Is it possible that the Grammys are actually moving backwards? America’s steep racial divide is not some radical new development, and like most other institutions built on prestige, the Grammys have always been an exceptionally white enterprise. But at a time when the continuing separation between blacks and whites in America is becoming impossible for comfortable white people to ignore — be it through the court system letting white policemen off the hook for murdering unarmed black people, or Chris Rock writing incisively on Hollywood’s unbearable whiteness, or Ta-Nehisi Coates making a reasonable case for reparations — it’s hard not to notice the overt segregation in this year’s nominations.
The Record Of The Year nominees: All white. The Song Of The Year nominees: All white. The Best New Artist nominees: All white. When the Album Of The Year picks come out tonight on what promises to be a gloriously corny Grammys Christmas special, odds are they’ll be almost entirely ivory too. Maybe the major sales and massive critical orgy around Beyoncé’s (seriously excellent) self-titled album will be enough to snag her a nomination, but maybe not; and even if she does get nominated, does she really stand a chance against Ed Sheeran or Sam Smith? Should we even have to question whether the world’s biggest pop star’s critically acclaimed blockbuster album will be nominated for a Grammy because she’s black? I don’t know, but it feels like we have to. Even last year’s Grammy hero, Pharrell, saw his G I R L relegated to the “Urban Contemporary” no flex zone.
Again, this is not a new phenomenon, and it’s hardly limited to the Grammys. But it feels especially grating this year to see black artists siphoned off into their own category-ghettos, partially because of the cultural context, and partially because the major categories the white artists are running rampant through seem so especially mediocre this year. It’s increasingly difficult to believe that Lauryn Hill and OutKast actually took home Album Of The Year honors in 1999 and 2004, respectively. Adding insult to injury is the assurance that the white artists who sneak into the traditionally black categories are all but guaranteed a victory. It’s not hard to picture thrice-nominated Iggy Azalea will be reliving last year’s Macklemore controversy as The New Classic claims Best Rap Album (though honestly this year’s weak field reflects the dearth of quality major rap albums), and Eminem’s “Rap God” certainly has a shot at winning Best Rap Song. This isn’t an outrage on par with the American justice system, but it still sucks.
— Vampire Weekend (@vampireweekend) December 5, 2014
Obvious racial storyline and the general terribleness of the major song categories aside, is there anything good about these Grammy nods? The most Stereogum-centric category, Best Alternative Music Album, sees Arcade Fire, St. Vincent, Jack White, Alt-J, and Cage The Elephant fighting it out. None of those choices are controversial, and only St. Vincent is even a little surprising, but — Lost In The Dream omission notwithstanding — the old “they could have done a lot worse” line seems relevant here. It’s cool to see Drake’s awesome “0 To 100/The Catch Up” in the race for Best Rap Song, though Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-bait “i” will probably win and Childish Gambino’s “3005” might have an outside shot. Speaking of Drake, how wonderfully weird that we live in a world where ILoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday (Remix)” is nominated for a Grammy (Best Rap/Sung Collaboration)? It’s also good to see Eric Church’s The Outsiders and “Give Me Back My Hometown” so well-represented in the country categories, and although Sturgill Simpson likely will not beat the likes of John Hiatt, Nickel Creek, Keb Mo, and Roseanne Cash for Best Americana Album, seeing him among the nominees is a pleasant surprise. HAIM are filling the role of the indie-friendly (though certainly not indie in any practical sense) Best New Artist candidate this year — and hey, NARAS didn’t nominate MAGIC! for anything, so that’s something.
The Best Music Video category is one of the most uniformly strong, with Pharrell’s unflinchingly fun “Happy,” Arcade Fire’s socially relevant “We Exist,” Sia’s memorable viral hit “Chandelier,” and DJ Snake & Lil Jon’s ridiculous “Turn Down For What” all in the running. (No love for FlyLo’s masterpiece “Never Catch Me,” but that video actually came out the day after the nomination period closed.) Best Rock Song is about as solid as the video field, with Beck, Ryan Adams, Jack White, the Black Keys, and even (especially, TBH) Paramore offering up worthy nominees. Best Rock Album isn’t quite as sturdy; I like the Beck and Ryan Adams albums well enough, but neither U2, Tom Petty, nor the Black Keys deserve to be honored here, even if their inclusion was a foregone conclusion.
As for those major categories: They certainly do match up with what’s been happening on the charts. As someone who’s been closely following the upper reaches of the Hot 100 all year, it’s true that Taylor Swift, Sam Smith, Meghan Trainor, Sia, Hozier, and Iggy Azalea have been dominant. If the Grammys are supposed to recognize commercial success, they hit the mark. Trouble is, their accurate depiction of the American pop scene is yet another reminder of what a bleak year it’s been for pop music. The nominees suck because upper-tier pop music today largely sucks — and this is coming from a guy who likes pop music enough to write a column about it every week. It’s possible to imagine an alternate, more appealing but still honest Record Of The Year race with Ariana Grande’s “Problem,” Clean Bandit’s “Rather Be,” and Tove Lo’s “Habits (Stay High)” in the mix — but no, the nominations we got are on-point, from a cultural saturation standpoint. So maybe we as a culture are actually moving backwards too?
UPDATE: The Album Of The Year nominees are Beck’s Morning Phase, Beyoncé’s self-titled record, Ed Sheeran’s X, Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour, and Pharrell’s G I R L.
[Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images.]