The biggest story coming out of the Grammy nominations this year wasn’t Beyoncé’s impressive nine nominations, or that all the nominees for Best Rock Performance are female, or even that K-pop superstars BTS received their first nod in a major category. Instead, the story that continues to linger is the snubs for artists who seemed Grammy shoe-ins, which had artists calling out the Recording Academy’s lack of transparency for its nominations process and leading many to wonder: Who exactly picks what music gets honored?
The question is gathering steam from both fans and artists. Halsey has been especially outspoken regarding the process with comments on Instagram, where she wrote over the weekend: “The Grammys are an elusive process. It can often be about behind the scenes private performances, knowing the right people, campaigning through the grapevine, with the right handshakes and ‘bribes’ that can be just ambiguous enough to pass as ‘not-bribes.'”
She’s far from the only one upset, as Drake and even Elton John have voiced displeasure with the Recording Academy. Both were particularly frustrated about The Weeknd receiving not a single nomination, despite the fact that he released not only one of the year’s biggest-selling and most acclaimed albums (After Hours), but also one of the 2020’s top singles (“Blinding Lights”).
However, anyone looking for details about the Grammys selection process will be met with confusion and vagueness, as the practice has long been shrouded in secrecy. Anyone searching for answers will also discover this isn’t exactly a new controversy. It’s not even the first time in 2020 some light was shone on the shadowy nominations process. Earlier this year, a legal battle between the Recording Academy and its former CEO Deborah Dugan briefly brought the “secret committees”behind the nominations into the news cycle.
The process is described as such on the Academy’s website: Members of the Recording Academy send in ballots to help determine nominations for the top four awards (along with awards in certain specialized genres), then “Nominations Review Committees” meet to determine the final nominees from a list of the top 20 recipients of a general vote.
Bill Wyman–the journalist, not former bassist for The Rolling Stones–did some digging around on the subject almost ten years ago. He described how the current process was put into effect in the mid-1990s when the Academy started what was then dubbed the “Three Tenors” rule–named as such after the best-selling The Three Tenors in Concert 1994 was nominated for the album of the year, even though it was widely maligned by the classical music world. Whereas nominees had previously been chosen by the academy’s 10,000 voting members, the new system gave a special review committee final authority in the categories deemed the top four–Record Of The Year, Album Of The Year, Song Of The Year, and Best New Artist.
Aside from eliminating popular yet potentially embarrassing picks like “Macarena” from getting nominated, the new step was also seen partially as an attempt to gain relevance (and viewers) from younger generations. (Though the latter goal was apparently not met this year.)
Who is on this special committee? Your guess is as good as any. The committee’s members are not made public, ostensibly to shield them from industry pressure. Veteran music journalist Robert Hilburn did manage to interview a committee member in 1999 on the condition that the member remained unnamed.
The anonymous committee member described the process as the group gathering together with 20 recordings in the top four categories chosen by Recording Academy members, which they listen to and pare down to the top seven or eight in each category they feel are the best. Then, they fill out individual ballots, which are collected by the Deloitte accounting firm, and those choices are tabulated later for the final picks in each category. According to the Recording Academy’s site, the committee for the four main categories “consists of at least 20 music generalists” while separate committees for other categories (jazz, gospel, rap, rock, etc.) are comprised of 13–17 voting members who are considered experts in their respective fields.
Here’s the main point: For the top four awards, the committee is allowed to overrule the membership’s nominations for its four biggest awards. They could choose to do so for a variety of reasons. A top song is deemed bad (“Macarena”), while a hip artist getting nominated (even if they have little chance of winning) will draw more viewers to the televised ceremony. Perhaps, an artist might be removed from contention after being in talks to perform at the ceremony, but tensions arose when said artist agreed to perform the Super Bowl halftime show a week later–a situation reported by TMZ as happening between the Academy and The Weeknd. (There was no link to that being the cause of the snubs.)
In the wake of the recent controversy, Drake suggested that musicians should form their own awards ceremony to counter the Grammys. The members from any such future award would likely not include the musicians currently serving on the Recording Academy’s board, which includes rapper Paul Wall, gospel singer Yolanda Adams, and Maroon 5 keyboardist PJ Morton. It may just include The Weeknd, though, who addressed his Grammy snub with a tweet: “The Grammys remain corrupt. You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency…”
Harvey Mason Jr., Recording Academy Chair and Interim President/CEO, did release a statement addressing The Weeknd’s complaints. It read: “We understand that The Weeknd is disappointed at not being nominated. I was surprised and can empathize with what he’s feeling. His music this year was excellent, and his contributions to the music community and broader world are worthy of everyone’s admiration.”
Whether The Weeknd will get Grammy love for whenever he releases another album remains to be seen. He should rest well, though, knowing he’s in good company with other big-name artists who never received major Grammy nominations. The list includes names like Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, the Clash, the Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, and Bob Marley, among many, many others.