Music award shows are inherently imperfect, as Halsey's Grammys snub, Lizzo's AMAs losses suggest
Even though fan-voted awards like the AMAs seem less subject to bias than those decided by industry suits, such as the Grammys, their results are strongly linked to an artist’s social media following – and how active those followers are – which can differ greatly from act to act. In other words, there’s no real winning at this game.
The American Music Awards (AMAs) and the Grammys are the US' biggest all-genre music awards. They’re competitors and artists are careful not to mention one at the other. This year, however, was an exception. Without naming the Grammys, pop singer Halsey “threw shade” at them in her acceptance speech at the AMAs.
Halsey had good reason to be smarting. Just a few days earlier, she had been snubbed by the Recording Academy, which organises the Grammys, when they announced their nominations for the past year. Halsey, who won Best Pop/Rock Song for her chart-topping hit 'Without Me' at the AMAs, told the audience how she erroneously used to believe that “gold-plated” trophies were a source of validation.
The snub hit hard for a number of reasons. 'Without Me' is the largest hit of her career so far and she was widely tipped by awards forecasters to pick up nominations in various categories for the Grammys. A day before the nominations were announced, news broke that they had been leaked, albeit partially, because the Grammys’ official website was prematurely updated with the number of nods received by nominees.
According to the person who observed this, Lizzo would receive eight nominations, and Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X would get six each, Ariana Grande five, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift three and so on. It turned out the leak was mostly accurate. All those artists, who were also nominated for multiple AMAs, got exactly that amount of nods from the Recording Academy. The sole error: the one nomination predicted for Halsey. She got zero.
When Halsey’s friend Taylor Swift picked up her Artist of the Year award at the AMAs, she hailed her monologue as being “the speech of the night”. Swift too had cause to be upset with the Grammys. Although she is up for Song of the Year for 'Lover', her album of the same name was expected to be lauded in the Album of the Year category, but was shut out. Lover, which represented a kind of career reset for Swift after her acrimonious split from long-time label Big Machine, garnered some of her best reviews to date.
This is the second time in a row that she has been left out of the running for the top award of the night. Her previous effort, 2017’s Reputation did not find favour with the Grammy voters either. Not only were both releases critically acclaimed, Swift remains one of the handful of acts who can sell albums by the million. At the AMAs, Swift, who now holds the record for the most wins, was also crowned Artist of the Decade.
The Grammys have long been accused of being out of touch with popular culture. And they’ve regularly been mired in controversies such as the lack of female nominees and performers. Five out of the eight acts in the Album of the Year category this time are women, which is believed to be the outcome of the Academy inviting 900 new voting members last year, each of whom are female and/or people of color and/or under 39 – a concerted effort to change the perception that the winners are decided by white, old men.
Maybe it’s just me but when the camera panned to Lil Nas X during Halsey’s speech, I felt he had to struggle a bit to keep a poker face. (On the other hand, Post Malone, who has never been a critic’s darling, nodded in agreement.) Lil Nas X has been feted by both sets of awards. But his Album of the Year Grammy nomination for his poorly reviewed debut EP 7 has been rightfully called a “head-scratcher”. Many industry folk, and no doubt countless Taylor Swift fans, are of the opinion that 7’s slot should have gone to Lover.
Award shows are far from perfect and perhaps never will be. The Grammys tend to love certain kinds of artists. Like, for example, big-voiced balladeers. Of the two British male heartbreak specialists to have shot to fame over the last decade, Sam Smith almost swept the board in 2015. Ed Sheeran, in contrast, was largely ignored the year his 'Shape Of You' seemed like it was heard everywhere on the planet.
The Grammys also tend to love certain artists. Should the nomination given to Beyoncé – already the most recognised woman in the Awards' history – for 'Spirit' in the Best Pop Solo Performance category have gone instead to a newer, less established act who would have benefited far more from the acknowledgement? I expect Lizzo, whose vocal chops are far greater than Eilish’s or Lil Nas X’s, to take home the most gold at next year’s ceremony. Then again, she left empty-handed at the AMAs.
Halsey and Swift praised the AMAs for being a “fan-voted” affair. But that only goes to reiterate that they’re another form of a popularity contest. Even though fan-voted awards seem less subject to bias than those decided by industry suits, their results are strongly linked to an artist’s social media following – and how active those followers are – which can differ greatly from act to act.
K-Pop group BTS, disregarded once again by the Recording Academy, will always do well at the AMAs as will acts like Swift whose online armies spend hours tracking their every move and sharing each of their updates. Is Lizzo less deserving because her fans didn’t vote as much as those of Eilish or Lil Nas X, both of whom won at the AMAs? Conversely, does the fact that her sound is more “mature” make her more deserving than her co-nominees?
Lizzo already has one Album of the Year win to her name, from the Soul Train Awards but that triumph too has been somewhat spoiled after Ari Lennox, described as a “pure soul” singer, tweeted that she lost the award because she isn’t “cool” or “trendy” enough. In other words, there’s no real winning at this game.
Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox
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