Logic (who’s real name is Sir Robert Bryson Hall II) who had been nominated in the Song of the Year category.
More importantly, that song’s title is in reference to National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and CNN reported a major influx of calls after Logic’s performance at the Video Music Awards. Their performance of the song during the Grammys was the best moment of the night, as Logic ended with a monologue for the ages.
“Be not scared to use your voice, especially in instances like these when you have the opportunity,” Logic said. “Stand and fight for those who are not weak but have yet to discover the strength that the evil of this world has done its best to conceal. To all the beautiful countries filled with culture and diversity and thousands of years of history, you are not shithole countries.”
Music can occasionally be about more than just making money.
Already an Emmy winner for creating the show Atlanta for FX, Childish Gambino, also known as Donald Glover, got halfway to the heavily esteemed EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) with his newest album, Awaken, My Love!
The new album is not rap, which has been his backbone in the past. Instead, it is an R&B masterpiece that topped Billboard’s R&B Albums chart upon release, much like his previous two had in the Rap Album category.
“Redbone” is the stellar lead single, but the next track, “California,” represents just how wild his music can get. It sounds like he has a trumpet mute over his mouth as he lets loose a constant stream of unintelligible syllables.
This is not the Ke$ha of old, people. Kesha’s music (she dropped the “$” in 2014) sounds like a woman who has found her voice. After enduring an ugly lawsuit with former producer Dr. Luke, she has emerged as an artist with a point to prove and the talent to prove it. Kesha accused the famous and successful former head of Kemosabe Records (owned by Sony) of sexual misconduct and workplace mistreatment, although the judge did not rule in her favor.
Her two nominations are in the pop categories, for album and performance. Standouts like “Bastards” and “Praying” really hit home, with the latter being a thinly-veiled message to Dr. Luke himself.
She’s not wishing negativity upon him, but reflection and added awareness. In an open letter she writes, “This song is about coming to feel empathy for someone else even if they hurt you or scare you.” Her performance of “Praying” brought the broadcast’s most emotionally charged performance of the night amid a throng of talented female artists dubbed The Resistance Revival Chorus. Formed in the wake of the first Women’s March and all clad in white, the group consisted of singers like Camila Cabello, Julia Michaels and Cyndi Lauper.
Rolling Stone named Kesha’s album Rainbow as their number four ranked album of the year, and it has appeared on numerous top ten lists. How’s that for a comeback!
Doing his best James Brown impersonation, Mars has stepped up his game since “Grenade.” Incorporating a classic vibe of eighties funk and nineties R&B, his album 24K Magic was the safe choice for the still elderly voting populace of the academy.
Mars is here to party, and implores that “if you ain’t here to party, take your ass back home” on “Chunky.” “Straight Up & Down” contains the timeless gem, “girl, I bet your mama named you good lookin’, cause you sure look good to me.” In addition to sweeping the big three awards, he also definitely won for cheesiest pickup line of the year.
Although he didn’t take home any of the top prizes, the Compton rapper probably had the best album and song of the year in DAMN. and its lead single “HUMBLE.” His newest hit sounds distinctly old-school — a throwback to ‘90s and early 2000s rap like DMX and Jurassic 5. Kendrick won best rap album over Jay-Z’s 4:44.
Kendrick hits his stride in this album with how he utilizes the sparse guest appearances. He controls their output in such a way as to use them like individual instruments rather than let them show off the true depths of their talent, creating a more cohesive message. Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and many others had DAMN. at the top of their list for Album of the Year.
While restrictive, it makes for a more coherent (if sometimes discordant) message. He uses Bono to sing lounge music in “XXX. FEAT. U2.” And, in “LOVE. FEAT. ZACARI.,” he creates a burrowing earworm with Zacari’s lush vocals meshing seamlessly with Kendrick’s pinpoint delivery; it feels like he’s inventing melodies on the fly.
Kiwis for all! Lorde is the other figure dominating in the critical sphere this year. Hailing from New Zealand, she teams up with Jack Antonoff of Bleachers to make a both personal and universal record that takes big step forward from 2014’s Pure Heroine.
Melodrama provides a number of dark, moody jams that speak about young love and partying into the night. Songs like “The Louvre” take a bite out of the heart of what it means to be deeply devoted to a partner, while “Green Light” has an epic chorus and rolling piano work reminiscent of early Billy Joel.
The War on Drugs
Nominated for Best Rock Album, the alternative outfit from Philadelphia came out with some serious riffs in their grownup-sounding rock. Having been in the underground scene for over a decade, they have developed a mature sound primarily with the use of different guitar tones.
Frontman Adam Granduciel says that he was inspired for The War on Drugs’ newest album A Deeper Understanding by his experiences playing at a benefit concert with Neil Young. The song “Strangest Thing” conjures up a soothing landscape of boundless possibilities.
The 24-year-old’s lead single “Issues” is really, really good. It’s overplayed, yes, but the song has an undeniable sense of force that stems from Michaels’ superb songwriting talent. The song intentionally plays on her youth and her voice breaks at just the right times during the chorus, indicating that the song would probably have been lesser if sung through another artist’s lungs.
“Issues” is about two flawed individuals finding love together, representing a step toward more nuanced songs than simply good person loves bad person. Much like Sia from years previous, Michaels is a giant of a songwriter who turned singer when it suited her, and we thank her for it.
By Cj Priebe,