As is the case with most live televised events these days, last year’s Grammys were met with a combination of disappointment and outrage. The disappointment came from the generally underwhelming nature of the night, which featured too many performances by artists no one really cared about (let’s just agree to never talk about that Sting and Shaggy collaboration ever again), and the outrage came from the reasons why certain artists didn’t perform, and who ended up winning the awards themselves. Bruno Mars swept Album, Song, and Record of the Year, shutting out more deserving candidates like Kendrick Lamar, Jay Z, and Lorde. The outrage was further exacerbated by the fact that those latter two artists weren’t even given a opportunity to perform. Jay Z apparently declined an invitation to do so, and Lorde backed out after they wouldn’t let her perform solo, and wanted to fold her into a Tom Petty tribute. Neil Portnow, the infinitely smug president of the Recording Academy, responded to the controversy surrounding Lorde’s absence and the dearth of televised awards going to female artists by calling on women to “step up,” comments that weren’t received warmly and may have lead to his decision to step down after his current contract expires.
If any of this wailing and gnashing of teeth accomplished anything, it was the expansion of the general fields (Best New Artist and Album, Song, and Record of the Year) from five nominees to eight. Portnow said in a statement this change “creates more opportunities for a wider-range of recognition in these important categories and gives more flexibility to our voters when having to make the often challenging decisions about representing excellence and the best in music for the year.” In other words, “if we give them more people to vote for, they have a higher chance of making everyone happy.”
It’s impossible to see this change and not think about the decision to expand the list of Best Picture nominees at the Oscars from five to ten (and then from anywhere between five and ten) in 2009 after films like The Dark Knight and Gran Torino were denied nominations. The idea there was clear: create a larger field and reform the voting process to let more populist, non-Oscar bait-y movies get nominated and then win. This has undoubtedly had an effect; it’s hard to imagine genre films like District 9 and Black Panther snagging nominations under the old system, and the larger field has created an air of drama and uncertainty to some of the recent ceremonies; bad news for handicappers, good news for people who like compelling television.
Out of all of these outdated institutions, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been the most responsive when it comes to calls for reform. After two years of all white acting nominees and threats of a boycott, AMPAS laid out a plan to double the number of women and minority voters by 2020 and, by extension, diversify the nominees as well. Whether Moonlight would’ve won Best Picture or Get Out would’ve been nominated in a pre-#OscarsSoWhite world is impossible to prove (AMPAS doesn’t provide any voting data, let alone data broken down by demographic group), it at least looks like these initiatives are making a difference. Of course, this isn’t to say that they don’t have work to do — Casey Affleck, who was sued for sexual harassment in 2010, won Best Actor two years ago, and Bohemian Rhapsody, which was nominated for Best Picture this year, was directed by Bryan Singer, who’s been accused of sexually abusing underage boys — but, for the first time possibly ever, it looks like the Oscars are taking a step in a more representative direction.
I bring all of this up to highlight how shallow and surface-level the Recording Academy’s changes are. Based on what’s been reported, the voting methodology for the Grammys hasn’t changed at all — the final eight nominees are still selected by a shadowy “nominations review committee” from the top 20 initial vote getters — and there’s been no substantial change to the demographics of the Academy’s membership itself, which leads me to a question I’ve been asking ever since these changes were announced: what’s the point? The Grammys are an inherently broken institution with a warped view of the musical landscape; the awards put a premium on financial success over artistic merit, and are more likely to reward a mediocre artist with an ubiquitous hit than an underappreciated work of art with something to say. Unlike the Oscars, their nominations haven’t lacked star power, they’ve lacked quality, and, in the eyes of many, the correct outcome. If you ask a person with bad taste to make a playlist for you, it doesn’t matter if you ask for 10 songs or 20 songs, they’re still going to pick bad songs, and, if you asked them to rank them in order of quality, they’re still going to rank them wrong. So, while the Best Picture Expansion forced the snobs at AMPAS to consider blockbusters like Black Panther and Inception as worthy competitors to “prestige” fair like The Artist and The King’s Speech, expanding the general categories has only given the Academy more room to fuck up and communicate their outdated understanding of how music is consumed and appreciated in 2019, enabling the recording industry’s shills to shoehorn Post Malone onto the same stage as Kendrick Lamar.
Do I have a solution to the Grammys’ woes? Kind of. One idea I’ve been thinking about is a reverse of the proposed (and rightfully maligned) “Best Popular Film” Oscar. What if the Grammys created a category meant to recognize the best releases from independent labels? That’d still lead to a host of problems, and no doubt there’d be lots of semantic arguments about what makes a label “independent” and an outcry when Matador and Sub Pop inevitably dominate the nominations. But it’d force the voting members of the Recording Academy to expand their apertures when considering what kind of music is awards worthy, and would hopefully have a trickle up effect on the other categories (I’m already giddy at the idea of Snail Mail or Mitski taking Fall Out Boy’s place on this year’s Best Rock Album ballot).
But maybe that’d defeat the purpose of the Grammys. Music is tied to sub-culture more closely than any artform, and you can’t have a sub-culture without a firmly defined dominant culture to oppose. There are no more Ed Sullivans trying to shield us from Elvis’s gyrating hips or The Rolling Stones’ salacious lyrics. Yesterday’s purveyors of shock and rebellion are welcome on almost every Late Night and variety show in existence, and very soon there will be a whole generation of children raised by parents who grew up listening to Eminem. Whatever fresh hells our current political situation may serve us up on a daily basis, the cultural gatekeepers have been, if not slain, than weakened to the point of irrelevance. The Grammys and its associated awards shows are one of the last realms that “the industry” controls in totality, one of the last institutions that tries to not just tell us what we should listen to, but control it as well. They’re corny and out of touch, but sometimes you need an enemy to define yourself against.
After all of that preamble, I’m going to take a crack at predicting the outcome of the Grammys, because, well, predicting things is fun! I’ll cover the general categories, as well as the rock and alternative categories because it’s my article and those are my particular genres of interest. I did pretty poorly with my predictions last year, and, looking back, it’s because I didn’t hew closely enough to my three predictors of Grammy success, which are:
- Veterans: The Academy loves giving awards to veteran musicians as a sort of lifetime achievement award, especially if they’ve been ignored by the Academy in the past.
- Nostalgia: The academy loves to reward albums that remind them of the record industry’s golden days (read: pre-Internet)
- What the Academy thinks is relevant: What industry friendly artists can the Academy try to convince everyone is important?
Last years big winner, Bruno Mars’s 24K Magic, a platinum selling, pastiche-y ode to new jack swing and 80s R&B, definitely hits on those last two criteria, so let’s keep that in mind when discussing this years choices…
Album of the Year
Beerbongs & Bentleys – Post Malone
Black Panther: The Album, Music From and Inspired By – Various Artists
By the Way, I Forgive You – Brandi Carlile
Dirty Computer – Janelle Monae
Golden Hour – Kacey Musgraves
H.E.R. – H.E.R.
Invasion of Privacy – Cardi B
Scorpion – Drake
Who Will Win: So there’s actually a fourth criterion for Grammy success that I should’ve laid out earlier: the Academy is typically loath to give out major awards to artists who don’t perform at the ceremony itself, which figures to disqualify both Scorpion and Black Panther, since, as of this writing, neither Drake nor anyone from the latter project have been announced as a performer. Invasion of Privacy had the most dominant and pervasive album roll out of the year, and if this was a fan vote, would surely win, but it’s much too trappy and vulgar to appeal to the Academy’s delicate sensibilities. Even though Beerbongs & Bentleys sold big, its tepid–to-hostile reception from critics lands it in the “Academy pushed narrative” spot alongside H.E.R. and By the Way, I Forgive You, for almost the opposite reason: they’re solid albums that failed to make a serious cultural impact. This means we’ve whittled down the field to two major contenders: Dirty Computer and Golden Hour. Both are nostalgic in their own way; Dirty Computer marries Prince-esque funk with established masters of pop/hip-hop crossover, while Golden Hour’s brand of disco-country resembles, as aptly described by Steven Hyden, a hypothetical answer to the question, “what if Daft Punk produced Fleetwood Mac?” Both are worthy choices, but I’ll give Kacey Musgraves the edge. Her wins at the CMAs give her a proven record of prevailing in more conservative environments, and it doesn’t get much more conservative than the Grammys.
Who Should Win: Taking this category at its most literal, Album of the Year should go to a release that dominated the zeitgeist and captured the most attention in a given calendar year. By that measure, there’s really no reason Invasion of Privacy shouldn’t win. That it happens to be the best sounding record on the list is a rather heartening coincidence.
Upset Special: When picking upsets for the Grammys, one must ask themselves, “What is the most Grammy outcome possible?” In other words, what choice would piss the most people off, generate the most thinkpieces, and garner the most mean tweets? In the past, that’s manifested itself in the form of sad white people playing acoustic instruments defeating younger, more diverse artists for Album of the Year, and that makes Brandi Carlile a prime contender here. That’s a shame, because Carlile is a well-respected and talented songwriter who will not deserve the blow back she’ll receive if she beats Cardi B, Janelle Monae, and kinda-sorta-Kendrick Lamar for a made up award. But that looming apocalypse, (Carlile’s also nominated in the Record and Song categories, which makes a sweep possible as well) make her a dark horse to keep an eye on.
Record of the Year
“All the Stars” – Kendrick Lamar and SZA
“God’s Plan” – Drake
“I Like It” – Cardi B, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin
“The Joke” – Brandi Carlile
“The Middle” – Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey
“Rockstar” – Post Malone feat. 21 Savage
“Shallow” – Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper
“This Is America” – Childish Gambino
What Will Win: Cardi B will not doubt be the biggest draw for viewers on Sunday night, and the easiest way for the Grammys to generate some good press would be to reward her for “I Like It,” certainly the “funnest” track nominated and one that masterfully mixes classic Latin boogaloo with modern trap beats into an infectious multi-cultural bonanza.
What Should Win: “The Middle” is a fluffy pop single that played a significant part of a corporate ad campaign…it also happens to be feast for the ears. From the opening car blinker sounds to the glistening guitars that build up to the coda, manage to capture such a massive sense of scope while managing to be as endlessly catchy, and given that this is a production and performance and award, should probably net “The Middle” the prize. But I’d also like to use this space to point out how good “Shallow” sounds as well. The slight echo on Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s voice, the way the instruments are all perfectly spaced…it’s a great recreation of a live performance, worthy of the big Hollywood-spectacle it was written for.
Upset Special: A big, string-assisted ballad with an impassioned vocal performance…”The Joke,” and the possibility of a big night for Brandi Carlile, is ever looming.
Song of the Year
“All the Stars” – Kendrick Lamar and SZA
“Boo’d Up” – Ella Mai
“God’s Plan” – Drake
“In My Blood” – Shawn Mendes
“The Joke” – Brandi Carlile
“The Middle” – Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey
“Shallow” – Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper
“This Is America” – Childish Gambino
What Will Win: So here’s the thing: I’ve kind of convinced myself that the Brandi Carlile sweep is something that’s actually going to happen. There have been 11 ceremonies where an artist has “swept” Album, Record, and Song of the year, including the most recent two. Three “artists” are eligible for the sweep this year: Carlile, Drake, and kinda-sorta Kendrick Lamar, who performed on and curated most of the Black Panther soundtrack. If either Drake or Lamar sweep, they’d make history by becoming the first hip-hop artist to ever win Song of the Year, and given hip-hop’s historical disadvantage in the general categories, this seems unlikely. That leaves Carlile as the most most likely winner in all three categories, a result that’ll flumox most casual viewers but feel head shakingly familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to the Grammys for a while. I’d like to apologize in advance to Brandi for the ensuing Twitter outrage.
What Should Win: “Shallow” is a perfectly crafted power ballad in a world that desperately needed one. It’s slow build from a misty country duet into a Gaga-belt fest is deeply satisfying and cathartic, and just when the song threatens to crumble under its own weight, it reels you back in with its frustratingly catching “sha-ha, sha-ha-ha-low”’s. Just like the film it accompanies, it’s the product of perfect pop craftsmanship.
Upset Special: “Boo’d Up,” a slick, catchy single who’s pillowy synths and self-assured vocals should’ve made it a lock for a Record of the Year nomination.
Best New Artist
Chloe x Halle
Greta Van Fleet
Who Will Win: Google “who is H.E.R.” and you’ll find a lot of articles asking the same question: the very private singer/songwriter was only sparsely covered before nominations were announced in December, and only a few people knew her real name until recently. But the Grammys likes her brand of laid-back, guitar assisted R&B enough to have given iit five nominations, and that endorsement gives me enough reason to think that she’ll walk away with Best New Artist come Sunday.
Who Should Win: In a world full of Sam Hunts and Luke Bryans, Margo Price feels like she’s on a one-woman mission to revive country’s outlaw spirit. A staple of the local Nashville scene, she’s Chris Stapleton with twice the grit and ten times the political bite. She’s awesome.
Upset Special: Greta Van Fleet nabbed a few nominations in the rock category, and perfectly encapsulate the Academy’s backwards looking, limited perspective on the genre, so don’t be shocked if they win and crack some jokes about bad Pitchfork reviews.
Best Rock Album
From the Fires – Greta Van Fleet
Mania – Fall Out Boy
Pacific Daydream – Weezer
Prequelle – Ghost
Rainier Fog – Alice in Chains
What Will Win: From the Fires, and I’ll use this space to go on my little rant about Greta Van Fleet. I find GVF, a group of four Michigan brothers and a friend who must feel very left out on their tour bus, to be minimally offensive at best and mildly annoying at worse. That they bite so shamelessly from Led Zeppelin and produce aggressively mediocre music doesn’t bother me in and of itself. What does bother me is that their rise to prominence will be accompanied by a bunch of frat bros with the musical curiosity of a snail declaring Greta Van Fleet as revivalists of “real rock” when in fact there is an entire scene of artists who have been producing great work in the genre for decades without receiving mainstream appreciation. Just because a band tries to sound like the greatest hard rock band of all time — and I mean sound exactly like them — does not make them any more “real” than the music produced between John Bonham’s death and From the Fires’s release. In fact, such blatant facsimile makes Greta Van Fleet more phony and performative than anything. But when your understanding of rock begins with O.A.R. and ends with Fall Out Boy, I guess you just don’t know any better, do you?
What Should Win: Honestly, this is such a weak list that I’d probably end up giving the award to the band I just complained about for 200 words above. Greta Van Fleet have already been uncommonly successful of a band of their ilk, and have cleaned up in live performances across the Midwest, which is interesting, in a “Winners’ History of Rock and Roll” kind of way. So I’ll use this space to go on my little rant about Ghost:
Who the hell decided Ghost was good? They play the blandest, most excruciatingly overproduced brand of heavy metal I’ve ever heard paired with the most lifeless vocals I’ve ver heard. Do people just like them because of their elaborate costumes and stage show? That’s KISS’s thing, and at least their cheesy jams have hooks.
Upset Special: Ehrm, Alice in Chains? There’s is the only record here that isn’t seriously flawed or otherwise controversial, and their latter day releases have always been a little underrated.
Best Rock Song
“Black Smoke Rising” – Greta Van Fleet
“Jumpsuit” – Twenty One Pilots
“Mantra” – Bring Me the Horizon
“Masseduction” – St. Vincent
“Rats” – Ghost
What Will Win: If my theory about the Academy loving Greta Van Fleet is correct, then probably “Black Smoke Rising,” which, for all of its faults, has some tasty licks.
What Should Win: I hadn’t listened to any of the new Twenty One Pilots album until I started writing this article, and “Jumpsuit” opens with this really sick distorted bassline, and for a minute I was thinking to myself “oh shit, I might actually like a Twenty One Pilots song,” but then the vocals started, and confirmed my earlier suspicion that these guys write songs for fifteen year olds who really wish they were still twelve. But then halfway through, they go into this bridge that sounds kind of like The Postal Service, which is not a touchstone I was expecting from this group, and my interest was piqued again. In other words, Twenty One Pilots are still a bad band, but they’re an interesting bad band.
As for who should actually win? Definitely St. Vincent. “Masseducation” probably has like 60% less guitars than the rest of the nominated songs but they’re infinitely more compelling and textured, too, and after listening to this songs in the same que and comparing the songwriting, it’s honestly shocking to me that Annie Clark and Bring Me the Horizon can be said to speak the same language, let alone play the same kind of music.
Upset Special: St. Vincent, who’s had success at the Grammys in the past.
Best Rock Performance
“Four Out of Five” – Arctic Monkeys
“Highway Tune” – Greta Van Fleet
“Made an America” – The Fever 333
“Uncomfortable” – Halestorm
“When Bad Does Good” – Chris Cornell
What Will Win: “When Bad Does Good.” It’s a surprisingly moving song, and the kind of elegiac statement you hope an artist would leave behind after their death. But I must say, I find this nomination, and the one Cornell received last year for “The Promise,” slightly tasteless, if only because I’m not entirely sure he’d receive them if they weren’t posthumous. Soundgarden and Audioslave received their fair share nods at Grammys past, so this isn’t exactly a Leonard Cohen situation, but it is still a little condescending.
What Should Win: “Four Out of Five.” On a record that was criticized as meandering, this track provided enough groove and hooks to go along with the whole space-y David Bowie homage thing.
Upset Special: “Highway Tune.” I know I said nice things about Greta Van Fleet earlier but this one of the tracks where Greta Van Fleet went from “sounding like Zeppelin” to “sounding like an band that tries to sound like Zeppelin.”
Best Metal Performance
“Betrayer” – Trivium
“Condemned to the Gallows” – Between the Buried and Me
“Electric Messiah” – High on Fire
“Honeycomb” – Deafheaven
“On My Teeth” – Underoath
What Will Win: “Honeycomb.” In a year devoid of big names, I expect the Academy to go with the artist that most people outside of the metal community are most familiar with.
What Should Win: “Honeycomb,” if only because Deafheaven continue to defy the constraints of genre and manage to make black metal sound majestic, of all things.
Upset Special: “Betrayer” is easily the most melodic track here, and may appeal to voters looking for more decipherable vocals to grab onto. It also happens to be the worst song nominated, but, well, that’s the Grammys for you.
Best Alternative Music Album
American Utopia – David Byrne
Colors – Beck
Masseduction – St. Vincent
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino – Arctic Monkeys
Utopia – Bjork
What Will Win: Beck already has two of these awards under his belt, and I expect him to win again for the unabashedly sugary Colors.
What Should Win: While most of these albums are solid, most of them don’t represent career highs or serious moments of growth for their respective artists. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, however, sees the Arctic Monkeys step in a radically different direction than their earlier work, and while it isn’t a career “high,” per se, it’s an interesting experimentation and homage to 70s glam and space rock that makes it much more intriguing to me than the other albums nominated.
Upset Special: Bjork, who’s tied with Radiohead for most nominations in this category, has somehow never won it, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if they give her a late career win here.