When the August 2017 single "Look What You Made Me Do" wasn't nominated for any Grammys last year, Swifties were miffed by the snub but dealt with it, long since having come to terms with the fact that Taylor Swift's usual album release time table—November—meant a whole year would have to go by before the Recording Academy would give reputation its real due, as it did for Swift albums in 2010 and 2015. Recognition in its entirety was to be expected.
Few were ready for what happened next.
The 2019 Grammys will carry on Sunday without Swift, as reputation only received one nomination—Best Pop Vocal Album—and she is busy working in London. Ed Sheeran, the winner in that category last year, chose to skip the ceremony after his mega-hit ÷ was surprisingly passed over for the more high-profile prizes, too.
But why—when the Recording Academy is perennially accused of being dismissive of what the kids are into these days, while being simultaneously under the gun to attract a bigger audience to a splashy show that, like all the other splashy award shows is steadily declining in viewership—was the first album to pass 2 million sales since Adele's 25 left so devoid of big nominations?
As it turned out, there simply wasn't room this time to conduct business as usual while also hoping to appease those who perennially decry Grammy voters for being way behind while music and the artists who make it are at the forefront of cultural change in so many other arenas.
The Grammys have been busy climbing out of a big hole, which they only dug themselves further into last year by featuring one female winner during the three-hour-plus telecast and not offering Lorde, the only female Album of the Year nominee in 2018, a solo performance slot as the guys in her category were offered. The odd production choice was followed by now-outgoing Recording Academy president Neil Portnow saying that women needed to "step up" if they wanted to be included more.
With that bizarre choice of words ringing in its ears, in October the Academy invited 900 new creators (from singers and composers to producers and engineers) into its voting ranks, all of them checking at least one of three boxes—women, people of color, under 39—to help inject fresh taste into the voting process. NBC News reported that the Nominations Review Committee was up to 51 percent women and 48 percent people of color, from 20 and 30 percent, respectively, in 2017.
With Bruno Mars' perfectly predictable win for Album of the Year also ringing in their ears, this year they expanded the Album of the Year category to include eight releases for the first time (six instead of five have been nominated three times over the years, and not since 1971), and the nominees include work by five female artists.
A slew of women will be performing, including all of those nominated for Album of the Year—Cardi B., Kacey Musgraves, Janelle Monae, H.E.R. and Brandi Carlile—as well as Best New Artist nominees Chloe x Halle and Dua Lipa in addition to Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, St. Vincent, Camila Cabello, Maren Morris, Dolly Parton, Katy Perry, Diana Ross and—performing a tribute to Aretha Franklin—Yolanda Adams, Andra Day and Fantasia.
Alicia Keys is hosting, the first woman to do so in 14 years.
There will be men performing, too, such as country duo Dan + Shay, Ricky Martin, Shawn Mendes, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Arturo Sandoval, Young Thug, Post Malone and J Balvin. But the most chattered about young men of the year, the seven-member K-pop sensation BTS, won't be performing on Sunday but will be presenting after coming up empty in nominations, minus recognition for art director HuskyFox in the Best Recording Package category for the look of their album Love Yourself: Tear.
The album did come out during the eligibility period, Oct. 1, 2017, to Sept. 30, 2018, yet most of the speculation among those who "discovered" BTS when in November 2017 they became the first Korean boy band to ever perform at the American Music Awards had their heart set on a Best New Artist nomination. Which in theory sounded promising, except that the group has been recording (in Korean and Japanese) since 2014.
However, the Grammys are infamous for honoring "new artists" who aren't particularly new (2012 winner Bon Iver's first album came out in 2007, and singer-songwriter Justin Vernon had been burning up the indie scene), so anything was possible until the nominations were announced.
Still, you ask, with the Grammys repeatedly accused of not having its finger on the pulse, why no slam-dunk nominations for BTS, Swift, Ariana Grande (whose Sweetener is up against reputation and who was in talks to perform Sunday but ultimately rebuffed producers' refusal to let her pick which songs to do) or Carrie Underwood—whose Cry Pretty was one of the best-selling albums of the year and was shut out entirely? (Not that Underwood would have attended—she's got a brand-new baby at home!)
If the nominations were purely based on Twitter hosannas, then you would probably have the entire Pop Vocal Album field (Camila Cabello, Shawn Mendes, Pink and Kelly Clarkson along with Swift and Grande) vying in the Album, Record and Song of the Year categories.
If it were up to critics' best-of lists, you might end up with a healthy dose of nominees that most casual appreciators may not have even heard. If the noms were based only on sales...well, then The Greatest Showman and A Star Is Born soundtracks would be right up there with Drake's Scorpion (which was the biggest release of the year overall, including streaming numbers) for Album of the Year and maybe you get Hugh Jackman performing.
But maybe look at it this way: Grammy voters took that pop vocal album category super-seriously and nominated the most delightful polished pop they heard all year. There were just more needle-moving albums and records to consider in the meantime.
As Ed Sheeran told Ellen DeGeneres after his platinum-selling ÷ didn't earn an Album of the Year nomination, the true honor was his fans' response to the music (not to mention the sales numbers).
"But that's the point, that's where you win," the English artist said. "That's where the validation comes from, where you actually see people—genuine people—enjoying the songs. I'd rather have, like, a lifetime of people coming up to me and saying, like, 'This song affects me in this way, in a positive way,' and like, 'This song is my wedding song,' 'This song was my first kiss,' than anything else. I think that's where the validation comes."
The growing Academy seemingly tried to make the 2019 nominations more representative of what everyone is listening to across platforms—a thankless task, but that's just the nature of award shows. When someone's favorite song/movie/show goes unrecognized, it's a snub.
However, one fandom took it particularly hard.
Cardi B, who just attended her first Grammys last year, has five nominations, including an Album of the Year nod for Invasion of Privacy, her debut studio album, and Record of the Year for "I Like It"—all of which Nicki Minaj fans were livid over, especially considering their queen's Queen was shut out entirely after its roller-coaster ride to fruition.
But with a packed field of contenders, at some point critical reception plays in and Queen didn't garner Minaj's best-ever reviews.
"Despite some spectacular moments, Queen has a flabby, meandering mid-section," wrote Rolling Stone's Mosi Reeves (who also called Minaj "one of the best rappers of her generation," hence the un-met expectations). Pitchfork's Briana Younger agreed, writing that the album's peaks came at the beginning and end, while "the middle faces an impossible task of keeping the pace over an hour-long hike."
The headline on Spin's review simply stated: "Nicki Minaj's Queen Doesn't Transcend the Controversy."
Just as with politics, one side will never believe that and will continue to insist that their candidate was robbed. And though Cardi B isn't as accomplished of a rapper as Nicki, her album hit all the right notes, the Latin-crossover smash "I Like It" was one of the biggest songs of 2018 and few music personalities are as compelling as she is right this minute.
Invasion of Privacy is one of four (if you have to slot them) hip-hop albums vying for Album of the Year—Scorpion, Black Panther and Post Malone's Beerbongs & Bentleys are the others—which lessens the chance that they split the vote as Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar are thought to have done last year, rendering Bruno Mars' 24K Magic the winner. Mars' title track also won Record of the Year and "That's What I Like" was named Song of the Year, among his seven Grammys for the night.
Of course, there are eight albums in the mix total, and The New York Times music critics and industry reporters on the Popcast podcast had a good laugh last month, though, over how Brandi Carlile's By the Way, I Forgive You would probably slip in to win Album of the Year, and Portnow would drive off into the sunset blasting her song "The Joke" (a nominee for Record and Song of the Year).
Which is not to say that Carlile's album isn't good, or that winners in recent memory weren't good. But it's a reference to the fact that the Recording Academy has historically liked to tease with a culturally significant group of nominees and then snatch ridicule from the jaws of praise.
The Grammys have become known for favoring not exactly "safe" choices, per se, but rather arguably inarguable picks, such as Ray Charles and U2 over Kanye West in 2005 and 2006, Herbie Hancock over Amy Winehouse (and West), Taylor Swift over Beyoncé, Mumford & Sons over Frank Ocean, Beck over Beyoncé and Adele over Beyoncé (even Adele was barely having it). No one is going to begrudge Ray Charles' posthumous Album of the Year win in a year when the entire show was dedicated to him, but, 14 years later, are you still listening to Genius Loves Company or The College Dropout? (Or the just-as-enduring American Idiot or The Diary of Alicia Keys, for that matter.)?
To this day, only two rap albums have ever won Album of the Year, Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1999 and Outkast's Speakerboxx/The Love Below in 2004. So that was not-quite-a-trend that petered out fast, and critics and fans are wondering what the purveyors of some of the best-reviewed, most relevant, best-selling and, now, most-streamed albums of the year have to do to get back up there.
Black Panther: The Album, by the way, is the Academy's fourth attempt in six years to honor Kendrick Lamar, who produced, co-wrote all the songs and performed on the blockbuster film's original soundtrack, in this category. (Lamar, whose consolation for not winning last year was a Pulitzer Prize for DAMN., is also nominated for an Oscar.)
The array of nominees in the highest-profile categories seemingly reflects the new young blood in the voting pool, but there are around 12,000 eligible voting members of the Recording Academy (people vote in respective categories).
At the end of the day, this year's tally looks like a lot of other years' tallies, with Lamar leading the entire field with eight nominations, Drake (who hasn't attended since 2013) next up with seven and veteran singer-songwriter Carlisle leading the way among female artists with six nominations, tied with Scorpion and Invasion of Privacy producer Boi-1da's six.
Only when the envelopes are opened on Sunday will we know if Grammy voters listened to all this music and really heard it. And maybe we'll see Ariana Grande up there, thank you, next year.