Each year on Grammy night, the Recording Academy plunges itself a few leagues deeper into a dim trench of irrelevance, making it difficult to get too worked-up over its chronic fumbles. But this year was different. When industry voters chose Adele’s conventional bestseller, “25,” over Beyoncé’s provocative “Lemonade” for album of the year at Sunday’s 59th Grammy Awards, the ritual nonsense had finally curdled into something unacceptable.
Here’s why. For the past five years, black artists have been making era-defining pop music, some of which has been nominated for the heaviest Grammy in the land, album of the year. Then, when “music’s biggest night” eventually rolls around, each and every one of these artists loses to a white act doing less-challenging, less-timely, less-imaginative work. Check the tapes. Frank Ocean lost to Mumford and Sons in 2013. Kendrick Lamar lost to Daft Punk in 2014. Beyoncé lost to Beck in 2015. Lamar lost again in 2016, this time to Taylor Swift. And on Sunday, at her creative peak, Beyoncé lost to Adele. Go back even further, and you’ll see that white artists have won album of the year for nine consecutive years.
Somehow, lots of listeners are fine with shrugging this off. Some balk at taking a nice Sunday evening television show and “making it about race.” (Counterpoint: It would be irresponsible not to.) Others are eager to point out that the Grammys have always failed to sufficiently recognize black innovation, from James Brown, to Parliament-Funkadelic, to today. (To that crowd: True, but don’t sleep — the neglect is actually getting worse.)
Either way, the Recording Academy seems to have a death wish, and it’s rooted in the Grammys’ continued lack of interest in rap music, the dominant pop idiom of our times. Contemporary rap feels exceptionally vast, but this year the Grammy electorate focused its attention on Chance the Rapper, who won the golden gramophone for best new artist after cheerfully, and successfully, lobbying the industry to consider streaming-only releases for Grammy eligibility. Chance had a triumphant Sunday night, no question. But were his new supporters responding to his music or to his charm blitz?
And what are Academy members really voting for when they cast those ballots, anyway? Recognizable names? Creative visions? Booming sales? If the answer is “all of the above,” it’s hard to see how they passed on “Lemonade.” This wasn’t just a superstar’s sharpest, riskiest, most politically-charged work; it was also the third-highest-selling album of 2016.
Accepting her consolation prize on Sunday night for best urban contemporary album, Beyoncé took the dais to explain the album’s intent, but ended up explaining its appeal. “We all experience pain and loss, and often, we become inaudible,” she said. “My intention for the film and album was to create a body of work that will give a voice to our pain, our struggles, our darkness and our history, to confront issues that make us uncomfortable.”
While collecting her awards, Adele used her allotted acceptance-speech-time to expound on “Lemonade,” too. She called Beyoncé “the artist of my life,” and described the album as “so monumental, and so well thought-out, and so beautiful, and soul-baring.” Even after the band played her off, she kept on it. “I feel like it was her time to win,” Adele told reporters after the ceremony. “What the f— does she have to do to win album of the year?”
That felt nice, hearing an industry darling scold the academy for making the wrong pick. But there’s really only one change we should hope to see at next year’s Grammys: fewer stars in the crowd. Fed up with the Grammys’ perennial mishandling of black music, R&B singer Frank Ocean protested this year’s awards by declining to submit his work for nomination and staying home. Other stars seemed to have followed his lead, at least in terms of bailing on the party. On Sunday, Drake was on tour in England. Kanye West was nowhere to be seen. Even Justin Bieber sat it out — perhaps as a gesture of solidarity, perhaps in a fit of Bieberian caprice.
Next year, aggrieved artists should consider taking it a step further by refusing to submit their work altogether. Their participation in this busted pageant gives the Recording Academy more legitimacy than the Recording Academy could ever give them.