When it come to the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards, taking place this Sunday in Los Angeles, more people are talking about who isn’t on the ballot than about any of the actual nominees. Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. the Weeknd, was shockingly shut out of all categories, and he announced this week via the New York Times that he would boycott the awards going forward. (“Because of the secret committees, I will no longer allow my label to submit my music to the Grammys,” his statement read.)
It remains to be seen if the fallout from the Weeknd’s snub will affect who actually wins at Sunday’s ceremony, but Yahoo Entertainment has tapped Billboard’s awards editor and a veteran Grammys expert, Paul Grein, to break it all down and predict which of the nominated artists will win instead of “Blinding Lights” and After Hours. Will this year’s top nominee, Beyoncé, become the most-awarded woman in Grammy history? Will Taylor Swift become the first woman to win Album of the Year three times? And why was the Weeknd overlooked in the first place? We have burning questions, and Grein has the Grammy answers.
Yahoo Entertainment: Before we get into the “Big Four” categories — Album, Record, and Song of the Year, plus Best New Artist — let’s start with a couple obvious questions. The Grammys ceremony was postponed this year, from Jan. 31 to March 14, due to coronavirus concerns. Did this six-week delay affect the voting window at all?
Paul Grein: No, the voting period voting closed on Jan. 4, so anything that happened after that was unknown to the voters. For example, the Jan. 6 insurrection might have conceivably helped politically minded entries like Beyoncé’s “Black Parade.” Or there’s Billie Eilish’s documentary, which is getting great reviews, but that came out long after voting was closed. So, you have to kind of put yourself back in the mindset of what was happening in late December and through early January.
Obviously the other elephant in the room that we have to address is the fact that the Weeknd was completely shut out, and there’s been rampant speculation as to why. The Weeknd himself has accused the Recording Academy of internal corruption, and there have been reports that the snub had to do with his double-booking at the Super Bowl. So, how would all this come into play when voters were looking at their Weeknd-free ballots back in December?
I was most surprised that “Blinding Lights” wasn’t nominated for Record of the Year. That’s a category where it seemed just to belong. I thought it would win Record of the Year. It has everything that past every Record of the Year winner has: giant hit, immaculate record, everybody loves it, very broad appeal. It’s hard to imagine anybody not caring for it. But I don’t think the Super Bowl was the reason it wasn’t nominated. I think the committee that picks the nominees in the Big Four categories probably was trying to save a spot for a record that wasn’t a hit — and Black Pumas’ “Colors” is nominated. That song has yet to even make the Billboard Hot 100. I think they didn’t want all of the nominees to be top 10 songs. Even Beyoncé “Black Parade” only peaked at No. 37. The other six nominees are all top 10 records.
But what would be the reason behind such logic?
I think they were thinking, “The Grammys are not the American Music Awards or the Billboard Music Awards, and the nominees shouldn’t all be commercial blockbusters. It behooves us to champion a couple of records that deserve better chart placement than they got.” They may have thought everybody has heard “Blinding Lights.” It opened the MTV Awards with a spectacular performance. There’s nobody who doesn’t know that record. So it might have been, “Let’s give something a shot that could use the shot, and that song doesn’t need the shot.” That being said, I’m not sure that that is their role to break records, or to champion the underdog, or to be tastemakers, or any of that. I think they got a little too clever for their own good. And it hurt them; it caused a backlash. I suspect that “Blinding Lights” was among the top eight vote-getters from rank-and-file voters. It’s not corrupt, and you can see a logic to “let’s try and give something less heralded a chance,” but I think it would have helped if somebody in the room had said, “I don’t think that’s our role. We’re supposed to just pick the eight most deserving records, period. We’re over-complicating things.”
Sounds like he was punished for being popular… but why no Weeknd nominations in the genre-specific categories, even?
His record company entered him in the R&B categories, like for Best Progressive R&B album, and the Grammys moved it over to Best Pop Vocal Album because they thought it sounded more pop to their ears. “Blinding Lights” is pretty much a pop record; it even reminds me a little bit of a A-ha’s “Take on me.” I would say it’s pop more than it’s R&B, and that’s true of a lot of the Weeknd’s records. So the Grammys put in Pop, probably thinking that that was a progressive move, rather than just say, “Because he’s a Black artist, he has to be considered R&B.” But he might’ve done better in the R&B categories. He maybe got lost in the Pop category.
OK, let’s get into the Big Four categories. We’ll start with Record of the Year, which obviously won’t be going to “Blinding Lights.” The actual nominees are “Black Parade” by Beyoncé, “Colors” by Black Pumas, “Rockstar” by DaBaby featuring Roddy Ricch, “Say So” by Doja Cat, “Everything I Wanted” by Billie Eilish, “Don’t Start Now” by Dua Lipa, “Circles” by Post Malone, and “Savage” by Megan Thee Stallion featuring Beyoncé.
This is a tough one. I think we’re all still learning the rhythms of the eight nominees. This is the third year they’ve had eight nominees in each of the top four categories. There were always just five nominees before, and eight kind of complicates things. My thought in December, when voting was going on, was “Savage” would win. It would be the first all-female collaboration to win, and the idea of two strong women coming together, on what’s a terrific record that blends hip-hop and pop and R&B, I think has wide appeal. It’s two superstars for the price of one. But it’s not a lock by any means. If that doesn’t make it, I’d say it’s probably between Dua Lipa and Billie Eilish. Fourth, I’d probably put Beyoncé’s solo record.
Speaking of the two women coming together, representation of female artists has been a topic of debate in the Grammys for quite some time, especially in the last few years with the Time’s Up movement, #MeToo, and former Academy CEO Neil Portnow’s “women have to step up” comment that totally exploded in his face. Is that something top–of–mind for voters?
I think the fact that “Savage” feature two powerful women teaming up will help. And through all of the Big Four categories, women fared very well. It does all seem to fit into the mood of the times.
What about Album of the Year? The nominees are Chilombo by Jhené Aiko, Black Pumas’ self-titled album, Everyday Life by Coldplay, Djesse Vol. 3 by Jacob Collier, Women In Music Pt. III by HAIM, Future Nostalgia by Dua Lipa, Hollywood’s Bleeding by Post Malone, and Folklore by Taylor Swift. There are some big surprises in this category.
I think a woman will win this one. And I think it’s Taylor. When Folklore first came out last summer, I wondered if they would give her a third Grammy for Album of the Year, as that’s a lot and that would put her at a tie with Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, and Paul Simon. I wondered, is she on that level historically? And would it be fair for her to win her third Grammy for Album of the Year before Beyoncé wins her first? Those are fair questions, but everything seems to be going her way. The album did very well commercially, it did very well critically, and she followed it up with a sister project, Evermore, that also did very well. So maybe it’s sexist to question if she’s on the level of Paul Simon or Stevie Wonder. Of course she is! She has sustained for 15 years, which is a very long time in this business. So, I do think she’ll win. She’s lucky that she’s not competing with Beyoncé in this category, or with Kendrick Lamar, for that matter — two artists who are overdue for an Album of the Year. If Beyoncé and Taylor were going head-to-head, Taylor might have a harder time winning. But the competition in this category this year isn’t terribly strong.
What about Song of the Year? This category has some overlap with Record of the Year, but there are a few outliers, and several entries that seem to capture the Zeitgeist of 2020, like Beyoncé’s “Black Parade,” “The Box” by Roddy Ricch, “I Can’t Breathe” by H.E.R., and “If The World Was Ending” by Julia Michaels & JP Saxe. The other nominees are Taylor Swift’s “Cardigan,” Post Malone’s “Circles,” Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now,” and “Everything I Wanted” by Billie Eilish.
Let’s cut it down to the four contenders that seem to have the best chance of winning: “Black Parade,” “I Can’t Breathe,” “Cardigan,” and “Everything I Wanted.” The first two both comment on race matters; they may appeal to the same voting bloc and make it hard for either one to win, but race issues were obviously one of the dominant stories of 2020. This would the second time in three years that a song devoted to that theme won in this category – Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” won two years ago. The fact that “Black Parade” is nominated for Best R&B Song and “I Can’t Breathe” isn’t suggests that “Black Parade” is the stronger entry. An additional reason that Beyoncé looks good in this category is there’s a sense that she didn’t get her full due four years ago, when Lemonade was in contention. She lost Album, Record, and Song of the Year to Adele, and in a moment of extraordinary generosity and grace, Adele said from the Grammy stage that she thought Beyoncé had been shortchanged.
As for the other two, Billie, with her brother Finneas O’Connell, won in this category last year for “Bad Guy” … but every single voter knows that she swept the Big Four last year, and many will think that’s enough recognition for her at this stage of her career, before she has even released her second album. For what it’s worth, Christopher Cross, the only other artist in Grammy history to sweep the Big Four, was nominated in three categories the following year [for “The Best That You Can Do” from the movie Arthur], but did not win. Taylor has yet to win in this category, and there is a growing sense that her enormous success all stems from her songwriting. But as I said, she’s a clear frontrunner for Album of the Year, so some voters will decide that that award takes care of her for this year, allowing them to search elsewhere in this category.
And finally, there’s Best New Artist, which Billie Eilish won last year along with everything else. This year’s nominees are Ingrid Andress, Phoebe Bridgers, Chika, Noah Cyrus, D Smoke, Doja Cat, Kaytranada, and Megan Thee Stallion. Once again, lots of women!
Oh, I think this is also an easy one, maybe even more clear-cut than Album of the Year. It’s Megan Thee Stallion. But Doja Cat, Phoebe Bridgers, and Ingrid Andress are also strong alternate contenders.
My last question is, do you see any overall trends to look out for at this year’s ceremony? Any sort of through-line?
Well, one through-line that will be different from last year, when Billie Eilish swept the Big Four, is nobody is going sweep. Megan might take two of the big awards, but it’ll be much more spread out. In fact, in three of the last four years, one act has swept the top three awards: Adele won Record, Song, and Album in 2016 and then Bruno Mars did the same in 2017, and then there was Billie last year. But I don’t see that happening this year.
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