The Grammy Awards are billed as ‘music’s biggest night.’ This year’s edition is historic, both because of its top young nominees and the controversy regarding the Recording Academy, under whose auspices the Grammys are presented.
The biggest winners at the Grammy Awards often make history simply by being the biggest winners. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album and Santana’s “Supernatural” album each earned eight victories (in 1984 and 2000, respectively), while Beyoncé and Adele each earned six (in 2010 and 2012, respectively).
But 2020 Grammy nominees Lizzo, Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X have already made history — before any of them has won even a single award.
They are the top three contenders at Sunday’s 62nd annual edition of the Grammys, with a combined 20 nominations between them. Their prominence on the ballot represents a major injection of youthful vitality — if not a complete generational shift — for the Grammys, which are presented by the nonprofit Recording Academy and have historically favored veteran rock and pop stars, along with largely mainstream younger acts.
Self-empowering singer, songwriter and rapper Lizzo, 31, has a field-leading eight nominations. Bedroom-Goth troubadour Eilish, 18, and country-trap sensation Lil Nas X, 20, are close behind, with six each.
Their dominance on the ballot may represent one of the most notable generational shifts in memory for the music world’s most prestigious, diverse and — in recent weeks — controversial annual awards show.
On Jan. 16, the Recording Academy ousted its new CEO and president, Deborah Dugan, who had only assumed her position five months earlier. She was accused of “abusive and bullying” behavior towards her staff and creating a “toxic and intolerable” environment. On Tuesday, Dugan filed a lawsuit against the academy charging discrimination, sexual assault against her by the academy’s former board chair and retaliation against her for alleging the Grammys suffer from corrupt voting practices, financial improprieties and other irregularities.
For added, Grammy-related drama, Aerosmith disclosed earlier this week that its performance at Sunday’s Grammys telecast would be without its drummer Joey Kramer, one of the five-man Boston band’s co-founders. The band’s other members contend that his drumming is not up to snuff for the telecast — or for tonight’s pre-Grammys MusiCares all-star concert honoring Aerosmith. Kramer went to court this week in a bid to regain his position in the band. A judge ruled against him.
Lizzo and Billie Eilish set precedent
Adding more fire to this year’s youthful charge, with five nominations each, are Ariana Grande, 26, H.E.R., 22, and Finneas O’Connell, also 22, who is Eilish’s brother and musical partner. (At least seven of this year’s Grammy nominees are current or past San Diego residents, including film director Cameron Crowe, jazz pianist Geoffrey Keezer and contemporary classical vocal marvel Susan Narucki.)
A classically trained flutist, the charismatic Lizzo twerks with gusto on stage. Eilish recently was selected to write and perform the theme song for the new James Bond movie. Together, Lizzo and Eilish are the first two performers in Grammy history to be concurrently nominated for Album, Song and Record of the Year at the same time that they are also vying for Best New Artist honors.
These are the four most coveted and competitive Grammy categories. These are also the only four General Field categories in which all of the more than 13,000 voting members of the Recording Academy — under whose auspices the Grammys are held — can cast votes.
Voting in the other 80 Grammy categories — which range from Best Regional Roots Music Album and Best Immersive Audio Album to Best Contemporary Classical Composition — can only be cast by academy members who are specialists in those fields.
At the time the nominations were announced on Nov. 20, Los Angeles native Eilish was just 17, making her the youngest artist to ever be nominated in all four top Grammy categories. She will be the subject of a film documentary due out later this year,
In an added twist, her brother Finneas (who is also Eilish’s co-songwriter and co-producer) shares in her nominations for Album, Song and Record of the Year, and is vying to win two production-related Grammy categories as well. The siblings created most of Eilish’s debut album — “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” — in her bedroom.
Lil Nas X, whose “Old Town Road” last year became the biggest country-trap hit of all time, is also vying in three of the same categories as Lizzo and Eilish, missing out only on a Song of the Year nomination. That omission is confusing, since Lil Nas X’s insanely infectious global smash, “Old Town Road,” in July spent its 17th consecutive week atop the national Billboard Hot 100 chart, a record no other song has matched in in Billboard’s 61-year history.
Lil Nas X’s TikTok-fueled hit
No less historic, Lil Nas X (real name: Montero Hill) is the first performer in Grammy history to earn so many nominations in large part because of his viral dominance on the Chinese-owned video sharing app TikTok and his superior memes-making abilities.
Moreover, the 20-year-old Georgia native became the first act in memory to have a song removed from Billboard’s country-music charts — for allegedly not being country enough — despite a prominent cameo by Billy Ray Cyrus and nearly enough country-music imagery to fuel a new season of the TV show “Hee Haw.”
Or, as Billboard explained its decision last year: “Upon further review, it was determined that ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard’s country charts. When determining genres, a few factors are examined, but first and foremost is musical composition. While ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”
Billboard then hastened to add that the fact Lil Nas X is black had nothing to do with its decision to remove him from the magazine’s country-music charts. Billboard’s action preceded Lil Nas X coming out as gay last July, a disclosure that was altogether unsurprising given the nonchalantly candid lyrics to his song “C7osure.”
In mid-November, the Cyrus-assisted re-mix version of “Old Town Road” won Best Musical Event at the 2019 Country Music Association Awards. That makes it a source of both intrigue and dismay that — while Lil Nas X has six Grammy nominations — none of them is in a country-related category.
In the case of the proudly plus-size Lizzo, whose sexuality she describes as fluid, her dominance on this year’s Grammy ballot seems to be the result of more hard work for many more years of effort than most Best New Artist nominees put in.
Lizzo (real name: Melissa Jefferson) studied musical performance at Houston University and played piccolo in the school’s marching band. After moving to Minneapolis, the Detroit native was invited by Prince to collaborate on his 3RDEYEGIRL song, “Boytrouble.”
She released her debut album “Lizzobangers,” in 2013. Her second album, “Big GRRRL Small World,” followed in 2015. But it wasn’t until the 2109 release of her Atlantic Records’ debut album, “Cuz I Love You,” that Lizzo exploded onto the national mainstream.
If you are wondering how Lizzo qualified for a Best New Artist nomination with three albums under her belt, the Grammys have been historically flexible with this category. That holds especially true with previously under-the-radar artists whose pre-Grammy albums, like Lizzo’s, were independently released. (In 2001, Best New Artist-winner Shelby Lynne wryly noted in her acceptance speech that it took her “13 years and six albums to get here.”)
Grammy snubs for Swift, Springsteen
Of course, the Grammys wouldn’t be the Grammys without some controversy about the nominations — and, this year is no exception.
Taylor Swift and Bruce Springsteen were both snubbed for Album of the Year contention at today’s Grammys. So was the Lady Gaga-led “A Star is Born” soundtrack, Maren Morris’ “Girl” and the Jonas Brothers’ comeback, along with albums by everyone from Bad Bunny and J. Balvin to Ed Sheeran and Spanish neo-flamenco vocal dynamo Rosalía, 26, who is the first Best New Artist nominee in Grammy history who sings almost entirely in Spanish.
Meanwhile, Lewis Capaldi conspicuously failed to make the ballot for Best New Artist, which is doubly confusing in light of his chart-topping hit, “Someone Like You,” earning a Song of the Year nomination. This simply underscores the illusive, sometimes maddening, logic that can make the Grammys so exciting and frustrating, often at the same time.
And no other award carries nearly as much prestige, which is why ousted Recording Academy CEO/President Deborah Dugan’s explosive charges this week of cronyism and conflicts of interest by the academy’s nominating committees are so troubling.
This holds especially true since, unlike “The American Music Awards, no other annual awards telecast honors even a fraction of the musical genres, artists and behind-the-scene professionals — including producers, recording engineers, album package designers and liner note essay writers — as the Grammys. At the same time, the Grammys were historically slow to recognize rock, heavy-metal, alternaive music and hip-hop, which is why this year’s slew of top-category nominations for Lizzo, Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X were — for the most part so welcome.
Speaking of which: Only one hip-hop artist, Lil Nas X, received an Album of the Year nomination on the 2020 ballot, despite the fact his “album” is actually a half-baked, 8-song EP (short for “Extra Play”) release that features two version of “Old Town Road” and clocks in at a threadbare 18 minutes.
Conversely, four of last year’s eight Album of the Year contenders were by hip-hop acts, including Cardi B, Drake, Post Malone and the film soundtrack for “Black Panther: The Album.” All of them lost to country-music troubadour Kacey Musgraves’ psychedelic-tinged “Golden Hour.”
Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino pointedly declined requests to perform at the 2019 edition of the Grammy Awards, which were boycotted by some hip-hop artists altogether.
However, at least three rappers — Meek Mill, Roddy Ricch and YG — will perform during today’s Grammys telecast. They will be joined by Kirk Franklin, John Legend and and DJ Khaled in a tribute to Nipsey Hussle, the 33-year-old Los Angeles rap star who was shot to death last March. Hussle (real name: Ermias Asghedom) was posthumously nominated in three categories for this year’s Grammys. (He was up for his first Grammy last year, but lost to Cardi B.)
Only two hip-hop releases have ever won Album of the Year honors: Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” in 1999; and OutKast’s in “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” in 2004.
This likely reflects the fact that the majority of Grammy voters are not hip-hop-oriented listeners, which in turn reflects the makeup of the Recording Academy’s membership. Or, as I wrote in my analysis of the Grammy Awards in 2018 — when Jay-Z had a field-leading eight nominations and went home win-less — “You can lead 13,000 Grammy Award voters to hip-hop, but you can’t make them cast their ballots for it.”
62nd annual Grammy Awards
Hosted by: Alicia Keys
With performances by: Aerosmith, Camila Cabello, Billie Eilish, Kirk Franklin, Ariana Grande, H.E.R., Jonas Brothers, John Legend, Lizzo, Demi Lovato, Meek Mill, Bonnie Raitt, Rosalía, Roddy Ricch, Run-D.M.C., Blake Shelton, Gwen Stefani, Tyler, The Creator, Tanya Tucker, Charlie Wilson and more.
When: 5 p.m. Sunday
Where: KFMB Channel 8, airing live from the Staples Center in Los Angeles and on such subscription streaming services as YouTube TV, Hulu+ and AT&T TV Now.
Grammy Awards Premiere Ceremony
Hosted by: Imogen Heap
With performances by: Nicola Benedetti, Chick Corea, I’m With Her, Angélique Kidjo and Yola
When: 12:30 p.m. Sunday (awards will be presented in at least 70 of the 84 Grammy categories)
Where: Online only at grammy.com