The Grammy nominations made headlines Tuesday morning for their seismic shift from pop to hip-hop, as Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Donald Glover’s Childish Gambino all scored spots in the big two categories of record and album of the year.
For years, the Recording Academy drew attention, and sowed criticism, by elevating pop albums to its big categories and relegating hip-hop to the niche trenches. This year the trend reversed.
But the genre switch wasn’t the only historical anomaly when nominations for the Jan. 28 awards ceremony in New York were revealed. The Recording Academy also made a change in moving away from the biggest-selling albums of the year in general. The two highest-selling albums of 2017 in the United States so far have been Taylor Swift’s “Reputation” and Ed Sheeran’s “Divide.” They landed no nominations in the top two categories.
In Swift’s case, that was partly for technical reasons – “Reputation” wasn’t eligible for album of the year, though the single “Look At What Made You Made Me Do” could be submitted for record of the year.
And what of the 930,000-plus folks who’ve acquired Sheeran’s “Divide,” largely to the mockery of those who don’t get the shape of him, since its release earlier this year? They were left to try to celebrate nominations in minor categories, such as pop vocal album. Those fans didn’t seem to be handling it that well.
This eschewal of the top sellers hasn’t happened in some time. The two biggest-selling albums of 2016 were Adele’s “25” and Drake’s “Views.” Both were nominated for album of the year (Adele won), and a song from “25” (“Hello”) won record of the year. The two highest-selling albums of 2015 included, again, “25,” and Swift’s “1989.” The latter won album of the year and had a song (“Blank Space”) nominated for record of the year.
In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2007 to find a year in which an artist with one of the top two selling albums didn’t at least score a nomination in one of the top two Grammy categories. That year Daughtry’s eponymous debut and Akon’s “Convicted” earned the top two spots but were shut out of those Grammy categories. And that was a strange season: Herbie Hancock won album of the year for his tribute to Joni Mitchell.
We’ll see what happens with “Reputation” next year. But as of now, we’re in new territory.
It would be comforting to indie music fans to say that this represents a shift to smaller, more handmade recordings. Not quite. Lamar’s “DAMN.” is plenty big: It was right on Sheeran’s heels all spring and summer. And even Jay-Z and all that Tidal weirdness hasn’t stopped “4:44” from becoming one of the big sellers of 2017.
In fact, this year didn’t see a commercial unicorn in the album category, as the recent past did with the likes of Sturgill Simpson and Alabama Shakes. But the nominations do signal a willingness to give slots to artists beyond the top sellers.
Why is it happening?
Certainly rule changes could be playing a role. The Recording Academy has become more modern of late, welcoming streamed albums, more oversight to prevent fraud and online voting (that last one is fresh for this year). That means, at least theoretically, that the biggest hits don’t mindlessly get voted in, as some have complained about in the past.
But there may also be a general cultural shift away from simply embracing what has been historically dominant. As The Washington Post’s Emily Yahr writes, this is the first time that the album of the year category contains no white male artists. A changing world means changing Grammy sensibilities. And changing Grammy sensibilities means less commercial hegemony, too.