The Grammy Awards got it wrong again.
On Sunday night, Adele swept the major categories: album of the year, record of the year, and song of the year all went to “Hello” and its album “25.”
That shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. Adele was the odds-on favourite going into the 2017 Grammys, even if “25” and its smash hit feel like distant memories (the album was released in November 25 and was eligible for this year’s awards because of the Grammys’ weird timing rules). She’s beloved across the world, technically impressive, charming all of the time, and almost impossible to hate.
But Adele’s sweep felt like an affront to Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” which had to settle for best urban contemporary album (an awkward phrasing that basically means best modern-sounding R&B album). The Grammys chose a perfectly fine album with a huge hit over one that made history, which left the awards feeling more irrelevant than ever.
Black music has gotten shortchanged before
As many critics have pointed out, the Grammys have an uneasy racial history. Only 10 black artists have ever won album of the year since it was first given in 1959, even though the entire history of rock and roll is derived from black music.
Craig Jenkins, New York magazine’s music critic, said Kanye West was “right” about the Grammys. West said after Beck’s “Morning Phase” beat out Beyoncé’s self-titled album in 2015, “At this point we tired of it, because what happens is when you keep on diminishing art and not respecting the craft and smacking people in the face after they deliver monumental feats in music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration.”
Immediately after this year’s awards, the singer Solange (Beyoncé’s sister) shared a note on Twitter from Frank Ocean, who chose to sit out this year’s Grammys, which was directed at Grammy producers. Ocean wrote:
“USE THE OLD GRAMOPHONE TO ACTUALLY LISTEN BRO, I’M ONE OF THE BEST ALIVE. AND IF YOU’RE UP FOR A DISCUSSION ABOUT THE CULTURAL BIAS AND GENERAL NERVE DAMAGE THE SHOW YOU PRODUCE SUFFERS FROM THEN I’M ALL FOR IT. HAVE A GOOD NIGHT.”
The Grammys also have a history of not giving hip-hop — and anything remotely new or pioneering — its due. Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff won the very first Grammy rap award in 1989 for “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” but the category wasn’t televised, leading them and other nominees to boycott the show.
The Grammys are more conservative than they look
Adele appeals to the conservative streak in the Grammys’ voting body of industry pros, who strongly favour work that appeals across generations and harks back to older forms. Everyone from your mum to your five-year-old nephew knows the words to “Hello” and connects to it. Her style of soul music isn’t breaking any molds. “Formation” may be a statement-making, forward-thinking masterpiece, but from its sonics to its politics, it challenges and alienates a certain segment of the US.
Ray Charles, Herbie Hancock, and Robert Plant, among many others, have only recently won their first album of the year trophies long after their music had become safe and all-pleasing. The Grammys seemingly finally caught up to David Bowie, who swept in his categories this year after long being denied any major prizes. That’s how the Grammys work.
In the end, sales matter
There is another, simpler reason Beyoncé was shut out of the biggest, cross-genre categories while Adele was coronated: sales. At a time when music is more vexed than ever about itself as a business and its future, Adele sold records at a rate unseen since the ’90s. “25” sold more than nine million copies in the US alone, while Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” (her second-lowest-selling album to date) couldn’t quite hit 2 million.
Perhaps more than ever, the Grammys may feel that rewarding a commercial juggernaut is in the awards’ own best interest, even if it means shunning a piece of cultural history that even Adele herself agrees should have gotten its due. As Adele said Sunday night, after expressing her devotion to “Queen B” in her acceptance speeches, “What the f— does she have to do to win album of the year?”
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.