For the first time in the 59-year history of the Grammys, there’s not a single white man nominated for the biggest award of the year. Instead, the Album of the Year category is stacked with diverse names: Childish Gambino, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Lorde, and Bruno Mars. And that diversity extends across the board. Jay-Z leads with eight nominations overall, followed by Kendrick with seven, and Bruno with six, while Childish Gambino, No I.D., Khalid, and SZA are all tied with five. It’s a slate that’s been hailed by artists, critics, and the industry alike. But at the end of the night — the 60th Grammy Awards kicks off at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, January 28 — none of this overt display of wokeness means that any diverse creators will actually win.
For the past two decades, while the Grammys have had a fairly diverse pool of nominees,. Last year, Beyoncé led the nominations with nine, followed by Drake, Rihanna, and Kanye West with eight nominations each. Yet by night’s end, it was Adele standing in front of the press balancing five trophies — a choice so seemingly ill-informed that even Adele tried to hand off her Grammy for Album of the Year to Beyoncé. Making things especially egregious was the fact that Beyoncé was similarly snubbed two years before, when Beck won Album of the Year in 2015, a win so unpopular, Kanye West popped up onstage in protest. But this year, if, say, Lorde ends up going home the evening’s big winner, it may not be another case of #grammyssowhite, but rather a different institutional bug: vote-splitting.
Voting blocks — where one group of voters (r&b fans, for instance) divides its votes between two artists, allowing another artist to win — have long plagued the Grammys. Most notably, this phenomenon favors a single genre: rock. When votes get split between other genres, a rock album nominated for Album of the Year almost always wins: Beck in 2015; Arcade Fire in 2011; Santana in 2000; U2, Paul Simon, and Phil Collins in 1988, ’87, and ’86.
Why? The obvious reason is a voting demographic that skews older, whiter, and more male than the artists actually making the music. To help combat that fact, this year the Academy sought out members of the music community who are eligible to vote but maybe weren’t registered to, sending out staffers to its twelve chapter cities to talk about the process and get people engaged. What the Academy is trying to avoid is a repeat of 2014, when Macklemore won the Grammy for Best Rap Album over Kendrick Lamar, and they’re pulling out all kinds of stops to try and fix this. All voting was done online this year, a move intended to attract a more diverse group of voters. The Academy included samples of the actual music on the site in hopes of reducing the number of votes based straight on name recognition.
Whether all these changes will translate into more equitable results remains to be seen, and the Grammys are doing their best to hide this voting problem under a slew of solutions. One is genre division, which separates music deemed “urban contemporary” from “pop.” As might have been expected, the former is always filled entirely of black artists, the latter with white ones, a reality so absurd even Sufjan Stevens spoke out against it last year. But in the big four categories — Album, Song, Record, and Best New Artist of the Year — everyone votes for the four biggest awards, and every year it is clear exactly who “everyone” is.
This year, there’s only one white artist nominated for Album of the Year: Lorde. She is also the only pop artist in the category. With a huge lane to herself, it’s very likely that Lorde will take home that award. Now, Melodrama is a great album, but it deserves to win based on quality, not bias.