The Weeknd Was Onto Something

The Grammy ceremony Sunday night hinted at the institution’s desire to change but mostly caved to old patterns.

Every year, I rage anew at the myriad injustices of the Grammy nominations: the snubs, the undeserved nominations, the unbearable whiteness and maleness of the slate of nominees. And every year, I dutifully put on my clown makeup and tune in to “music’s biggest night”™ with great hopes, like an absolute fool.

This year was no different: I scoffed at the absence of Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters, the album of the year, from the Album of the Year category; I was confused by the shutout of the Weeknd from all categories; I set out on a quest to locate the horcruxes Chris Martin has created because it is surely dark magic that led to Coldplay’s negligible 2019 album Everyday Life being nominated for one of the top prizes.

And yet there I was, with a big red nose and comically large shoes, watching the thing again. And while this year’s performances were engaging and vital — a first for the Grammys in a long time — the show was a mixed bag; it hinted at the Recording Academy’s desire to change but mostly caved to myopic patterns that it’s been stuck in for a long time.

When Billie Eilish took the stage to accept her Record of the Year award, she said she was embarrassed and addressed most of her speech to Megan Thee Stallion: “You had a year that I think is untoppable. You are a queen. I want to cry thinking about how much I love you.” She added, “You deserve this.”

It was a gracious and generous — if somewhat performative — move that in recent years has become familiar and worn: a white artist sheepishly accepting a Grammy in a major category despite feeling that the win belongs to a Black artist. There was Macklemore in 2014, texting Kendrick Lamar, “You got robbed. I wanted you to win.” In 2017, Adele said she “couldn’t possibly accept this award” after winning Album of the Year, adding that she’s grateful and all, “but the artist of [her] life is Beyonce,” and promptly broke her award in half to share it with Bey.

These overtures are dramatic and bumbling and awkward — but they also reveal a prominent tension at the heart of the Grammys: The institution has largely neglected Black artists while hip-hop became the fulcrum of popular music. Now, even its best efforts to catch up seem too late.

On Sunday, it was evident that the Recording Academy has been making a valiant effort to fix its eternal fuckery. There is grace in trying, but its largest strides forward still highlight the distance between the institution and the contemporary reality of the music world. Thanks to a foundation of pearl-clutching conservatism, decades of reinforcing white supremacy, and an outdated insistence on genre as a rigid defining category, Sunday’s program offered mostly the same ol’ long-standing failures in action.

It’s important to remember that the people who vote on the nominees and winners are an association of producers, engineers, musicians, and industry professionals. Once you think of them less as invisible and omnipotent arbiters of good music and more as a fallible and flawed collective, the frustrations with the Grammys begin to make sense.

The awards were created out of a reactionary anxiety. In the late ’50s, record executives were worried about the rising tide of rock ‘n’ roll and urged the industry to close ranks and protect pop music. So the Recording Academy was formed, and the first Grammy Awards came into being, already saddled with an inherently conservative and wary mission. At the first ceremony in 1959, meant to celebrate the previous year’s music, Frank Sinatra was up for six awards, the most of any artist — including two different records in the Album of the Year category.

Now, 60 years later, the first Grammys are better remembered for who wasn’t nominated: In 1958, Chuck Berry released “Johnny B. Goode,” and Little Richard put out “Good Golly, Miss Molly” — songs that would change music forever. The Grammys completely overlooked them. In fact, neither Berry nor Richard ever won a Grammy for their music: It took the Academy decades to honor both. Berry received the academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award nearly three decades later, in 1984, and Richard received it 9 years after that. The first Grammys set off a trend of the institution fearing massive shifts in popular music and being unable to recognize when an industry-changing moment is right in front of them. It tagged the Grammys with a reputation for lack of foresight that persists even now.

The institution has largely neglected Black artists while hip-hop became the fulcrum of popular music. Now, even its best efforts to catch up seem too late.

Which brings us back to the 2021 awards. Tension was in the air ahead of the show after big artists expressed their displeasure with the Grammys. The Weeknd — whose album After Hours was the second-most-streamed album on the planet in 2020, and whose single “Blinding Lights” shattered numerous records — was shut out of the nominations this year. In response, he said, “I will no longer allow my label to submit my music to the Grammys.”

The Weeknd is merely the most recent high-profile musician in a long-running list of artists who’ve taken issues with the Grammys. Drake took a shot at the Academy in November 2020 after the nominees were released. On the heels of the news of the Academy snubbing the Weeknd and other artists like Pop Smoke, Drake wrote, “I think we should stop allowing ourselves to be shocked every year by the disconnect between impactful music and these awards.”

The Weeknd may be the class president of Grammy critics this year, but he’s in good company with the likes of Justin Bieber, who expressed frustration that he was nominated in the pop categories despite making an R&B record, and Halsey, who called for the Academy to be more transparent after she was also shut out of nominations.

But Drake’s beef with the Academy goes back further than 2020: In 2018, he declined to submit his album More Life for consideration after “Hotline Bling” won Best Rap Song in 2017 despite, uh, having approximately 0% rap in it. “Maybe because I’ve rapped in the past or because I’m Black, I can’t figure out why,” Drake questioned.

He’s not the only one to draw this hypothesis. Tyler, the Creator took home the Best Rap Album trophy in 2020 for Igor, an ambitious genre-transcending record that can’t be easily categorized. After his win, Tyler criticized the Academy, saying, “It sucks that whenever we — and I mean guys that look like me — do anything that’s genre-bending or that’s anything, they always put it in a rap or urban category.”

If you think the Academy’s race problem is bad, its gender problem is, somehow, worse. A 2018 study found that the Grammys had only 9.3% women nominees in the major categories over the previous five years. The Academy got defensive and well-actually’d the findings, countering that if you include all 84 categories, 17% of nominees were women — as if that is better.

That same year, Lorde — the year’s only woman up for Album of the Year — was not offered a performing spot. And after the Academy came under fire for having only one woman win an award during the televised ceremony, its then-president, Neil Portnow, said the solution was that women needed to “step up.” He forgot to mention that the year’s most-nominated woman, SZA, took home none of the prizes. He later apologized for his comments.

So the 2021 Grammys ceremony started on the back foot. How could it not, when the institution was sustaining fire from some of the world’s biggest stars? During the show, Harvey Mason Jr., the Academy’s interim president, delivered the requisite “we hear you” message and pleaded, “I’m here to ask the entire music community to join in — work with us, not against us, as we build a new Recording Academy that we can all be proud of.”

Mason promised change, but it wasn’t hollow. Mercifully, he had something to show for it. The Grammys broadcast — under a new executive producer, Ben Winston, who helped breathe life into a stale format — went the extra mile to telegraph its support for women, Black artists, and especially Black women. All the major awards went to women. Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B were each given a sizable block to run down career highlights before a joyful performance of “WAP.” And when Beyoncé became the most-awarded woman in the history of the Grammys, host Trevor Noah celebrated with vigor.

Yet for all the worship of Beyoncé that the Grammys carried out — and, obviously, we are not worthy — it couldn’t overwrite the wildly long history of the Academy failing to recognize her artistry. In the last decade alone, here’s a brief list of things Beyoncé has redefined: the album, the album release, the music video, the music documentary, the corporate partnership, the musical festival performance, the Super Bowl halftime show. Bey has no shortage of Grammy nominations — an incredible total of 79 — but she has just one single win in the major categories (“Single Ladies” took home the Song of the Year trophy in 2010).

All signs indicated that Beyoncé wasn’t going to show up, and it was a surprise that she did. Since Lemonade lost to Adele’s 25 in 2017, Bey has had an ambivalent relationship with the Grammys. Though she was this year’s most-nominated artist, she declined to perform, marking the third time in four years that the most-nominated artist turned it down. In 2019, it was Kendrick Lamar. In 2018, it was Jay-Z, who incidentally went home with zero awards. He was nominated for eight.

And why should Bey, Jay, or Kendrick perform? They’ve all exemplified the Academy’s failure to elevate hip-hop. Kendrick took home five awards in 2018, but they mostly had the word “rap” in their titles, and he lost out on Album of the Year for DAMN, which went on to win a Pulitzer. Appallingly, the last time a Black artist took home the Album of the Year award was Herbie Hancock in 2008 — for an album that was all covers of a white artist. Meanwhile, the last time a Black woman won Album of the Year was in 1999 (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill). Billie Eilish was not yet born.

The last time a Black woman won Album of the Year was in 1999 (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill). Billie Eilish was not yet born.

You could be forgiven if you thought the Grammys’ tribute to Beyoncé was going to add up to some kind of justice. I started to shift on my couch, excited to see the Academy follow through on its promises for change. I was more encouraged when H.E.R. took home the Song of the Year award for “I Can’t Breathe,” which was written in reaction to the death of George Floyd and the historic protests that followed. The Grammys gave enough indication that things are changing, and it felt like this could be the moment when the Academy would break its stubborn barriers.

Which made it all the more awkward when Billie Eilish had to shoulder the burden of this lengthy history and the disappointment when change doesn’t arrive. It’s not Eilish’s fault. It never was. She makes perfectly good pop songs — but in accepting Record of the Year for the second year in a row, she realized she was the symbol of the Academy’s stagnation. Even she did not want any part in being awarded by an institution that keeps failing Black artists. “I’m embarrassed,” she told the world, but the embarrassment was not hers to wear.

On the performance side, things are looking up. Ben Winston, who made his name producing Carpool Karaoke and The Late Late Show With James Corden, helmed a taut show with thrilling performances. It was the second time since 1979 that someone other than legendary producer Ken Ehrlich ran the show, and it was a welcome refresh.

The Grammys ceremony has a long and embarrassing history of attempting to force a Grammy Moment™ by pairing artists who make little sense together. I mean, why does Kendrick have to share the stage with Imagine Dragons? Pharrell and Hans Zimmer????? And I will never forgive the Academy for pairing Stevie Wonder with the Jonas Brothers. (Though I am forced to admit this gimmick has produced a gem on an occasion or two).

This year, artists were simply allowed to sing their own songs — and the result was pure entertainment. The performances showcased what the Grammys could be. The stretch featuring DaBaby, Bad Bunny, and Dua Lipa in succession served as a prototype for the show’s future.

It’s worth mentioning that the Grammys ceremony could not resist its long obsession of dousing hip-hop performances with a kind of forced elaborate musical arrangements that involve harps and strings. DaBaby and Roddy Ricch had one of the biggest songs of the year in “Rockstar,” and they could’ve just been handed the mic to do their thing. They didn’t need a choir. Let hip-hop be hip-hop.

Ehrlich once noted the Academy’s hip-hop problem: “When they don’t take home the big prize, the regard of the academy, and what the Grammys represent, continues to be less meaningful to the hip-hop community, which is sad.”

By contrast, the Winston era of the Grammys — if it indeed blossoms into an era — looks more promising. I never thought I’d watch a Grammys show where the camera didn’t feel the urge to find Bono in the audience once or twice. It is a significant improvement that the show looked similar to the top charts of 2020.

The Weeknd told the New York Times that his decision to withdraw from future Grammys consideration is partly “because of the secret committees.” He’s referring to committees appointed by the Academy that review the nominations in each category. And he’s one of many; Zayn Malik has also condemned the committee system.

We know relatively little of the committees' inner workings. In 1999, the LA Times managed to track one member down to give an off-the-record interview about the process, and here’s how they put it: “The goal in each category is to take the 20 nominations that the members send forth and get the list down to a consensus of the seven or eight that we feel are the [best].”

Long the subject of criticism for its opacity, the “secret committees” situation boiled over last year. The Academy placed its former CEO Deborah Dugan on administrative leave five months into the job. Dugan, in turn, alleged that corruption runs rampant and that the Academy deliberately overrides its own democratic structure. She claimed she was fired for trying to bring this to the board’s attention.

In 2017, Q-Tip attacked the Grammy committees after A Tribe Called Quest’s final album was snubbed. He suggested that producer 9th Wonder asked him to be on the rap committee and he declined. Then, one of Wonder’s artists, Rapsody, ended up with two nominations. “9th, what happened?” Q-Tip asked.

The rub here is that Rapsody was the only woman nominated for a rap album that year. The committee might’ve been trying to address the historic dearth of nominations for women (yes, in the rap category, but also generally). But while the goal is a good one, the method of trying to fix it — without transparency — only raises further questions. One wonders: Are these committees the reason why Jay-Z has never won a Grammy in the major categories? Or why Beyoncé hadn’t taken a major trophy since 2010? Or why Pop Smoke, whose mark on 2020 cannot be overstated, was confined to a single rap performance nomination? The frustrating thing is that we don’t know, because the Academy won’t say.

The awards show has a brutal history of confining hip-hop artists to the margins, to the “box” they must stay in. This was awkward before — but in 2021, it’s a crisis. Hip-hop is indisputably at the top of the pop culture pyramid. It dictates the rhythms and sets the tone for cultural conversations. Lil Baby’s My Turn, Roddy Ricch’s Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial, Pop Smoke’s Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon: These are the albums that have overwhelmed the charts and garnered the acclaim of critics.

Though it’s worth recognizing that all these artists earned a nomination for their singles, none of them received the nod for Best Rap Album. Among a relatively underwhelming field, Nas took home that award. In 2021. Nas. Worse: It was his first Grammy.

That the best rapper of the ’90s wins his first Grammy in 2021 tracks perfectly. In 2019 — two decades into rap’s pop culture supremacy — a rap song finally won Record of the Year and Song of the Year. It was Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” — and Donald Glover didn’t even show to collect the award. It remains the only rap song to ever do so. One can’t blame him for not showing up.

Crowning Megan Thee Stallion the Best New Artist wasn’t exactly revolutionary for the Grammys. One would be hard-pressed to think of a newcomer who has had a greater impact on the last two years of the music landscape. She also went on to win Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance, both for her “Savage” remix featuring Beyoncé.

When Eilish accepted the Record of the Year award, she did so bashfully, acknowledging that the award and the year rightfully belonged to Megan. It was frustrating to see yet another Grammy misfire, and yet another instance of a white artist having to point out the obvious. For Grammy skeptics like me, that moment encapsulated the Academy’s shortcomings.

But consider: When Megan received the trophy for Best New Artist — the first award of the night — she delivered a moving, tearful speech. When Beyoncé stood next to Megan for her next award, she was beaming like a proud sister. There was a purity in their reactions that could obliterate the cynicism of the “awards don’t matter” crowd.

Because the reality is that they do. Awards shows connote recognition from your peers: Eilish is a peer who made a big to-do of who actually deserves the award. Winning awards brings attention, resources, more promotion, more prestige, higher billing. I suspect Beyoncé showed up in the end because she recognized that her absence would’ve been the story if Megan had to accept the award alone. But instead, the story now is of an ascendant Megan, making history for taking home trophies as a rookie.

This is the stuff we don’t talk about: the triumphant feeling you get during an awards show when a deserving artist gets their due recognition. Next year, it will not matter that I will undoubtedly rage about the nominations. It will not matter that I will join the artists who criticize the perennially flawed Grammys. Because when the day rolls around again, I will carefully affix my red nose and fluorescent wig and I will hope for the best. ●

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