Perhaps no “contest” between two artists says as much about the Grammys than Adele vs Beyoncé. Adele received five nominations, Beyoncé nine. Both were favourites in three of the “top four” categories: record of the year, song of the year, and the biggest hitter, album of the year. To the frustration of many onlookers, including Adele herself, Adele won all three.
Adele and Beyoncé have many things in common. They are two of the most critically acclaimed stars of the contemporary music scene. Both are emotional vocalists who explore romantic vulnerability and motherhood in their lyrics. But they also represent the different kinds of popstar the Grammys must choose to celebrate each year. One is white and conventional; the other, black and genuinely ground-breaking. We even see this in their lyrical differences – Adele looks with heady nostalgia to the past, while Beyoncé uses history as tool to look forward to the future.
As Ben Sisario and Joe Coscarelli explained in the New York Times, Adele’s album is in the traditional style which is “Grammy catnip”. By contrast, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, with its hour-long art film, and themes of politics and race, represents an edgier sound that is continually overlooked. As they put it, Lemonade is “Exhibit A for those who contend that the Grammys are perennially out of touch”.
The winner seemed to agree. “I can’t possibly accept this award,” Adele said in her speech:
“I’m very humbled and I’m very grateful and gracious, but my artist of my life is Beyoncé. And this album to me, the Lemonade album, is just so monumental. Beyoncé, it’s so monumental. And so well thought out, and so beautiful and soul-baring and we all got to see another side to you that you don’t always let us see. And we appreciate that. And all us artists here adore you. You are our light. And the way that you make me and my friends feel, the way you make my black friends feel, is empowering. And you make them stand up for themselves. And I love you. I always have and I always will.”
Adele’s embarrasing triumph isn’t new – the Grammys often sees white artists favoured in the top four categories. In 2015, Kanye West made headlines for storming the stage when Beck won over Beyoncé in the best album category. Big names like Beyoncé, Lamar and Rihanna return year on year to perform and bring in higher audience ratings. And yet these artists are not celebrated on the main stage.
The Grammys voting process is notoriously strange – when selecting nominees, the Recording Academy voting members are asked to vote in just nine genre categories in which they have special expertise, as well as the four general categories (record of the year, album of the year, song of the year, and best new artist). They are then asked to vote for winners in up to 20 genre categories. The result is that when it comes to the final round, people with less expertise may sway the vote.
Then there is the make-up of the voters themselves. Older, white voters, who make up a significant chunk of the voting academy, tend to vote reliably as a block. The ceremony usually gets around what amounts to a snub of black music by celebrating it with lots of nominations. This results in wins in designated genre-specific categories, but little of the big gongs. Lemonade won best “urban” contemporary album (a label that seems slightly ill-fitting to an record so imbued with Southern country, in both music and aesthetics). Last year Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly won best rap album, but lost out to Taylor Swift in the best album category.
This tactic is getting past its sell-by-date. More and more artists are simply rejecting the hierarchies the Grammys imposes. Frank Ocean declined to submit his work this year, saying that the ceremony “has nostalgic importance”, but “doesn’t seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from”. He described the nomination and voting procedures as “dated”.
Beyoncé is perhaps simultaneously our most popular living artist and the most critically acclaimed. Yet she has only ever won one Grammy from the top three categories. In Adele’s (backstage) words, “What the f*ck does she have to do to win album of the year?”
When the biggest winner at your own awards ceremony is criticising your value system, it’s not a good look. The real loser of this year’s competition is the Grammys itself.