The Grammys are commonly touted as “Music’s Biggest Night.” The event has hardly ever been perfect, but without much realistic competition, the claim tends to hold up. Artists of the highest caliber show up to accept their awards and perform, and newcomers often view their involvement as a right of passage or a promotion to the elite. Winning even just one award provides them with the title “Grammy Winner” they can ride out for the rest of their careers. Let’s get one thing straight: the awards, the event, and the isolated opinions that catalyze them aren’t the be-all-end-all of any kind of musical ranking, but they do mean something. They do acknowledge, albeit loosely, the condition of this art form year after year. People watch, people care, and people take it to heart. The effects are palpable.
This year, the hype circled around a number of head-to-head battles, namely the three biggest awards of the night, between Adele and Beyoncé. There is no argument that these are two of the most talented, revered, and successful artists of this generation. There is no argument that they both deserved the abundance of nominations they received. There is no argument that under any normal circumstance, they both are worthy victors in their own right. The problem is, these aren’t normal circumstances because the choice was going to be so transparent and definitive; not to slight any of the other nominees, but it was always going to be one or the other. As Adele made her instantaneous return to the stage to collect the final award of the night, Album of the Year, having just moments prior collected the prize for Record of the Year, it was clear something was off… and Adele was the first to admit it.
It may sound like a bold statement at first, but Beyoncé’s Lemonade is easily the most culturally significant record released this decade. Fans, critics, and the public were captivated by this release from the moment she unveiled its lead single, “Formation” alongside an exhilarating air of mystery and anticipation. We all know what happened next, as we were all there gripping to each nuanced moment. Lemonade became a universal symbol for so many people and ideas overnight. This was Beyoncé’s magnum opus, and she was intent of making every single move into a momentous, heightened experience, and not for sales and acclaim, but for art and integrity. After all, it’s easy to forget that she’s not only been at this for almost twenty years, but, more realistically, her whole entire life. She has earned her place as the biggest, most important star in this generation’s musical galaxy. She is the pinnacle, and this moment solidified it.
Adele’s 25, on the other hand, saw unprecedented commercial success, reiterating her position as Pop’s Great Equalizer. For better or worse, it’s damn near impossible to complain about or criticize Adele. She’s got the greatest voice in pop this side of Mariah Carey (but without all the excess,) her poignant, self-written tracks have proven to be relatable and straight-forward, and her humble, uncensored personality keeps her human. Once the Grammys figured out they had an artist like this on their hands, a controversy-less singer-songwriter with outrageous sales and enormous critical praise, there was no telling just how far they were willing to stretch her usefulness. After all, if she wins, there’s little to no risk of pushback. However, these weren’t normal circumstances. This go around, she was up against a behemoth juggernaut that became so instantaneously and deeply imbedded in pop culture that there was seemingly no way it could be stopped.
I feel confident that the case has been made that Beyoncé’s Lemonade is, in all actuality, the Album of the Year. Not by me or this letter, but by the proof that is glaring up at us from the pudding. Seeing Adele so overcome with emotion, less because of winning and more because Beyoncé didn’t, was the perfect affirmation of this album’s significance and the way it touched so many people. There are so few albums that so seamlessly take us from sadness and anger into empowerment and forgiveness without having to pull a few cheap tricks along the way. Truth be told, this was never about hits or sales or airplay, it was about authenticity and speaking so directly, so decisively, and so powerfully to a demographic pop music rarely ever wants to speak to. Beyoncé covered soul, hip hop, rock, country, dancehall, trap, and more, in under an hour and made it all feel so connected and purposeful, like a mosaic. Yet enough Recording Academy voters decided none of that mattered.
This brings us back to Adele, who didn’t lose a single award she was nominated for. None of this is to say she doesn’t deserve the success, recognition, and even abundance of Grammy awards, but it is more evident than ever that her position as “happy medium” is a cop out in a society where diversity is a politically incorrect point of contention. It would be completely remiss if we didn’t rewind the clock to reference last year’s Grammys where Taylor Swift’s 1989 bested Kendrick Lamar’s pivotal To Pimp A Butterfly for Album of the Year. Maybe race has something directly to do with it, maybe it’s indirect, but the fear of acknowledging bold, timely art has become consuming at a time when it’s needed the most. Adele’s 25 is a good, solid record, nothing more. It didn’t reach the critical peaks its predecessor and fellow Album of the Year recipient, 21, did, nor did any of its success come as a surprise. By pop standards, its a herald, but by Adele standards, it’s business as usual. It didn’t need to win this award, but it did.
So my question is this: Why did arguably the most acclaimed, momentous, and culturally significant album of the past year fail to conjure up pretty much any Grammy support whatsoever?
It is strikingly suspect. Beyoncé was nominated for nine awards, yet won only two. Not to mention, they were for Best Urban Contemporary Album and Best Music Video, hardly the most prestigious of the evening. [It’s also worth noting, as a quick aside, that Rihanna and Kanye West were completely shut out for their respective acclaimed albums.] She even lost Best Music Film, where the highly acclaimed Lemonade film should have been a lock, to a Beatles documentary. Is Beyoncé really that controversial? Is she really doing that much to isolate herself, her fanbase, or even her community? Is she really that dangerous? Voters at the Academy sure did think so, and they deemed it far safer to award the eternally-worthy Adele with another round of major awards for a work that just simply did what it needed to do sell bucketloads. It did not deserve to topple Lemonade.
At the end of the day, the Grammy Awards have proven to be a series of hits and misses, almost to the point of parody. Year after year they remind us that they can only be taken so seriously, but, let’s loop back around to the fact that they do matter. It may not determine the ultimate quality of one’s work, but it does put context into it. Right now, seeing a successful, hardworking black woman have a work this deep, this powerful, this beloved, and this significant be put into this context would have meant something bigger than itself. Instead, the Academy took the easy way out. It just goes to show that the Grammys are more out of touch than ever with the art form they claim to host the biggest night in celebration of.