Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga and ABBA may wish to thank the Recording Academy for getting rid of its Nomination Review Boards. Wizkid might feel differently.
This year, for the first time in 27 years, the final nominations in the Big Four categories of the Grammys were determined by the Academy’s 11,000 voting members without being questioned by a review committee.
For the most part, appointments are what you can expect. Olivia Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License”, Silk Sonic’s “Leave the Door Open” and Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” are in the Grammys wheelhouse. These are well put together records that have done well with just about every constituency – fans, critics, radio, industry. They were going to be in the final, committee or not committee.
ABBA’s Record Nomination of the Year for “I Still Have Faith in You” comes as a shock. For one, the group had never been nominated for a Grammy in any category, although its brains Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus were nominated individually for their work on the Mom mia soundtrack (Andersson) and the Chess music distribution album (both). It seems reasonable that the committee may have sidestepped that record in favor of something else.
What could the committee have promoted? Perhaps Wizkid’s “Essence” (with Tems), a soft and vibrant track that is the favorite to win in the new category of World’s Best Musical Performances. The record peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 two weeks before the first round closes on November 5, which is the perfect time. While we never know for sure, “Essence” likely made it into the top 20 in the regular voting member vote. If that was the case, the committee, if it was still in place, would probably have allowed him to enter the top 10.
Album of the Year nomination for Bennett & Gaga’s Love for sale and the record of the year for their dynamic recording of Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” might not have happened if the committee was still in charge. Bennett hadn’t been nominated in a Big Four category since 1994, when his MTV unplugged won album of the year. This victory and a nomination in this category the same year for The Three Tenors in Concert 1994, caused some growls as the Grammys were disconnected.
It wasn’t much of a blow to Bennett or The Three Tenors (José Carreras, Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti with chef Zubin Mehta). It was just a reflection of the fact that hip-hop and alternative music were the most vital genres in music at the time, and none were represented in the nominations for album of the year. (The other three nominees that year were Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt, who had both won in the category previously, and Seal.) The controversy led Mike Greene, president / CEO of the Academy at the time, to set up a review committee for appointments as follows year.
Bennett has won 12 Grammys in competition since his 1994 album, but so far he hasn’t returned to the Big Four category. Bennett and Gaga’s first joint album, Cheek to cheek (2014), was not nominated for Album of the Year, nor any of his best-selling duet albums: Duets: an American classic (2006) or Duets 2 (2011).
It’s as if the committee were concerned that he would win again if nominated in a Big Four category – which could have sparked another round of complaints about the Grammys being disconnected or stuck in the past.
Favoring legacy artists over more contemporary stars has long been a Grammy practice. Traditional artists are hard to beat. They have decades of friends, associates and admirers at the Academy.
At the 1990 Grammys, Quincy Jones won Album of the Year for Back on the block, which has been cleverly marketed as reflecting his “bebop to hip-hop” journey. He beat Mariah Carey’s debut album and MC Hammer’s one Please hammer, don’t hurt them, the first hip-hop album ever nominated in the category.
The following year, Natalie Cole Unforgettable with love, a sentimental tribute to her father, Nat “King” Cole, won Album of the Year. Their silky duet version of “Unforgettable,” first a hit for Elder Cole in 1951, won the record for the year, beating REM’s masterful “Losing My Religion” and the mega-bit “(Everything I Do ) I Do It for You “by Bryan Adams.”
No one questions the artistry of Jones or any of the Coles. But it sometimes seemed like every time voters got the chance to say hello to a historical artist, they took it. It goes back to the history of the Grammy.
In 1965 and 1966, Frank Sinatra beat the Beatles for Album of the Year. In 1966, Sinatra A man and his music, a two-disc set in which he re-recorded songs from his entire career, beat Revolver, one of the Beatles’ most sought-after albums.
The two groups – two of the biggest names in recording history – faced each other again in 1967 – for the third year in a row. This time the Beatles finally won with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Group, which beat a Sinatra collaboration with bossa nova giant Antonio Carlos Jobim. (If the Beatles hadn’t won for Sgt. Peppers, one of the most classic and hard-hitting albums of all time, the credibility of the Recording Academy would probably never have recovered.)
Even after the nomination review committee was set up, if it let a historic artist compete in a renowned category, voters would often flock to that artist. Ray Charles posthumously won Album of the Year for 2004 Genius loves company – beating three hot contemporary black stars, Usher, Kanye West and Alicia Keys, as well as Green Day.
Three years later, Herbie Hancock River: the letters Joni won album of the year, beating albums by West (again) and Amy Winehouse, among others.
The Academy’s voting membership numbers are different today than they were in 1994, 2004 or 2007 – through natural attrition as well as the Academy’s concerted efforts to expand and diversify its membership.
Harvey Mason jr., CEO of the Academy, alluded to it in an interview with Billboard this week. When asked if he was at all nervous about what voters might do on their own, he replied, “I wasn’t nervous. I felt like we had done a lot of important work on our members. We did a lot of outreach in different communities that we felt were perhaps under-represented among our voting members. … So I felt that the time had come for our members to be able to decide directly who the candidates were. That’s why we felt good to cut the nomination review boards when we did. “
Asked whether Wizkid did not reach the record for the final of the year, Mason said: “It’s an excellent record. He’s a very talented artist. I can’t explain why it didn’t succeed, but I really like the record.
Mason indicated that he was generally satisfied with the nominations. While he expressed some concerns, such as nominees in rock categories favoring older and veteran artists over younger stars, he felt more confident than he was on the day of the 2020 nominations, when ‘he had the unenviable mission of talking about nominations that didn’t include a single nod to The Weeknd.