Untangling the 2021 Grammy Nominations Drama

Nominations for the 2021 Grammy Awards struck many, including The Weeknd, as off-key. Here's why.

By Billy Nilles Dec 05, 2020 12:00 PMTags
Watch: The Weeknd Calls Out Recording Academy After Grammys Snub

With every new crop of Grammy nominees, there's always someone left out and upset about it.

And that was certainly the case this year when, after the artists and albums on the Recording Academy's shortlist for the 2021 ceremony were announced on Nov. 24, The Weeknd's name was nowhere to be found.

It wasn't just that the superstar, who'd recently been revealed as the headliner for the Super Bowl LV halftime show, and his album After Hours were denied a nomination for Album of the Year—something that had seemed a lock, given the four weeks it spend atop the U.S. Billboard 200 chart amid ecstatic reviews. Or that "Blinding Lights," one of the albums two singles to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, was left out of the running for Record or Song of the Year. No, he was shut flat out of each and every category he was eligible for. And none too happy about it, either.

"The Grammys remain corrupt," the three-time Grammy winner and 10-time nominee tweeted later that same day. "You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency..."

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Grammys 2021: Snubs and Surprises

His condemnation of their oversight, in turn, opened the floodgates. And anyone who's ever had a beef with the Recording Academy's mercurial ways let their thoughts be known.

Nicki Minaj, who's been nominated 10 times since 2011 with zero wins, called out her Best New Artist loss in 2011 to "white man Bon Iver." Teyana Taylor, who's never been nominated, took issue with lack of female representation in the Best R&B Album category. Halsey, who's been nominated twice as a featured artist, spoke out in the wake of her snub about alleged "bribes" and other business dealings being a part of the nomination game.

"The Grammys are an elusive process," she wrote in her Instagram Story on Nov. 28. "It can often be about behind the scenes private performances, knowing the right people, campaigning through the grapevine, with just the right handshakes and 'bribes' that can be just ambitious enough to pass as 'not-bribes.' And if you get that far, it's about committing to exclusive TV performances and making sure you help the Academy make their millions in advertising on the night of the show."

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Even Justin Bieber, who's won once before and is nominated four times this year, wondered publicly why his nods came in the Pop field. "To the Grammys, I am flattered to be acknowledged and appreciated for my artistry," he wrote on Instagram. "I am very meticulous and intentional about my music. With that being said, I set out to make an R&B album. Changes was and is an R&B album. It is not being acknowledged as an R&B album which is very strange to me."

While the Recording Academy hasn't responded to each and every grievance that's come their way in the wake of this year's nominations, as is their right, interim president and CEO Harvey Mason Jr. did release a statement that touched on The Weeknd's glaring omission. After noting that this year saw a record number of submissions, he said, "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."

He also took the opportunity to refute a TMZ story claiming it was The Weeknd's Super Bowl gig that cost him his nominations. "We were thrilled when we found out he would be performing at the upcoming Super Bowl, and we would have loved to have him also perform on the Grammy stage the weekend before," Harvey continued. "To be clear, voting in all categories ended well before The Weeknd's performance at the Super Bowl was announced, so in no way could it have affected the nomination process."

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2021 Grammys: Stars React to Their Nominations

The statement did little to quell The Weeknd's disdain, as he tweeted in response, "Collaboratively planning a performance for weeks to not being invited? In my opinion zero nominations = you're not invited!"

The Academy's nomination process has always felt a bit puzzling and intentionally opaque—look no further than each year's Best New Artist nominees, many of whom often already have several albums under their belts and, sometimes, even prior Grammy nominations—and that seems unlikely to change no matter how much anyone protests otherwise.

As Harvey told Variety amid the uproar, "Y'know, it really just comes down to the voting body that decides. We have eight nomination slots to fill in [the Big Four categories: Best Album, Song, Record and New Artist], five in others, and the voters vote for their favorites." He explained that a committee of about 20 music professionals makes the call for the Big Four, whittling down a shortlist of the "20 top vote-getters in the general field" to even shorter lists. 

"The people in that room care: there's no agendas in there, there's no 'let's snub this person' or that person. It's about, 'Let's try and find excellence,'" he explained. "Also, you have to remember that committee can't vote on something that's not there." Though he wouldn't comment on whether The Weeknd made the initial shortlist, Harvey did admit that the omission didn't seem, to him, to be reason enough to question their process.

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"We look at it every year and make tweaks and revisions to the process; we did it this year, last year, we'll do it next year. And I don't think this calls it into question, honestly. The process is there so we can continue to monitor excellence. I was in the 'core room' this year [which decides the Big Four] and I observed," he continued. "They were critically listening to every song that came across their desks—or virtual desks—so I don't think it shows a flaw in the process."

A process, it should be noted, that the Recording Academy's former CEO Deborah Dugan claimed, when ousted from her post at the start of the year, was steered by board members sitting on secret committees to "push forward artists with whom they have relationships." The Recording Academy has denied Deborah's claims.

The sentiment expressed by The Weeknd isn't exactly new. Black artists of undeniable cultural importance like Jay-Z, Rihanna, Frank Ocean and Kanye West have shared similar feelings over the years, accusing the Academy of using their celebrity to draw viewers into a telecast that never sees fit to award them anything and wondering why their nominations tend only to come in rap or R&B categories, if at all. Or why, when they do manage to break through to the Big Four, they're often runners-up to white artists, as was the case with Beyoncé, whose self-titled 2013 album and 2016's Lemonade—inarguably two of the last decade's most impactful LPs—lost to Beck and Adele, respectively. Even the latter seemed ill at ease with her win for 25 in 2017, addressing Bey directly from the stage. 

"I can't possibly accept this award," she said. "The Lemonade album was so monumental and so well thought out and so beautiful and soul-baring. We all got to see another side to you that we don't always see. You are our light."

At the end of the day, the Recording Academy doesn't really owe any of us transparency into their processes. They're entirely within their right to do things as they see fit. And yet, at least according to 47-time nominee (and just four-time winner in—you guessed it—the rap category) Drake, they do so at the risk of their own continued relevance. 

"I think we should stop allowing ourselves to be shocked every year by the disconnect between impactful music and these awards and just accept that what once was the highest form of recognition may no longer matter to the artists that exist now and the ones that come after. It's like a relative you keep expecting to fix up but they just can't change their ways," he warned in an Instagram Story.  "This is a great time for somebody to start something new that we can build up over time and pass on to the generations to come."

The 2021 Grammys air Jan. 31 on CBS.

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