If there’s one thing the Grammys are known for, it’s picking the wrong album.
Whether it’s because the voters are older, out of touch, or just have bad taste, the predominant reaction to Grammy nominations and wins is generally frustration. Because the voters have a history of getting things wrong — selecting an off-the-wall album instead of a critical and commercial consensus pick — a fairly common trope is the “make up” victory year, when an album that isn’t as good as an artist’s peak release retroactively wins a bunch of awards. The “make up” victory year frequently happens when an artist is older, since plenty of works that are overwhelmingly resonant with a younger audience, and made by younger artists, are initially snubbed.
This dynamic is why someone like Beck can win the Grammy for Album Of The Year in 2015 for a lesser work like Morning View instead of Beyonce’s industry-shaking self-titled release. And when people say they “hate the Grammys,” this phenomena is often why; artists don’t win for the albums they should’ve, win later for albums that don’t deserve to win, or never get the recognition they deserved at all, thereby rendering the Grammys moot. These so-called “make up” wins are another factor that plays into older, more seasoned artists being more likely to get nominations in the top-tier categories — because they too were snubbed in youth. And because of their importance, these awards are usually given to artists who already have a proven track record, who are guaranteed to have staying power in the industry and a serious impact on culture.
But since awards like Song Of The Year, Record Of The Year, and Album Of The Year are basically the most important, most prestigious Grammys, winning one can be a huge chance for a young artist to put themselves on the map, and get the attention or resources they need to create even better music. Additionally, it’s frequently young artists who are changing culture the most, pushing forward to new sounds and styles. In recent years, the rise of social media has allowed fans to express their disappointment in a much louder and visible way when younger or more diverse artists are snubbed. Seemingly unaware of how it would come off, in early 2018, Grammys president Neil Portnow even had the audacity to say the onus is on female artists to work harder, not the Grammys to notice them. A fiery backlash ensued, obviously.
Aside from those regrettable comments, the Recording Academy has faced intense criticism for many years now for consistently honoring older, white men instead of young women or artists of color. But this year’s field also stands as a direct rebuttal of their past myopia when it comes to celebrating just how much women are dictating the direction of popular music right now. As millennials, the generation that has affectionately and infamously been the butt of every joke and blamed for every problem come fully into adulthood, their values and cultural contributions are becoming more and more influential. In the wings, Gen Z has been on the rise as well, with even more motivation to create a better, more inclusive world.
Whether it’s in direct response to Portnow’s unfortunate comments about women, or just another sign of shifting cultural priorities, the Album Of The Year nominees for 2020 Grammys stray from the narrative with a remarkably young field. The choices are as follows: Bon Iver’s i,i, Lana Del Rey’s Norman F*cking Rockwell, Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next, Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You, HER’s I Used To Know Her, Lil Nas X’s 7, and Vampire Weekend’s Father Of The Bride. Lana and Ezra Koenig, the Vampire Weekend frontman, are 34 and 35 respectively; Lizzo is 31, Ariana is 26, H.E.R, 22, Lil Nas X is 20, and Billie is only 17. The oldest among those nominated is Justin Vernon, of Bon Iver, who is 38, still under the age of 40. For context, when Beck won Album Of The Year in 2015, he was 44.
The majority of the nominees are under the age of 30, so the shift toward celebrating youth culture instead of seasoned veterans comes through loud and clear. And, the shift toward pop also speaks volumes about the way the industry is changing. Aside from Vampire Weekend and Bon Iver, five of the other nominees for the year’s most prestigious award work in pop — and Lil Nas X is almost as much a pop star as he is a rapper at this point. Although it was a sleepy year for major hip-hop releases, there were at least a few others that could’ve made this category — Young Thug, 2 Chainz, or North Carolina upstart DaBaby all spring to mind.
Which is another unusual element of this field of nominees: Most people would agree that “Old Town Road” should be nominated for some awards on its own, just due to staying power and popularity, but 7, the EP it ostensibly came on, wasn’t a release that merited one of the most prestigious awards in music. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for an EP — one that’s less than 20 minutes long, at that — to be honored alongside Lana Del Rey’s obvious masterpiece, or Billie’s blockbuster goth-pop gamechanger. Point being, setting out to honor artists simply because of their genre or identity isn’t necessarily the way to go, either.
Even if one of the elder millennials wins next year’s most impressive Grammy, the award will still be going to an artist who has helped usher in a more inclusive, understanding era in the music industry — both Vernon and Koenig have track records of elevating other younger, less privileged artists in their wake. But maybe things really are changing, not just in popular culture, but within the Recording Academy as well. If the top award goes to a Gen Z artist like Billie, or an influential millennial like Ariana or Lizzo, it will be a historical moment — and one that will feel like the Grammys finally getting it right.