LOS ANGELES, Nov 29, (RTRS): Every year, the nominations for the Grammy Awards are met with varying degrees of surprise, exhilaration, outrage and boredom — and with dozens of categories, they can be a roller-coaster ride between all of the above. But this year’s nominations contained a few more surprises than in years past — here are seven of the biggest ones:
n The big look for Jay-Z’s “4:44”
Looking over our predictions and those of others, most seemed to treat Jay’s 13th studio album as an outlier contender — even though his albums always sell well and he’s a formidable force on tour and in culture, it’s hard to imagine anyone saying of 2017, “This is Jay-Z’s year!” But there’s no question that not only is “4:44” the veteran MC’s best and freshest album in years, it also found him achieving another first: It might be the first-ever album from the perspective of a nearly 48-year-old family man who also happens to be a world-famous rapper.
n Childish Gambino’s five nods
As Glassnote label chief Daniel Glass told Variety earlier this month, Childish Gambino’s “Awaken My Love” album came with a laundry list of challenges: It’s an album made by a very in-demand actor who was working on an award-winning TV series (“Atlanta”) and a multimillion-dollar film (“Star Wars”) in the months leading up to and following his album’s release — add to that, Childish Gambino is known as a rapper, and this album features no rapping. Yet the label dug in its heels and worked the album hard, and it paid off with not just a left-field radio hit with “Redbone,” but also an impressive five Grammy nods — the biggest look for an indie since Arcade Fire’s “Suburbs,” which won album of the year in 2011.
n Harry Styles shut out
Many prognosticators expected a big look for the One Direction heartthrob, and his debut solo album’s deft fusion of vintage and contemporary sounds — it was helmed by 2016 Grammy Producer of the Year Jeff Bhasker — won over critics and seemed like catnip to Grammy voters of a certain age. He’s also doing great numbers on his current tour and the album has spawned hits with the title track and “Two Ghosts” — but surprisingly, the album received no Grammy nods.
n Ed Sheeran gets just two nominations
Many of those same prognosticators predicted that the 2018 Grammys would be a two-man race between Kendrick Lamar and Ed Sheeran — and while Lamar scored some seven noms, Sheeran got a relatively paltry two, both in the pop category. Ours is not to reason why, but it does seem like a low turnout for the biggest album from one of pop’s biggest artists.
n Big look for Lorde’s “Melodrama” / No producer of the year nod for Jack Antonoff
Critics raved over the New Zealand thrush’s sophomore effort, co-written and produced by Antonoff, yet it failed to yield a hit and did not sell in earth-shattering quantities (something that a Grammy Album of the Year nomination usually ameliorates). Unusually for an Album of the Year candidate, it has garnered no other nominations — not even in the Alternative categories. And while Antonoff has been the hardest-working man in show business over the past 18 or so months — he released his own Bleachers album, coproduced entire albums for Lorde and St. Vincent, as well as multiple tracks for Taylor Swift and Pink — he’s only getting nods for Lorde’s album and for the soundtrack song with Zayn and Swift. However, that may have more to do with several of his efforts being released after the deadline.
n No nods for Taylor Swift’s “Reputation” songs
Last time around, Swift managed to straddle the eligibility deadline by releasing advance music from her forthcoming album (thus qualifying for the 2018 awards) while releasing the album after the 2018 deadline, thus potentially winning big in two consecutive years. While that can still happen with her nods for “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” her duet with Zayn Malik from “50 Shades Darker,” and “Better Man,” the song she wrote for Little Big Town, the two songs she released from her latest album, “Reputation,” are not in the running.
n Best Spoken-Word Album Nomination for Bernie Sanders
Any Grammy voters still seething that Bernie didn’t get the Democratic nomination — and we know you’re out there, we still see your Tweets, a year later — here’s your consolation prize …
Ed Sheeran just proved that Grammy nomination prognostication is a completely thankless art. Virtually every story written in the lead-up to this year’s announcements posited Sheeran as going head-to-head with Kendrick Lamar in the three key all-genre categories… and possibly prevailing. So why was the “A Team” singer relegated to the junior varsity league?
Headlines told the tale: “Experts agree that Ed Sheeran (‘Shape of You’) will win Record of the Year,” said a headline at Gold Derby, where entertainment journalists pick winners for all the major awards. Variety, too, flagged Sheeran as one of the year’s obvious contenders.
Yet this is the first time in six years — going back to before he had any records out in America — that Sheeran isn’t nominated in one of the top categories. He was nominated for song of the year in 2013, 2016, and 2017, winning in ‘16 for “Thinking Out Loud”; he also contended for album of the year in 2015 and record of the year in 2016, following his best new artist nod in 2014.
And now, in a year when he had the year’s biggest single, with “Shape of You” — surpassing even the ginormous “Despacito” — as well as 2017’s biggest pre-Swift album, in “? (Divide)” (both stats per the sales and streaming data of BuzzAngle Music), he comes up with just two noms, for pop solo performance and pop vocal album.
In a conversation with Variety about the nominations, Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow cautions against reading too much into the so-called Sheeran snub. “I think it’s the challenge of trying to create objectivity out of something that’s inherently subjective,” he says. “It’s going to come down to five in each category, so hard choices have to be made. In terms of Ed and the recordings he made, certainly our voters thought highly of him and he is nominated [in two pop categories].” As for the big kahunas, “that’s subjective, that’s our members’ call, and I have to respect that.”
A quick survey of some voting members of the Academy turned up shock even in their ranks that Sheeran didn’t make it through. Some wondered if this wasn’t a case of the Grammys’ famous blue ribbon committee subverting the will of the larger membership by voting in a more critically acclaimed artist like Childish Gambino in ahead of Sheeran’s blockbusters.
The “big room” in the Grammy nominating process, where the top four categories are winnowed down, consists of 25 or more members who look at a list of the 20 top vote-getters from general members and cast their own weighted, secret votes after listening sessions and lively discussions. Clearly, those particular key members loved hip-hop this year, but apparently not as much pop (or the completely MIA country or rock).
“It’s interesting that all the white people are not going to have any white people to vote for,” laughs one voting member (who is himself white). But on a serious note, this Grammy insider figures that the committee members who wanted a classic pop performer in the mix probably just congregated around Bruno Mars instead of Sheeran. “Did you see Bruno’s show?” asked the voter. “Every member of that band was playing his ass off and the choreography was unbelievable. I don’t think it’s any wonder that Bruno’s the guy all the [non-hip-hop-leaning] people went for. If there was an entertainer of the year category for the Grammys, he would win it.”
Sheeran may also have been a victim of the “almost as good” factor, with many believing the “Divide” album was just a step below the “Multiply” collection that came out three years earlier. But that factor didn’t hurt Adele, who prevailed with “25,” the bestseller of its year, despite a nearly universal feeling that it wasn’t on a level with “21.” And it wouldn’t explain the exclusion of “Shape of You” for record of the year, which often has more to do with rewarding ubiquitous earworms than artistic peaks.
Another Recording Academy member wondered if “Shape of You” was the right song at the wrong time, with its “I’m in love with your body” lyrical hook being considered in a moment where the conversation is about women rebelling against objectification. “Shape of You” has hardly been held up as objectionable by many feminists, but still, the member asks, “Something must have resonated wrongly with the committee with Sheeran. Is it possible they see that song as a cavalier approach to women in a world that is looking to be a little less cavalier?”
Some other voters are just perplexed. Sheeran is widely seen as one of the good guys for his versatility and creativity, with many in the industry marveling at his ability to sell out arena tours as a one-man band. And in this case, at least, the love he shows for hip-hop has been echoed back by a lot of rappers and urban music pros, who would have been unlikely to complain if he showed up in their company as at least a nominee.