2023 Grammy Awards: The Beyoncé paradox
There are any number of storylines that could emerge from this year's Grammy Awards, which will be handed out on Sunday, February 5. But if we are narrowing things down to the night's most coveted prizes, the four awards in the general category — record of the year, album of the year, song of the year and best new artist — some narratives begin to take shape (mostly, if we are being honest, around whether or not the Academy will once again fail to award a top prize to Beyoncé).
To begin to wrap our minds around all the affirming and deflating possibilities, NPR Music gathered four critics to pick apart the nominees in those top four categories to try and figure out which surprises and/or inevitabilities await.
RECORD OF THE YEAR
Ann Powers: We begin with a paradox, a Zen riddle: a widely anticipated win this year may also feel like the biggest surprise. Beyoncé, inexplicable bridesmaid in all but one of the major Grammy categories since Destiny's Child's "Say My Name" nom in 2001 (her one win was Song of the Year in 2010 for "Single Ladies") may grab the gramophone for Renaissance across categories this year, and a sweep for her would feel like justice while breaking a pattern of exclusion that has come to feel inevitable. Record of the Year is the spot where she's been most rejected — seven times — and might feel like a bigger triumph than even an Album of the Year win. "Break My Soul" announced Renaissance, a new concept and beginning for the woman who'd seemingly done everything. And the song has the grand scale and spirit of a Grammy shoo-in. I could see some fuddy-duddy Grammy voters still resisting Bey in the album category, even though Renaissance is definitely a unified listening experience. No dance music album by a Black artist has ever won in the album slot (John Travolta and some French robots have taken home the prize in past years), and, as an alternative, the gospel-ish uplift of "Break My Soul" might appeal to voter still stuck on rock and ballad-ish pop.
That said, another widely anticipated ROTY win wouldn't feel like a surprise at all. Harry Styles is an industry darling whose rabid fan base no longer only consists of teenage girls (never taken seriously by Grammy voters, at their peril). In the philosophical bon bon "As It Was," he had 2023's most popular smash by far. I could see him winning here and Bey shining elsewhere. Or maybe the pie will be cut three ways and Kendrick Lamar, also up for every top slot plus, will take this one for "The Heart Part 5" with Styles nabbing song and Bey getting her album trophy. Other Grammy faves are hanging out here, too: Don't underestimate the feel-good power of Lizzo or of Brandi Carlile, whose live performances with her spouse Katherine have turned "You and Me On the Rock" into the 21st century's most unexpected marriage-equality anthem. The rest of the nominees feel deeply unlikely to me.
Stephen Thompson: Ann alludes to one of my biggest questions about this year's Grammys: Will the pie be split several ways, or are we looking at one of those sweep years where we all spend Monday morning looking at wire-service photos of someone smiling embarrassedly while clutching half a dozen trophies? (See: Billie Eilish, Adele, Norah Jones, et al.) We tend to look at these categories based on the nominees' respective merits – this is the most complete album, this song has the grandest production values, this song feels most like a standard – but the Grammy folks can be single-artist voters.
Setting aside best new artist – which, surprisingly, includes zero artists nominated in song, record or album of the year – you've got five nominees who are in a position to sweep: Adele, Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Lizzo and Harry Styles. My guess is that Kendrick's latest record is a little too thorny and unwieldy to make a strong run in the general categories and that Lizzo's "About Damn Time" is viewed more favorably than Special as a whole. In order of likelihood — at least where sweeps are concerned — that leaves Adele, Beyoncé and Harry.
Sheldon Pearce: Maybe this is just naivete on my part, but I simply can't imagine a sweep for anyone this year. If I were a voter, the image of a cackling Adele snapping that trophy in half would haunt me. The prospect of another white artist shutting Beyoncé out completely seems unfathomable and, frankly, indefensible, but given the way voters have treated Beyoncé in recent years, it feels even less likely that she might somehow steamroll through the generals, despite her recent music's all-consuming inevitability. I don't think this category is strictly about a rematch between those two megastars, though. Don't underestimate the infectiousness of "About Damn Time," as any TikTok user can attest. And, to Kendrick's benefit, the power of a viral video has catapulted a one-off song into contention before. Or maybe, in the spirit of Billie Eilish, "Bad Habit" wins as another "how do you do" to fellow kids. But I think Harry is very much in play. More on that later.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Stephen Thompson: We can debate the relevance of the album as a form all we want, but this always feels like the biggie to me, Grammys-wise. Album of the year. In an awards slate that attempts to cover the breadth of the music industry — there are 91 competitive categories this year — this is the category that bestows the greatest whiff of one-winner-to-rule-them-all status. If you've won album of the year, you've made a complete work that has been deemed the greatest of all the year's complete works. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Tapestry. Songs in the Key of Life. Rumours.
If you're looking for a prevailing storyline for the 2023 Grammy Awards, consider that Beyoncé — who has won 28 Grammys and counting, closing in on the record for the most by any artist in the awards' history — has never won album or record of the year. Her track record in the general categories has rightly infuriated fans: In 2017, her masterpiece Lemonade lost to Adele's 25. Two years earlier, Beyoncé's self-titled album, a phenomenal record in its own right, lost to Beck's Morning Phase. If she ends up losing again this year for Renaissance — as seamless and complete an album as albums get — that's going to spark some conversations, to put it mildly.
Adele has crushed the general categories in the past, sometimes at Beyoncé's expense, in part because her appeal is so Grammys-friendly: cross-generational, cross-genre, best-selling. But Renaissance would seem to have more cultural staying power, was far better-reviewed (if that's ever mattered to the Grammys) and functions as a whole greater than the sum of its parts. If Beyoncé is ever to receive a coronation in this category, 2023 is the year, right?
With that inevitabilty firmly noted, here are the questions that pop into my mind:
1) What are the chances of a true upset? You can make a case for the Grammys picking just about any of the nominees: Maybe there's a Styles sweep, maybe there's buyers' remorse about not giving Kendrick the AOTY Grammy for DAMN. in 2018, maybe ABBA is a sentimental favorite for the Grammys' many older voters, maybe Bad Bunny's juggernaut of an album woke up the industry to his status as a global colossus. But will it happen? I didn't see Jon Batiste's win coming last year, that's for sure.
2) Would Silk Sonic's An Evening With Silk Sonic have won this year had the band not withdrawn the album from consideration? The Grammys love Bruno Mars almost as much as they love embarrassing themselves.
3) Speaking of withdrawing albums from consideration — see also: The Weeknd and Drake — do you see a wider Grammys boycott if, say, Adele beats Beyoncé in the general categories yet again? Or would it be a "Lots of people complain on social media, #GrammysSoWhite trends for a while, rinse, repeat" situation?
4) What would be the most embarrassing possible pick for the Grammys? Is it Coldplay, simply because the band's latest album is titled Music of the Spheres?
Ann Powers: I think the possibility of a split ticket across the top categories is likely this year, in part because institutions like Grammys parent NARAS are being reworked to be more inclusive (they're feeling the threat of changing demographics more than showing real conscience, in my opinion, but that's a cynical take) and one way to do that is to spread the wealth. That's what happened at the Golden Globes last month, and it created a warm feeling in the room that made for a great show. I'm not saying that Grammy voters have become more like the preschool co-op parents who want every kid to get a trophy, but I suspect a decent chunk consider equity, however superficially, when they fill out their ballots now.
Split tickets can make for surprises. The winner might be an upstart or a veteran who's not offering their best work, maybe, but claims the prize for possibly underacknowledged cumulative efforts. I'm thinking about Quincy Jones's 1991 win for the inconsistent Back on the Block or Beck's, in 2014, for Morning Phase, a yawn (and he beat out Beyoncé!) The unlikely winners this year are also solid albums.That's why I think Mary J. Blige should strongly consider investing in a particularly stunning outfit on Sunday, and that Brandi Carlile might also want to break out her best suit.
Nate Chinen: Stephen, you're not alone in giving it up for Album of the Year as the category — it's usually the one that captures my attention too, and not just because of those curveballs. (I will never be mad at Morning Phase, despite all. On the other hand, as much as I love J-Bat, the crowning of WE ARE last year was a category error. We could keep going like this all day.) I think Renaissance comes in with the edge. The Grammys have a history of playing catch-up, and I think there may be some residual chagrin over those two previous misses — one of them, as we've noted, to Adele, who instantly and touchingly apologized from the podium. I think there may be a feeling that, having won for 21 and 25, Adele doesn't "need" it for 30, even though it's an album with a different emotional landscape, and a more varied sonic feast. I could honestly see this going just as easily to Kendrick (again, as much for accumulated goodwill as for Mr. Morale) or Bad Bunny (because, just maybe, the academy's new voting members are primed to recognize the massive cultural tide that he represents). As for the most embarrassing potential win? C'mon now; gotta be Coldplay by a mile.
Sheldon Pearce: Taking Stephen's questions in order. 1) This doesn't feel like the space for an upset this year. 2) Despite the fixation with Bruno Mars, I can't even imagine the Grammys awarding Song of the Year and Album of the Year to the same group a year apart (though that still wouldn't be as bizarre as Frank Sinatra winning separate Album of the Year trophies at two different ceremonies for albums released the same year). 3) Only one percenters like the Weeknd and Drake have the luxury of boycotting because a Grammy can still bestow a certain kind of artist a certain kind of status, and many still yearn for it. 4) Coldplay would definitely be the most embarrassing winner, but ABBA's got to be right there, all things considered, because even with recent reconsiderations of the band, it would be weird to award it Album of the Year after straight up ignoring it for a half-century. Few decisions would feel more out of touch for many reasons.
The Album of the Year award does still feel like the big one, the trophy that makes it Music's Biggest Night™. But I want to make two notes about possible spoilers: First, Jon Batiste's mystifying win last year makes me wonder if Mary J. Blige is a viable threat now. Second, it feels like the only reason Bad Bunny isn't running away with this thing is because he sings and raps in Spanish. Un Verano Sin Ti is in a tier with 21 and Fearless, year-defining, career-making records, yet it doesn't seem preordained in the same way. I'm not sure they know what to do with him, but they better figure it out soon because he isn't waiting around to find out.
SONG OF THE YEAR
Sheldon Pearce: Of the four awards in the general field, song of the year has had the most straightforward parameters in recent years: Be a massive hit. Excluding the two outliers (HER's "I Can't Breathe," greatly influenced by the George Floyd protests in 2020, and Childish Gambino's "This Is America," a super-viral performance art piece), nearly every song to win Song of the Year since 2010 finished Top 10 in its year-end Billboard 100 chart. (Lorde's "Royals" finished at 15.) The key is to be ubiquitous and a bit nostalgic. How close can the artist get, on both of those axes, to "Rolling in the Deep."
Song of the year is a songwriting award, awarded to the writer for lyrics and melodies, and this year's nominees include some repeat snubs (Kendrick, Beyoncé), some Grammy mainstays (Adele, Taylor Swift), a head scratcher (DJ Khaled) and an artist with a Grammy immunity idol (Bonnie Raitt), but the category feels poised to do what it usually does: produce the safest possible winner (read here as "the most inoffensive option attractive to the most people") yet again.
The biggest shocker would be GAYLE winning for "abcdefu," TikTok trend bait likely manufactured by a major label R&D facility in the metaverse. The song was popular, but the way eating Tide pods was once popular, and similarly nauseating. It feels suspiciously like a desperate lure for Gen Z viewers, who actually have no real connection to this song, or interest in this show, much less watching it for four hours.
With the Grammys, Taylor is always in play (especially for the cinematic, extended version of arguably her best song), and the literal oddsmakers have Adele as the frontrunner by a slim margin (+150 to Taylor's +250) for "Easy on Me," a song as massive as it is innocuous. But I think the least surprising thing to happen would be Harry Styles winning for "As It Was." The song finished No. 2 on the 2022 Billboard Hot 100 (behind a song that was not nominated), and it is just the kind of vacant yet zeitgeisty pop cultural artifact the Grammys love to reward — like "Smooth," "Viva La Vida," and "This is America" before it. The only thing they love more is a coronation. (Think Amy Winehouse, Billie Eilish, and the Recording Academy trying to make HER happen.) A potential win would be a crowning achievement in a banner year for a newly anointed superstar.
Ann Powers: Real talk about Gayle, Sheldon. I think of her as a synecdoche, standing in for the whole avalanche of young artists sidestepping the very industry machine the Grammys were designed to bolster. Coulda been Bella Poarch or Best New Artist noms Domi and JD Beck or, if they really wanted to honor creativity, Duke & Jones. Like Billie Eilish before her, Gayle onlys seems like someone invented by the internet – longtime insider and former American Idol host Kara DioGuardi signed her to a development deal at 14. And she also does have her home base of Nashville behind her, so she miiiiiiight have a chance.
Stephen Thompson: I'm going to go ahead and make the most foolish rookie mistake in all of Grammys prognostication: I'm gonna think this through logically, with an eye toward divvying up the major categories fairly. Beyoncé's Renaissance is the album of the year by virtue of its wire-to-wire excellence and its cultural cachet. Lizzo's "About Damn Time" is the record of the year by virtue of its spangly, pitch-perfect production and its incalculable ubiquity. As for song of the year? That's where you'd put the year's sturdiest song — the one that already feels like a standard, and the one that seemed to enter the cultural slipstream in a way that felt like the melody had always been there. I'm talking, of course, about DJ Khaled — okay, okay, I'm talking about Adele's "Easy on Me."
Am I the only one who feels like Harry Styles could be shut out of the major categories? The Grammys were, until this year, very late to the Harry Styles party, perhaps because of his past life in a boy band. "As It Was" was unquestionably one of the songs of the year, but how many voters will be inclined to list "As It Was" at No. 1?
BEST NEW ARTIST
Nate Chinen: On its face, Best New Artist looks like a straightforward proposition. However, it's one of the few categories that doesn't always come hitched to a recorded product: According to the Grammys' own definition, the winner is someone who "achieved a breakthrough into the public consciousness and notably impacted the musical landscape." Last I checked, there was no Billboard chart for Breakthrough Into the Public Consciousness, or else we'd be looking at the third straight week of dominance by Burger King's Whopper jingle.
The inherent squishiness of the category is what has led to some memorable upsets — most notably in 2011, when Esperanza Spalding prevailed over Justin Bieber, Drake, Mumford & Sons and Florence and the Machine. It wasn't Spalding's nominated album that got her over the finish line so much as her radiant overspill of talent and promise, which had already brought her to the Obama White House (twice).
More than a few folks in my orbit have been murmuring about a similar outcome for Samara Joy, who like Spalding is a jazz vocalist of effervescent charm, evident chops and poise beyond her years. (She's 23; Spalding was 26.) It would be both surprising and totally unsurprising to see Joy take home the award. (As I'm considering in a piece this week, she's basically already won, either way.) In a similar vein, the entire Americana industry has sensibly lined up behind Molly Tuttle, an impeccable bluegrass flatpicker and singer-songwriter whose clear prowess could appeal to the kinds of folk who like kinds of folk, and anything else you might inadvisably call "real music."
Here's the counterargument. Not everyone in the industry was happy about Best New Artist: Esperanza Rising — or its imprecise sequel, which Nicki Minaj immortalized by tweet: "They gave it to the white man Bon Iver." Complaints like this were what prompted the Academy to expand the General Field categories beyond five nominees, a move that turned Best New Artist into something like a rubber stamp for commercial juggernauts. Consider the last four winners since that rule change: Olivia Rodrigo, Megan Thee Stallion, Billie Eilish and Dua Lipa. If a similar trend line holds, we'll see a win for Latto, the Atlanta rapper recently crowned Billboard's top new artist of 2022.
On the other other hand, there's a hefty middle of the pack this year. Latin pop has a strong contender in Anitta, whose latest album racked up 1 billion streams on Spotify. Omar Apollo glides in an appealing pop / soul lane, drawing both from a heartland upbringing and a Mexican heritage. Muni Long was a creative force behind the scenes before claiming her own space in R&B. And Måneskin — well, it's an Italian glam-rock band best known stateside for a Frankie Valli cover. Their triumph would be even more chaotic than one by DOMi & JD Beck, whose meme-rich hyper-fluency on keys and drums made them the poster children for a subgenre I've taken to calling "viral jazz."
One act I haven't mentioned yet that I think could actually slip into the room and skulk away victorious, defying all of the aforementioned rationales, is British indie-rock duo Wet Leg, which strikes a fetching balance of familiar and freakish. (Stephen, you nailed the vibe writing about them for NPR's 50 Best Albums of 2022 list: "somehow both over- and under-stimulated, introspective but distant, lusty but numb.") There's a good throwaway line in a Wet Leg song about feeling self-conscious at a party: "I don't know what I'm even doing here." Maybe that's how the band will feel come Sunday night. Or maybe, to misquote another Wet Leg song: They could go to the Grammys and get the big W.
Stephen Thompson: It's a testament to this category's fluidity – and to the lack of a Meg/Billie-sized juggernaut – that Nate just made a case for nearly every nominated act winning. Latto is considered the favorite to win based on her commercial success, and on the likelihood that her star continues to rise. But this feels like a prime spot for a shocker, if you're looking for one.
The problem is, I can't quite decide who the likeliest upset winner turns out to be. Nate makes a strong case for Samara Joy as this field's equivalent of an Esperanza Spalding – or, if we want to go back a few years, a Norah Jones. I also don't think we can count out Måneskin, partly because the Grammys love rock and roll and partly because the Grammys often find ways to annoy me personally. But I can't stop thinking about an artist considered one of the field's biggest long shots: bluegrass star Molly Tuttle, whose accessibility and virtuosity make her a natural Grammy ambassador for decades to come. (Alison Krauss has 27 Grammys, just sayin'.)
Ann Powers: My Nashville hometown would be absolutely delighted if Molly walked away with this little record player – she's already a champion here, having won seven International Bluegrass Music Association Awards since she came on the scene in the mid-2010s. And her latest album Crooked Tree is a powerful mission statement: a challenge to bluegrass, a deeply conservative genre, to reinvigorate itself through open-hearted innovation. But her commercial reach remains more limited, for now, and as Nate points out, that seems to matter now in this category.
Grammy voters do crave some kind of fresh feeling from the best new artist I think, but not a portent of total revolution. Olivia Rodrigo feels emblematic in this way – she's in that category Stephen mentions, the well-schooled music biz junior ambassador who represents a new turn without being too out there. An artist older voters and their kids might both like! The contender who most fits that description this year is Samara Joy, who's as adept at TikTok as she is at acing jazz competitions, and who recently called that hallowed American art form, which she practices rather conservatively, "a young music" in the New York Times. I think she'll take the gold – but I'd love to see it go to Tobe Nwigwe, a total left-fielder who shakes things up as both a Christian rapper and an adept conceptualist who's a master in the underdiscussed realm of the music video, or to the queer, gender- and genre-fluid Omar Apollo, who's pushing boundaries in the most charming way possible.
Sheldon Pearce: It seems likely this pool was recently expanded to 10 nominees to do exactly what it has done the last few years: anoint the already anointed, likely in response to the glut of winners who flamed out pretty quickly (fun., Macklemore, Alessia Cara) or just feel flat-out uncool in hindsight (Zac Brown Band, Maroon 5). Chance the Rapper peaked the year he won. But without a star in this field as undeniable as the last three to raise this trophy — even Latto, the likely frontrunner, has a campaign largely fueled by sample-induced nostalgia, meme energy and TV syncs — this does feel like an opportunity, as Stephen suggested, for an upset, though I am struggling to pinpoint what "upset" might even mean in this context. Is it least likely yet most deserving? Or most likely to incite day-after discourse? Maybe the nominees themselves are a tacit acknowledgement of how strange 2022 was.
The Recording Academy is really stretching the definition of "new" with Muni Long, who has not only been in the industry since the mid-2000s but has released two solo albums under her birth name. Yet it somehow feels even weirder to see Tobe Nwigwe here. He has released eight albums since 2017. Every Sunday since 2016, he has debuted a new song with a video. Even for the official guidelines — an artist qualifies if he or she releases the first recording that "establishes the public identity" of that artist during the Eligibility Year — it feels odd, since, even by the most generous reading, he is still merely internet famous and he first went viral in 2020, tied to his deal with UnitedMasters, and that virality may be manufactured. I can't see him winning but perhaps that's just wishful thinking, as his collective can embody a cult following in more ways than one. While I'd love to see (actual new artists) DOMi and JD Beck bring it home, I agree with Ann: Samara Joy feels more likely to nab it. Both are Gen Z jazz upstarts, but Joy is obviously a bit more the Recording Academy's cup of tea.
Nate Chinen: Thanks, Ann, for flagging Tobe Nwigwe. Geez, I figured I was listing everybody, and still managed to let one slip by. Sheldon's note about how long Nwigwe and Muni Long have been in the game is key, for me — and it's a distinction we can also extend to Tuttle, who's now 30, and made her first album (with her dad) at 13. This is all part of why I really do feel bullish about Samara. Sounds like we're all aligned there. She is genuinely new, and obviously built to last. That last factor holds an ineffable weight in the category. At its most effective, Best New Artist is not just a confirmation, but a vote of confidence: this person is going places! Which is why I've been a little bummed out by its recent alignment with chartbusting pop divas, who can get their spoils elsewhere. And don't get me wrong, I'd love to see how awkward and giddy JD and DOMi could get, accepting this award. I'm thrilled by the fact that they're representing a corner of improvised music entirely different from the one Samara has so expertly inhabited. What a year for Gen Z jazz artists! I'm here for it.
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