Culture Trips

The Grammys’ diverse winner list isn’t box-ticking – these are terrific artists | Grammy awards 2021

The Grammys always attract a degree of controversy. This year, there was singer Teyana Taylor protesting that “all I see is dick” in the all-male nominations for best R&B album, and a slightly peculiar statement from Justin Bieber, asking to be considered an R&B artist rather than a pop singer. More headlines were grabbed by the Weeknd, understandably shocked that his double-platinum album After Hours, and its accompanying single Blinding Lights – a song so omnipresent that it recently celebrated an entire year in the US Top 10 – didn’t receive a single nomination: he subsequently announced he would stop his label submitting his music in future. The latter’s complaint revolved around a lack of transparency in the voting process: the presence of nomination committees that retain executive power over who makes the shortlists and who hold the ability to add artists who have received no nominations in many of the Grammys’ categories.

The argument about transparency isn’t going to go away – if your voting process involves a shadowy and apparently unanswerable cabal who exert control over the nominations, you should probably expect people to look askance at it – but, the absence of the Weeknd aside, the actual winners in the Grammys’ big categories brooked little argument.

HER and co-writer Tiara Thomas accept the song of the year award for I Can’t Breathe.
HER and co-writer Tiara Thomas accept the song of the year award for I Can’t Breathe. Photograph: Kevin Winter/The Recording Academy/AFP/Getty Images

There wasn’t anything resembling the 2020 Brit awards controversy over a lack of female representation, when so few women were nominated that even the event’s host, Jack Whitehall, accused the BPI of “recycling all sorts of excuses” over the issue. Quite the opposite: Taylor Swift became the first female artist in history to win album of the year three times – vindication for the left-turn away from brash pop on her album Folklore – while Megan Thee Stallion ended 17 years of male dominance in the best rap song category, and Beyoncé shifted into second position in the list of most-awarded artists of all time (behind Hungarian-British conductor Georg Solti).

Meanwhile, the accusations of racism at last year’s Grammys, when best rap album winner Tyler, the Creator suggested that black artists were pigeonholed and wondered aloud “why can’t we be in pop?” appeared to have hit home. Megan Thee Stallion won best new artist; Brittany Howard best rock song for Stay High; HER’s I Can’t Breathe took home song of the year, as it deserved to do: if you want a potent musical reflection of the racial tumult of the last 12 months, I Can’t Breathe is it.

There were no major upsets, no outbreaks of the Grammys’ time-honoured tradition of WTF moments. Billie Eilish said that Megan Thee Stallion’s Savage remix should have won record of the year instead of her own Everything I Wanted and demanded the crowd applaud the rapper, but, in truth, Everything I Wanted is a great record: its win isn’t a return to the deeply fishy years when Simply Red or Leo Sayer waltzed off with best R&B song.

If you could see where the impetus to make changes had come from, crucially, none of the awards looked like an exercise in box-ticking designed to assuage criticism: they felt deserved. You can only hope the Brits take note.

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