The 2021 Grammy Awards have been mired with controversy since, well, the 2020 Grammy Awards. Almost directly after the 2020 ceremony, the music industry was thrust into an unprecedented level of uncertainty and turmoil courtesy of COVID-19. Then, as the nominees for the forthcoming ceremony were announced, the Recording Academy's reputation for overlooking artists of colour, particularly Black artists, was back in the spotlight as The Weeknd – responsible for easily the biggest song and one of the biggest albums of 2020 – was completely overlooked. Slowly but surely, artists like Halsey, Drake and more denounced the ceremony as an inaccurate arbiter of musical excellence in 2021. Coming off the back of a year where the world was completely mobilised by the Black Lives Matter movement, the strange snub of Black artists, especially The Weeknd, feels bizarre at best.
So, from the outset, the 2021 ceremony looked to be one of redemption, as the Recording Academy would inevitably try and scramble to right some perceived wrongs. And that's exactly what happened.
First, there's the biggest talking point of the night, and of all nights: Beyoncé. In recent years, when Beyoncé's name is found in the same sentence as the Grammys, it's in reference to her snubs. She famously lost 'Album Of The Year' with her self-titled album in 2015 to Beck's Morning Phase, only to have the same thing happen again in 2017 with Lemonade, losing to Adele's 25. Beyoncé and Lemonade remain as two of the most memorable and acclaimed albums of the past decade, with their impact on pop culture still being felt years later. So both losses seem even more egregious in hindsight. As Adele plainly said after winning for 25: "What the fuck does Beyoncé have to do to win 'Album Of The Year?'"
The Grammys' first attempt to redeem themselves in 2021 came with the nominations, where Beyoncé led with nine. This is despite the fact that she only released one song in 2020, and had one featured verse on another. Yet, she ended up walking away with four trophies – 'Best Music Video', 'Best R&B Performance' for "Black Parade", and 'Best Rap Song' as well as 'Best Rap Performance' for "Savage (Remix)" alongside Megan Thee Stallion. These four wins bring Beyoncé's Grammy wins up to 28, making her the most awarded woman and the most awarded singer in the history of the Grammys (she also ties second with Quincy Jones for most Grammy wins ever). If she wins just four more, she will hold the record for that too, which is currently held by late composer Sir Georg Solti.
A huge accomplishment? Absolutely. Even more so when you think about how most of Beyoncé's recent work has been explicitly about Blackness – a topic the Grammys have been perceived as not wanting to celebrate. Need we remind you that Kendrick Lamar didn't win 'Album Of The Year' for To Pimp A Butterfly? Despite Beyoncé having never won for 'Album' or 'Record Of The Year' – arguably the two biggest awards of the night – she can still count 28 trophies to her name. The Recording Academy haven't given her the top tier prestige she so richly deserves, but the number of smaller awards they've given her have amassed to such an amount that she can still be celebrated. She might not have won for her self-titled album – i.e the album that literally broke the internet and is the reason music is released on Fridays – but still made Grammys history. So, by the Recording Academy's standards, a major wrong was made right.
Another history maker at the 2021 Grammys is Taylor Swift, who predictably took home 'Album Of The Year' for folklore. The win has meant Swift has become the only woman to have won the award three times, after winning in 2010 for Fearless and 2016 for 1989 – where she, of course, beat out To Pimp A Butterfly.
Her win was almost a foregone conclusion. folklore is beloved by fans and critics alike; the only other albums in the category that even got close to that sort of fanfare were Dua Lipa's Future Nostalgia and, at least critically, Haim's Women In Music, Pt. III. So she wasn't exactly up against the stiffest competition, in my opinion.
folklore probably is the best album in this year's 'Album Of The Year' category. It sold incredibly well, marked yet another sharp turn in sonic direction for Taylor Swift and became the first album she had released by surprise – an incredibly successful, yet risky, marketing tactic that was, once again, pioneered by Beyoncé's self-titled album. Swift was holding every ace – album sales, critical acclaim and the chance to make history. This created the perfect environment for the Recording Academy to give her the award, repairing their relationship with Swift for the past 'snubs' of reputation and Lover, which both failed to get nominated for the AOTY award, and, more importantly, her fans.
Of course, not every redemption attempt the Grammys made last night were on the same scale as that of Beyoncé or Taylor Swift. It even came down to the smallest of details. H.E.R. won 'Song Of The Year' for "I Can't Breathe", a track that captured the zeitgeist following the murder of George Floyd's but didn't perform nearly as well as pretty much every other song in the category either critically or commercially. Lil Baby, who received two nominations and zero wins, was given license to perform an incredibly provoking rendition of his track "The Bigger Picture" alongside activist Tamika Mallory as well as Killer Mike, who is no stranger to condemning police brutality in the frankest of terms. Dua Lipa, who previously called out the Recording Academy's sexism on stage at the Grammys, was given six nominations and even won for 'Best Pop Vocal Album'.
The Recording Academy is even looking ahead, making sure to invest in stars that actually reflect the culture. Megan Thee Stallion walked away with three of the four awards she was nominated for, a decision that makes sense given her impact on both music and society throughout the year. One of these awards was for 'Best New Artist', where she was up against two more female rappers, Doja Cat and CHIKA – the most ever represented in that category.
None of this is to say that any of these wins weren't otherwise warranted. In fact, 2021 stands to be one of the few ceremonies in recent years where everyone seems pretty pleased with who won what, in no small measure due to the diversity – sonic and otherwise – of the winners themselves. We didn't get a predictable sweep like last year with Billie Eilish or a few years ago with Adele. Instead we got a somewhat accurate reflection of the U.S. music scene as it stands today, or at least accurate by the Recording Academy's standards.
Chair & Interim President of the Recording Academy Harvey Mason Jr. delivered a speech at last night's Grammy Awards that, despite being strangely reminiscent of a political campaign, tried to assure more transparency from the ceremony going forward. In return, he asked for the stakeholders to work with the Recording Academy, and not against them. Whether he's telling the truth, and whether artists like The Weeknd or Halsey will buy it, remains to be seen. But the 2021 ceremony at the very least gave the appearance that the Recording Academy is trying.
Of course, this redemption journey is far from over – BTS' loss for "Dynamite" will no doubt see the Recording Academy's social media accounts torched for weeks, especially since it lost to Lady Gaga & Ariana Grande's "Rain On Me" that, while an absolute bop, lacked the cultural impact of "Dynamite".
Considering how plain, predictable and passé I've found the Grammy Awards to be in recent years, 2021's showing suggests we may finally be heading in the right direction.
Editor's Note: MTV and Channel 10 are both subsidiaries of ViacomCBS.
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