With issues of racial politics being so high in the news agenda at the moment, pop cultural commentators have been sharpening their knives ahead of the launch of the 2018 Grammy nominations.
With industry veteran Herbie Hancock being the only African-American artist in the last 10 years to win the coveted album of the year title, there have been a series of controversies as white artists have picked up the award at the expense of artists of colour. Last year’s trending Twitter hashtag #grammyssowhite highlighted the perceived injustice as Beyoncé lost out for the second year in a row; in 2016 to an embarrassed Adele who turned her acceptance speech into a tribute to the former Destiny’s Child singer, and in the previous year to Canadian artist Beck whose victory was described by Kanye West as “disrespectful to inspiration”.
This year has seen Drake refusing to submit his US number one album More Life for consideration but will this act be seen as a fit of pique or a prescient move now the 2018 nominations have been released?
The big story from this year is that R&B and hip-hop artists have dominated the four categories that garner most media attention - best new artist, record of the year, song of the year, and album of the year. Hip-hop superstar JAY-Z heads the nominations leaderboard featuring in eight categories including album of the year, record of the year and song of the year. Following close behind to JAY-Z are Kendrick Lamar with seven nominations and Bruno Mars with six. There are no women nominated for record of the year and Lorde’s album Melodrama is the only female fronted record with a shot for album of the year. R&B artist SZA has gained five nominations making her the most successful woman in a year dominated by male artists.
But where there are winners there must also be losers and both rock and country artists must be feeling the pain this year as they are virtually invisible in the major categories. But the biggest sensation in the 2018 nominations has to be the decline of Ed Sheeran whose single Shape Of You and album Divide were both tipped for the top prizes but which have been relegated to the less prestigious pop categories. Have we reached peak Sheeran? Past winner Taylor Swift who is no stranger to Grammy controversies may have dodged a bullet this year by releasing her best-selling album of the year Reputation after the Grammys’ deadline.
With the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, the Grammys home organisation, keen to move on from the controversies that have dodged the last few years, chief executive Neil Portnow has called this year’s results “a really terrific reflection of the voting membership of the academy”. So what if anything has changed to create this year’s shift to a more diverse line-up for the major Grammy awards categories? One major factor could be a move to online voting with the 13,000 voting members being able to access all nominated tracks and vote on the same website. This transition from paper submissions is seen to have widened voting participation from younger members of the academy who are likely to be travelling regularly and for whom online engagement is a more accessible route to participation. Another indicator for the change away from female-driven pop may be located in statistics regarding Billboard Hot 100 #1 Hits from the past year (Q4 2016 – Q3 2017) with 40% being hip-hop and only 20% being pop. Another interesting statistic is that 80% of those hits feature male vocals which account for the gender imbalance this year.
So will the 2018 awards be seen as a breakthrough moment for urban artists or will Lorde pick up the record of the year and if so what stunt will Kanye West produce? Or, if as seems likely this is the year of the already trending #grammyssoblack, will the 2019 awards see a backlash against this year’s results with a return to electric guitars, rock and country music? With #grammyssomale already trending it maybe also be that next year’s Grammy story will be about recognising more female talent outside of the gender silos of pop and R&B. What is for certain is that while issues of race and gender are so highly featured in our politics and popular culture, the awards that we bestow upon the artists who reflect our times will continue to be a highly politicised, controversial and entertaining space.