Sounding Board

Just When We Thought We Were Out, The Grammys Pull Us Back In

First of all, please join me in a moment of silence for Ed Sheeran, who is undoubtedly reeling after being completely shut out of the major Grammy categories in what must have been some kind of Jacob-steals-Esau’s-birthright situation.

Thank you.

(Thanks to you, the reader, for temporarily withholding your cackling, and thank you to the — good? — people at NARAS for shutting Ed Sheeran out of the major categories at the Grammys. I guess they read the Pitchfork review?)

While we’re here, send your condolences to pop’s white-woman establishment — the likes of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Kesha, and Demi Lovato — whose lukewarm 2017 on the singles chart has carried over into a dearth of Grammy nominations. Say a prayer also for the One Direction diaspora and for country music as a whole. And pour a glass of wine into the bathtub for Sheeran’s buddy Taylor Swift, who has to settle for merely being nominated in two songwriting categories — for “Better Man,” the country hit she wrote for Little Big Town, and “I Don’t Want To Live Forever (Fifty Shades Darker),” her smash soundtrack duet with Zayn. Swift’s Reputation was released well after this year’s Sept. 30 deadline, but she surely was expecting a couple nods for its lead single “Look What You Made Me Do.” Now she won’t even get the chance to make a surprised face. The horror!

Now that we’ve got that out of the way we can move on to discussing this year’s weirdly half-decent slate of nominees.

We’ve been here before. The Grammys have announced their shortlist of contenders, and we’ve been tricked into believing this might finally be the year this famously clueless institution stops confounding and infuriating us. Remember two years ago, when Courtney Barnett was up for Best New Artist and Kendrick Lamar had the most nominations? And then Meghan Trainor won Best New Artist and Kendrick was severely snubbed and the entire broadcast was a nightmare? Why should anyone believe this year will go any differently?

For one thing, this year the excitement extends to the four major categories, where a real sea change seems to be going on. One of my mistakes two years ago was assuming a promising undercard would have much bearing on the ceremony itself. We can debate the quality of Best Alternative Music Album, which apparently has become the province of middle-aged white men, but they’re not handing that one out on the TV broadcast. They gotta leave room for tributes to the dead and WTF-worthy collaborations between industry plants. So no, it doesn’t really matter who’s up for Best Rap Song, even if my heart is warmed at the prospect of one day typing the phrase, “Grammy winner Cardi B.” (And yes, despite some reports to the contrary, Cardi would get a Grammy if “Bodak Yellow” wins Best Rap Song.) What matters is the “general field” categories, the ones that will have some impact on your viewing experience and have some slim chance of being remembered this time next year.

So take heart for this reason: Every single Album Of The Year nominee has merit to an extent. (Notably, for the first time since 1999, none of them are white men, presumably because the Best Alternative Music Album category used up every single white man available.) The least of these, Childish Gambino’s “Awaken, My Love!”, definitely does not deserve to win Album Of The Year, but its ’70s funk and soul pastiche gave us at least one truly excellent single in “Redbone.” (Stay woke!) And honestly I am happy to hand any award over to Donald Glover as a gesture of gratitude for Atlanta, assuming he continues to use his acceptance speeches to evangelize for the likes of Migos.

For reasons outlined here, Jay-Z’s self-consciously meditative 4:44 does not deserve to win either, but it’s a solid late-career release from a god of the game who was long overdue for a creative renaissance. Imagine that smile behind the podium; imagine #mylaugh. How mad could you really be about Jay-Z winning the Grammy for Album Of The Year?

Well, I suppose you could be mad about Jay-Z winning the Grammy for Album Of The Year at the expense of Kendrick Lamar in his prime, but at this point I’ve come to understand that Kendrick is cursed to wander the Earth without recognition in a general field Grammys category. He probably doesn’t like it, but given the spiritual viewpoints espoused on DAMN. and in the interviews promoting it, the Old Testament quality of this situation likely appeals to him. Anyway, although DAMN. is another masterpiece from an artist who only makes masterpieces, it will not win. Accept it. Breathe it in. Bask in the injustice. Set your sights on the inevitable lifetime achievement award three decades from now.

Lorde’s Melodrama: Now there’s an album that also deserves to win and might actually win. Unlike Kendrick and Jay, she doesn’t have to split the vote with anyone in the same genre. To a lesser extent, retro R&B exercises from Childish Gambino and Bruno Mars could also cancel each other out. Lorde is also the only woman in the category, and she’s holding down the spot usually reserved for Adele or Taylor Swift, who won this award the last two years. Plus, not that NARAS has ever been all that concerned with the creative vanguard, but Melodrama is a breathtaking work of art that towers over both 25 and 1989, qualitatively speaking. The Grammys seem interested in minting a new generation of stars this year, and although Lorde is already a veteran compared to most of them, awarding Album Of The Year to a 21-year-old on her second album still would still constitute a passing of the baton.

Don’t sleep on Bruno Mars, though. It’s easy to forget about 24K Magic given that it came out at the end of 2016 and Mars’ presence at every Grammys ceremony is a foregone conclusion. But NARAS loves to reward the commercial behemoths who keep the lights on at record labels, and Mars’ ubiquity on Grammy night just proves how much this organization values his old-school song-and-dance man routine. Having witnessed it in person a few months back, I can hardly blame them. He’s a miracle, and his album comprises nine solid-gold monuments to pop craftsmanship at its most infectiously joyous. So even if I’d rather see this particular gramophone go to somebody else, I’d have a hard time arguing with a decision to pile accolades upon one of the most talented figures in show business.

The Best New Artist situation is pretty similar: None of the nominees are downright bad, and many are outright exciting. Here’s where that aforementioned new generation of pop stars is set to shine; there are no boilerplate country singers or obscure jazz virtuosos in the bunch, just a lot of streaming heavyweights who could thrive equally well on the radio or in a festival environment. For once, this category actually seems like it represents the future of pop.

TDE R&B MVP SZA is the superior choice thanks to Ctrl, a captivating debut album on which a fully formed star delivered low-key bangers upon bangers. But the pan-genre singer-songwriter and serial collaborator Khalid has been a supernova whose output this year cannot be ignored. Ditto Lil Uzi Vert, the Philadelphia sing-rapper who has become the unlikely face of hip-hop’s reigning wave. Among all these nominees, Uzi’s the only one who’s already launched an entire subgenre of imitators, though a lot more nominations went to SZA (5), Khalid (5), and Alessia Cara (4).

Although Julia Michaels is the requisite young white woman of the bunch, don’t mistake her for another Meghan Trainor. Michaels was penning some of the most artful, enjoyable, idiosyncratic hits on pop radio as a teenager, and the tunes she keeps back for herself are even better. Really only Cara, who has taken a turn for the milquetoast since breakthrough single “Here” and who has been in the mainstream limelight long enough that she should really be disqualified for this award, would qualify as a disappointing Best New Artist winner.

As for the awards focused on individual tracks — Song Of The Year, which honors songwriting, and Record Of The Year, which honors the final product — it’s easy to imagine a more inspiring field of nominees, but what a testament to quality control that I can get through both categories without actively retching. “Despacito” is the only entry in both columns, and considering its record-threatening run at #1 this year, it should be considered the presumptive winner two times over. Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee ruled summer 2017 for good reason, and it would be nice to see America’s Spanish-speaking population take a W for once.

If not “Despacito,” prospective Records Of The Year include the aforementioned “Redbone” by Childish Gambino, arguably the best track on Jay-Z’s album (“The Story Of O.J.”), and Mars’ magnificent robo-funk excursion “24K Magic,” all of which are great songs. Ideally, though, Kendrick will instruct his competitors to sit down while taking home the trophy for “HUMBLE.” (This is where you remind me I already said Kendrick is cursed.)

Song Of The Year spotlights yet another winsome Jay-Z track (“4:44″), yet another delightful Bruno Mars throwback (“That’s What I Like”), Best New Artist nominee Michaels’ spare and floaty “Issues” (as fine a showcase for her talents as we’ve seen), and a very popular anti-suicide PSA by Logic, Khalid, and Alessia Cara that I respect more than I actually like. Root for it if you want, but be aware doing so means cheering on a Chainsmoker. I’d rather see Michaels seize this one to shore up her already sterling songwriter bona fides, though admittedly it would be a victory over the weakest field of the four major categories.

Look, I get it. I am Charlie Brown. The Grammys are Lucy with a football. On the night of Jan. 28, I am going to look back on any pro-Grammys sentiment as naive and wonder how I got duped into giving this laughingstock another chance. It always happens. It is preordained to happen again. But I’m stupidly holding out hope that this time might really be different. And if it’s not, and the Grammys pull the football out from under us yet again, at least we’ll have Ed Sheeran schadenfreude to fall back on.

Tags: Grammys