Before the Recording Academy announced its nominees for the 61st Grammy Awards on Friday morning, the big news wasn’t who might make the slate, but the size of the slate itself.
The four top categories — album of the year, song of the year, record of the year and best new artist — had been upped from five nominees to eight, making room for a wider array of names, faces, sounds and styles. This was a corrective measure, for sure, and it felt long overdue. The Grammys have suffered from glaring diversity problems over the years, but rather than encourage Grammy voters to rethink how their notions of excellence might better reflect the world we all share, the academy addressed the issue in the easiest way possible: broaden the field.
How did that pan out? Well, there’s a vexing amount of overlap in top categories, with eight artists nominated in at least two of the top three fields. On top of that, the culturally omnipresent Drake, the serially snubbed Kendrick Lamar and the country outlier Brandi Carlile are nominated in all three — album, recording, song.
So after perennially failing to understand that prestige is valuable in its scarcity, the academy chose to spread it around like Skippy — but then the 13,000-plus industry-types that make up the Grammy electorate decided that only a small group of artists should be allowed to take a bite of the sandwich.
We won’t really be able to measure the success of this idea until we huddle around our televisions on Feb. 10. Because, although the nominees matter, the winners are the ones who go down in the history books. And in case you forgot, the academy has infamously failed to recognize rap music — the dominant pop form of our young century — with an album of the year trophy since OutKast won in 2004. On this fresh new Grammy slate, half of the recordings nominated for the album of the year qualify as rap, or at least somewhat rap-adjacent. Does that count as improvement? Last year it was three out of five, and Bruno Mars ended up taking home the big prize anyway.
One reason for guarded optimism: The academy managed to include some women among the nominees this time around. On the ballot for album of the year, four of the eight nominees are women. For best new artist, it’s six out of eight. That’s encouraging, especially after academy president Neil Portnow responded to the gender imbalance at last year’s telecast by asking women to “step up.” (Portnow apologized for the comment and later announced that he’d be resigning in 2019.)
One reason for rational pessimism: The Grammys have always suffered from abject Oscar-envy, and this year, it feels more palpable than ever. If Janelle Monáe’s “Dirty Computer” wins album of the year, will it be for the utopian retro-futurism of her music or because Grammy voters recognize the singer from her movie roles? And after being stonewalled for album of the year three times, will Kendrick Lamar finally win it for his lesser contributions to the “Black Panther” soundtrack?
Meantime, “Shallow,” that big, lung-busting duet between Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper from “A Star Is Born,” feels like an absolute lock for both record and song of the year. Pleasant surprises pop up here and there on nomination day. On Grammy night, nah.