From Frank Sinatra in the 1960s to Paul Simon in the 1970s to U2 in the 1980s, ’90s and early 2000s, one set of musicians has long had reason to feel secure in its privileged position at the Grammy Awards.
Well, roll over, white guys, and tell Beethoven the news.
For the first time in the ceremony’s six-decade history, a woman and people of color have squeezed the Recording Academy’s go-to demographic from among the principal artists in contention for album of the year, the flagship category in nominations announced Tuesday for the 60th annual Grammys.
Jay-Z’s “4:44,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Damn,” Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic,” Lorde’s “Melodrama” and Childish Gambino’s “Awaken, My Love!” will compete for the music industry’s most prestigious prize on Jan. 28 in New York — a remarkable shift from just a few years ago, when white rockers including Jack White and the Black Keys held down four of the category’s five slots in 2013.
That’s not the only award whose nominations reflect the change. For record of the year, singles by Jay-Z, Lamar, Mars and Gambino are up against “Despacito,” the chart-topping hit by Puerto Rico’s Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee. Nominees for song of the year include tunes by Logic and Julia Michaels.
And best new artist? That coveted trophy will go to either a woman (Michaels, Sza or Alessia Cara) or an African American man (Khalid or Lil Uzi Vert).
You can look at these nods as a determined effort to repair the Grammys’ reputation, which in recent years has been badly damaged by case after case of important black artists being overlooked in favor of less-significant white acts.
Think of Beyoncé losing album of the year to Beck. Or Lamar losing best rap album to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.
Or Beyoncé losing album of the year — again — to Adele, who in her acceptance speech at this year’s ceremony basically tried to correct the academy, saying she couldn’t take the award from the singer responsible for “Lemonade.”
Indeed, the perception that the Grammys don’t properly value work by people of color led Frank Ocean last year to withhold his acclaimed “Blonde” album from consideration.
The institution, he told the New York Times, “just doesn’t seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from.”
Yet it’s not right to view the new nominations as a kind of politically motivated affirmative action (though some guitar-toting conspiracy theorists undoubtedly will).
Rather, they constitute an encouraging sign that academy members are actually paying attention to the culture, recognizing the music that had the most to say in a year roiled by examinations of how race and gender play out in art and media and government.
More to the point, they did so without gumming up the major categories with the usual white-guy stuff — music by John Mayer, for instance, or Foo Fighters — that might not matter hugely but that provides a reassuring connection to the old way of doing things.