The Grammy Award for Best New Artist is an honor bestowed to musicians who’ve established a budding artistic identity in the public eye during the annual ceremony’s eligibility year. Those in the running (a Chex Mix bag of mainstream artists and lesser-known entities) are nominated based on rather enigmatic criteria, and year to year, some mysterious combination of chart success, artistry, and crossover appeal ultimately crowns the winner, displaying just how unpredictable this particular category is.
Through various musical accomplishments, The Beatles and Mariah Carey have achieved icon status after their respective Best New Artist wins. However, many who have been honored with the same award could hardly exceed the hype of their own promising careers, let alone replicate it. In his book Bad Days In History, author Michael Farquhar writes, “The Best New Artist award has often proved to be a one-way ticket to obscurity.”
The urban legend of the Best New Artist “curse” truly gave way during the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. German R&B duo Milli Vanilli infamously had their 1990 Best New Artist win rescinded after it was discovered that they did not sing their own songs. 1999’s winner Lauryn Hill is still performing today, but never made an official follow-up to her Album Of The Year-winning debut, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill; her MTV Unplugged 2.0 live project in 2002 resulted in tepid critical reviews. Other artists who have fallen victim to the “curse” are A Taste Of Honey, Paula Cole, and Evanescence, who never really kept up the momentum after their wins.
“[The Best New Artist win] was basically the kiss of death, and I feel sorry for everyone who’s gotten it since,” Taffy Danoff, former member of Starland Vocal Band, 1977’s Best New Artist winners, said during an interview for Vh1’s 100 Greatest One Hit Wonders in 2002. The pop group, famous for their song “Afternoon Delight,” disbanded four years after winning the coveted award.
Reproducing the industry wins accumulated after exploding onto the scene may sound like a lofty goal for some artists. However, in the last 10-15 years, most of the Best New Artist winners have proven to be successful in their own rights, as chart achievements and mainstream attention today are not the career make-or-breaks they once were.
2012’s winner Bon Iver has never really burned up the Billboard 200 Albums Chart, yet their latest project i,i (which peaked at No. 26) has put them up for 2020 Album and Record Of The Year wins. Esperanza Spalding won the award against stars like Justin Bieber and Drake in 2011, catching the ire of some of the bigger names’ diehard fans. Nonetheless, she quietly won three more golden gramophones in the years following, has two potential wins this year, and was appointed Professor Of The Practice Of Music at Harvard University in 2017. Success indeed has many faces.
Granted, winning the title of Best New Artist does add pressure and high expectations on an artist or group, placing them under a musical microscope while the world watches to see if they can keep the energy going. Some artists hope not to become a flash in the pan by following their winning formula very closely, some almost identically, which yields both positive and negative results.
For their 2016 album This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, 2014’s winners Macklemore And Ryan Lewis remained true to their blueprint of kooky hip-hop/pop hits (“Downtown” recaptures the zany energy of “Thrift Shop”) and thought-provoking social commentary (“White Privilege II” recalls the call-to-action of “Same Love”). However, it wasn’t enough to keep most audiences, critics, or institutions fully engaged, ultimately resulting in their hiatus announcement in 2017 (Macklemore himself is still making music as a solo entity). On the other hand, 2009’s winner Adele has been able to expound on the gifts that made her a household name. Her Diamond-certified albums 21 and 25 married the spine-tingling, soul-tinged verbiage found on 19 with even more heart-wrenchingly relatable lyrics and contemporary production stylings. Album by album, she’s displayed a mastery of her own artistry, enhancing her sound but staying true to what made listeners fall in love.
Some artists and their teams recognize what their “thing” is –– the gift that they possess or produce that sets them apart. Musicians take a gamble on themselves, that “thing,” and their reception when opting to experiment sonically. While growth and changes are necessary, not all growth and changes are welcome by the public. With this sentiment in mind, longevity can be difficult to attain if whatever formula that once worked stops connecting with audiences, critics or institutions for whatever reason.
This year, the crop of Best New Artist nominees features history-making pop phenoms and unfamiliar-to-mainstream acts, all of which face a unique set of potential challenges if they pull out a win. If Top 40 superstars Lil Nas X, Billie Eilish, or Lizzo end up victorious on January 26, they could find themselves in an uphill battle of upholding or outdoing their burgeoning musical legacies. Will what they did musically up until 2020 work as time goes on? Will they be able to harness that “thing” that made them stars and augment it for the sake of artistic growth?
Adversely, a Best New Artist win will bolster the popularity of funk/soul duo Black Pumas or NOLA-based R&B/funk hybrid Tank And The Bangas. While they’ll certainly continue to find success without the mainstream gaze regardless if they win or lose, the biggest challenge these underdogs may face if a win occurs is the displeasure of internet stans, which shouldn’t be something unmanageable in the long run.
The Best New Artist winners throughout the last few years have proven that success is subjective. While mainstream eyes may not always be watching what certain musical artists are doing, artists’ fanbases, critics, and institutions alike are still paying attention. However, that doesn’t mean they can get lazy. Artists will continue to be recognized for their work if they’re able to elevate themselves musically, remain engaging, and be true to their artistry, otherwise, they’ll risk becoming another victim of the storied “curse.”
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.