The 2021 Grammy Awards ceremony was a peculiar affair. Obviously the pandemic had a lot to do with that, but there was also a frisson in the room. The Recording Academy was caught, it seemed, between its historically terrible past and a potentially bright future. And when it came to transparency, it was still frustratingly slow. “[The Recording Academy] are moving in inches and we need to move in miles,” solo artist Zayn Malik had tweeted shortly before the show started. “I’m keeping the pressure on and fighting for transparency and inclusion. We need to make sure we are honouring and celebrating ‘creative excellence’ of ALL. End the secret committees.”
That message seems doubly important in light of the nominations for next year. Where to begin? Let’s try with some of the positive bits. We’re about to see a battle between pop queen Taylor Swift and newcomer Olivia Rodrigo, both of whom are up for Album of the Year. In March, Swift became the first woman to win AOTY three times, winning this year for Folklore, in 2016 for 1989, and in 2010 for Fearless. Meanwhile, this is Rodrigo’s first set of nominations, including AOTY for her debut, Sour, and nods for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist.
British artists didn’t fare so well this year, but Mercury Prize-winner Arlo Parks got two nominations, for Best New Artist and Best Alternative Album. It’s heartening, if surprising, to see Glass Animals, who released their third album last year, also up for Best New Artist – most likely due to the slow-burning viral success of their single, “Heat Waves”. Earlier this month, the Oxford-formed band set a US chart record, achieving the longest run (42 weeks) in the Top 100. Ed Sheeran’s single “Bad Habits” is up for Song of the Year.
But then there are the bad choices, of which there are many. Rapper Doja Cat has deservedly received recognition in big categories including Album of the Year (Planet Her) and Record of the year (“Kiss Me More” ft SZA). So why isn’t she also up for Best Rap Album, alongside J Cole, Nas, Kanye West, Tyler the Creator and Drake? Yet there’s the issue of her working with Dr Luke on the album, meaning he is also a nominee. This, after the Recording Academy invited Kesha – who accused the producer of rape (which he denied) – to perform her empowering anthem, “Praying”, in what many took to be a post #MeToo show of support.
Elsewhere, other alleged predators lurk. Marilyn Manson, who has been accused by multiple women of rape and sexual assault, is an Album of the Year nominee thanks to his collaboration with Kanye West on Donda. Manson, who is still facing several lawsuits over the allegations, has called them “horrible distortions of reality”. Disgraced comedian Louis CK, however, actually admitted to exposing himself and masturbating in front of women during his career, and still finds himself nominated for Best Comedy Album. CK is competing against Dave Chappelle (currently the subject of a transphobia controversy) and Kevin Hart (multiple accusations of homophobia). What was that about cancel culture, again?
It doesn’t feel like an overstatement to suggest this could be both one of the worst and best set of nominations in the Grammy’s history. In many categories, the nominations feel fresh, relevant and diverse. In others, they’re a slap in the face to everything the entertainment industry has been battling over the past few years. Kesha’s performance becomes hollow when the Recording Academy is prepared to celebrate men who are, right now, facing lawsuits accusing them of rape, physical abuse, torture and other heinous offences. CEO Harvey Mason told The Wrap that it will be decided at a later date whether Manson will be invited to the ceremony. “We won’t restrict the people who can submit their material for consideration,” he said of the nominations. “We won’t look back at people’s history, we won’t look at their criminal record, we won’t look at anything other than the legality within our rules of is this recording for this work eligible based on date and other criteria. If it is, they can submit for consideration… We’re not going to be in the business of restricting people from submitting their work for our voters to decide on.” There is, he said, “a lot more to do”. You’re telling me.