Can the Grammys be fixed?
This year, they’re tinkering with “Music’s Biggest Night.” Alicia Keys will host the telecast on CBS on Sunday at 8 p.m. — that’s good — and the four major awards categories have been expanded from five nominees to eight.
The idea — borrowed from the Oscars, which started nominating as many as 10 movies for best picture a decade ago — is to make the categories of best album, record, song, and best new artist more inclusive, to cast a bigger net, in hopes of not screwing it up.
The strategy of adding on — and choosing 15-time winner Keys as host — surely comes in response to 2018’s gaffes. Bruno Mars beat out Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, and Childish Gambino for best album, in keeping with the long Grammy tradition of the comfortably entertaining triumphing over the creatively adventurous. (Think Adele over Beyonce in 2017, or Mumford & Sons over Frank Ocean in 2013.) On top of that, Recording Academy president Neal Portnow botched the #MeToo moment by saying that women need to “step up” if they want to advance their careers.
So in 2019, once again, the Grammys are promising to do better.
In answer to #GrammySoMale criticism, five of the eight best-album nominees are women, with Cardi B., Janelle Monae, Kacey Musgraves, Americana songwriter Brandi Carlile (the most nominated non-dude, with six), and H.E.R. and R&B singer and surprise multiple nominee Gabriella Wilson. Six women are up for best new artist, vying with one country singer and one rock band.
But does a more diverse cast of nominees mean the Grammys are guaranteed to reward the most deserving?
Of course not. For starters, we shouldn’t think of the Grammys as truly rewarding excellence. It’s a TV show that celebrates a combination of respectability and popularity while serving as an advertisement for the music industry. (One segment planned for Sunday that sounds promising: Musgraves, Katy Perry, and Maren Morris honoring Dolly Parton. A less good idea: Jennifer Lopez paying tribute to Motown.)
One reason non-edgy acts often take home major Grammys is that all the members of the Recording Academy get to vote on them. So longtime professionals, who are experts in one area but might not be clued in on the latest mainstream musical happenings, tend to choose the safe, ingratiating option, or vote for the artist that they’re most familiar with.
And now with eight candidates splitting votes instead of five, this year’s races are harder than ever to handicap.
Wait a minute! Does that mean that a split vote could lead to Post Malone’s difficult-to-bear beerbongs & bentleys — which ranked third on the Billboard year-end album chart for 2018 behind only Drake’s Scorpion and Taylor Swift’s weirdly snubbed Reputation — actually winning album of the year? I’m afraid so.
Here are predictions on who will, should, and maybe could win in the four top categories, plus an intriguing one with a deserving Philadelphia nominee.
Will win: Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour.
Should win: Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer
Could win: Various Artists, Black Panther: The Album.
Other nominees: H.E.R, H.E.R.; Brandi Carlile, By the Way, I Forgive You, Drake, Scorpion, Post Malone, beerbongs & bentleys, Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy.
Musgraves’ country-pop crossover Golden Hour has the right combo of critical approval and popular success. And it’s really a pop record that hearkens back to 1970s singer-songwriter stylings that Grammy voters are comfortable with.
Janelle Monae made the best album of 2018 with her funky and futuristic Dirty Computer. The Black Panther soundtrack has an outside chance because it’s helmed by Kendrick Lamar, who has been snubbed three times before. It would be just like the better-late-than-never Grammys to try to make it up to him now.
Will win: Drake, “God’s Plan.”
Should win: Cardi B., Bad Bunny, and J Balvin, “I Like It.”
Could win: Childish Gambino, “This Is America.”
Other nominees: Brandi Carlile, “The Joke,” Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper, “Shallow.” Kendrick Lamar & SZA, “All The Stars,” Post Malone Featuring 21 Savage, “Rockstar,” Zedd, Maren Morris & Grey, “The Middle.”
Going into 2019, Drake has been nominated 42 times and won only three times, never taking home a major trophy. He’s up for seven this time, and is poised to grab some hardware. “God’s Plan” has been streamed over a billion times on Spotify, and its video deploys a foolproof strategy to get people to love Drake: He gives them money.
Cardi B.’s “I Like It,” is a wondrous salsa and trap music conflation that samples Pete Rodriguez’s 1967 hit “I Like It Like That” and it is the most irresistibly infectious song nominated here, by far. To paraphrase Tim McGraw’s 1995 country hit: “I Like It? I love it, I want some more of it.”
“This Is America” also has a chance because it’s the most important song on the list, with a video that speaks eloquently about American violence against African American citizens. But that’s not fully conveyed in the recording of the song itself, which this award honors. You need to see the video to get the whole picture.
Will Win: Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, “Shallow.”
Should win: Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, “Shallow.”
Could win: Brandi Carlile, “The Joke.”
Other nominees: Kendrick Lamar & SZA, “All The Stars.," Ella Mai, “Boo’d Up,” Drake, “God’s Plan,” Shawn Mendes, “In My Blood," Zedd, Maren Morris & Grey, “The Middle,” Childish Gambino, "This Is America.”
Was Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s “Shallow,” not absolutely made for the Grammys? OK, maybe it was really made for the Oscars, and presumably the A Star Is Born love song will win best song there. But the Hollywood ballad that starts off intimate and sweet before swelling into bombast is at once an authenticity move for Gaga and a glitzy glamorous celebration of schlock. How can it lose?
Carlile’s “The Joke,” checks many of the same boxes, in this songwriter’s category. It begins hushed and whispered, and builds to a big-string-thing climax. And gets points for seriousness: Written by a self-described “queer mom,” it delivers an anti-bullying love-is-stronger-than-hate message. It’s the sleeper.
Will win: Dua Lipa
Should win: Margo Price
Could win: H.E.R.
Other nominees: Chloe x Halle, Luke Combs, Greta Van Fleet, Bebe Rexha, Jorja Smith,
If Led Zeppelin wannabes Greta Van Fleet win as the only rock act, there will be outrage from would-be arbiters of good taste, after Pitchfork gave their album a 1.6 (out of 10). If Chloe x Halle win, it will speak to the power of Beyonce, whose Parkwood Entertainment manage the sister act, who also sang at the Super Bowl. If All-American Made country maverick Margo Price wins, it will be just. If H.E.R. wins, it won’t be a shock: the Grammys seem to be seriously enamored of the little-known underdog.
And if Dua Lipa wins, it’s to be expected. The British-born daughter of an Albanian rock singer who fled war-torn Kosovo seems to have the right combo of modestly interesting music, a chic international background and giant mega hit with an empowerment message in “New Rules.”
Should win: Childish Gambino, “This Is America.”
Will win: Childish Gambino, “This Is America”
Could win: Tierra Whack, “Mumbo Jumbo.”
Other nominees: Joyner Lucas, “I’m Not Racist,” Janelle Monae, “Pynk,” The Carters, “Apes—.”
OK, I admit it: It’s highly unlikely that Philadelphia rapper Whack walks away with a trophy in this impressive, full-of-heavyweights category, which includes Jay-Z and Beyonce’s clip filmed in the Louvre and Monae’s outre “vagina pants” vid.