Arlo Parks felt like an outsider growing up. The London-based 21-year-old musician, whose real name is Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho, says she spent most of secondary school “feeling like that Black kid who couldn’t dance for sh*t, listening to too much emo music, and crushing on some girl in her Spanish class.” As a kid, she used writing as a tool to make sense of her experiences. Short stories turned into poetry, which turned into lyrics. Two years ago, Parks was translating her frantic journal scribbles into songs in the bedroom of her parents’ house to make her debut album Collapsed In Sunbeams. But now, the musician is up for two highly-coveted Grammy awards: Best New Artist and Best Alternative Album.
This year, the the Recording Academy has increased the number of nominees in their major categories (Best New Artist, Album Of The Year, Song Of The Year, and Record Of The Year) from eight to ten, double the number of artists nominated just four years ago. While the expanded category may seem excessive, it allows underrepresented artists like Parks to shine. Her Grammy nominations now prove she’s paving the way for a new generation of indie songwriters to receive critical recognition for genre-fluid music that prioritize themes like mental health and queer love.
The Recording Academy’s decision to nominate more artists is a direct result of the criticism they’ve recently faced. The Academy has been accused of discriminatory voting practices for years, but last year’s nomination cycle was dominated by reports of a corrupt voting system, secret committees, and backroom deals. The Weeknd led a charge to boycott the Grammys all together when his smash-hit record After Hours was snubbed of all nominations after he turned down the chance to perform at the ceremony. Following the backlash, the Academy reshuffled higher ups and announced they would be expanding nomination categories in order to “include more genres and more diversity.” Time will tell if the changes will make a lasting impact on which artists get recognized by the Grammys. But Parks’ nominations are a promising example of the Grammys recognizing less-mainstream artists alongside major stars, seeing as she’s sharing the Best New Artist category with Olivia Rodrigo, Saweetie, and Finneas.
She may be in her early twenties, but Parks’ poetic music resonates with listeners of all ages. Like other Gen Z songwriters, Parks isn’t concerned with confining herself to a single genre of music. She cites Joni Mitchell and Sylvia Plath as her creative idols and while much of Collapsed In Sunbeams can be described as indie rock, her music has clear R&B and indie pop influences. Similar to other artists in her generation like Girl In Red and Clairo, Parks doesn’t mask the themes of her music, penning prose about mental health, relationship woes, and unrequited queer crushes.
Collapsed In Sunbeams is a series of vignettes. Parks’ heart-tugging lyrics are inspired by real experiences but leave just enough room for interpretation to feel universal. Her song “Hurt” features catchy refrains and jaunty riffs while its lyrics describe a friend’s struggle with crippling depression. Parks sings of the friend coping with their feelings by relying on substances, but the song’s main message stands as a reminder that no matter their pain, things will eventually get better. Her breakout single “Black Dog” deals with a similar subject matter. Removing the blame and stigma from people who experience depression, the song focuses on the small acts of service the people around them can do to help lift their spirits. “Black Dog” struck a chord with many — Parks even said one fan reached out to say the song had saved her marriage.
The musician’s intimate songwriting earned her global recognition and two Grammy nods, and many young songwriters are expected to follow her path. “[I’m impressed by] just the sheer variety of music that’s being made by people around our age, and the fact that genres are dissolving, and that people are throwing that idea of any kind of boundary out the window,” Parks told Variety. Because of this, Parks represents the future of what the Grammys should be: underrepresented, talented artists who have successfully touched people across the world with their music. “Being seen as the future in some way — especially as a British, independent artist — is really special,” she said.
The Grammys have gone through a number of changes in recent years, from coping with a ceremony in pandemic times, to being ousted for discriminatory practices. The Recording Academy’s decision to expand their categories is a clear attempt to do stay relevant to a younger generation. But Parks’ two Grammy nominations bring hope that the awards ceremony is paying attention to young artists with an important message. Her debut album should remind young musicians that coping with the weight of the world by making music in their childhood bedroom can lead to a successful career, and may even result in a Grammy.