At the end of last night’s Grammys, a cold and inoffensive superstar said something that angered many music listeners: “That doesn’t happen very often to people like me.” These are the words of Harry Styles after winning album of the year; Presumably, he wanted to pull an inspirational tale from the fact that little him, a former small-town reality TV contestant, had won popular music’s most prestigious award. Yet people like him — white, well-connected singers of tasteful pop and rock — are exactly the ones who win the Grammys for album of the year. The kind of people who don’t win include rappers (a hip-hop artist last won album of the year 19 years ago) and black women (you’d have to go back to 1999 for that).
styles Harry’s house is a well-made plush, and its victory over more daring and currently influential artists, including Beyoncé, Bad Bunny, Lizzo and Kendrick Lamar, has sparked an online outcry. Justice would be that this backlash didn’t overshadow some of this year’s ceremony milestones: Beyoncé breaking the record for most Grammy wins in her lifetime; an exceptional medley celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop; a victory lap for queer hitmakers Sam Smith and Kim Petras. Solid performances by Lizzo, Brandi Carlile, Steve Lacy and Stevie Wonder (!), as well as the moving In Memoriam partly inspired by rapper Takeoff, deserve a watch. But something about Styles’ victory makes the underlying inconsistency at the Grammys so glaring it’s infuriating, almost intolerable.
“Well, shit,” Styles said at the start of his acceptance speech. “I’ve been so, so inspired by all the artists in this category with me… I think on nights like tonight, it’s obviously so important for us to remember that there’s no such thing as best in music.” The soft tone recalled an awkward Grammys tradition of white winners acting embarrassed at being elevated relative to their black peers (see Billie Eilish dedicating an award to Megan Thee Stallion in 2021, Adele doing the same to Beyoncé in 2017, and Macklemore apologizing to Lamar in 2014) And arguing there is no best in music, he emphasized the illusion in which the ceremony, until then, had reveled.
This delirium? The idea that the Grammys are anything but a twisted popularity contest. One of the craziest artifacts of the night was a segment filled with fake news: about a protest turning into a concert, forcing police to lay down their arms; about music prescribed as medicine to treat illness; about a song urging governments around the world to support women’s rights. The goal, Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. said during the video, was to illustrate the hypothetical power of music. Aside from the fact that the fabrications seemed to dissolve the art form — insinuating that everything music is accomplishing right now isn’t all that impressive — the segment insisted that the Grammys aren’t just about rewarding the pleasant arrangement of vibrations in the air. They also encourage human progress and connection.
In the spirit of that notion, the ceremony sped up the race for album of the year with pre-recorded segments in which fans of the nominees sat around a table and talked about why their favorites deserved to win. With the enthusiasm of entrepreneurs launching start-ups, panelists extolled the social and personal significance of each album: Lizzo was praised for her body positivity and Lamar for his charity to a fan in need. Yet the uniquely diverse roundtable also illustrated that the battle for an award like Album of the Year is tied to listener demographics and taste cohorts. Styles’ champion was a 78-year-old Canadian who had flown away, with her granddaughter, to see him perform – a perfect example of how Styles’ openly nostalgic pop has managed to bring Gen Z and babies closer together. -boomers.
The fan panelists didn’t talk much about the music itself; little time was spent on how someone determines one song is superior to another. But the history of the Grammys clearly shows that voters in general categories tend towards specific sounds. Distinguished-looking music, consisting largely of analog instruments, closely approximating classic songwriting patterns, tends to win. Music that is obviously based on electronic recording and production, that experiments and provokes, usually doesn’t. In other words, Beyoncé Renaissancean innovative genre mish-mash celebrating black and queer history, perhaps never really stood a chance, although it clearly has more of a social conscience than the mumbled nothingness of Harry’s house. The race and ethnicity of the performers also shapes the odds, in part because of the traditionalist aesthetic ideas that just about negate virtually all of hip-hop.
Perhaps a challenge to these ideas is still brewing, or perhaps they will never be dethroned. Following the departure of longtime Grammys president Neil Portnow in 2019, the Recording Academy expanded its voting base in an effort to bolster diversity. Beyoncé’s record 32nd Grammy win last night shows that artists like her have significant Academy constituencies (although the results almost always appear in genre-specific rather than general categories). And Styles seems like a nice guy who made some good music. The problem lies in acting as if this award show is saving the world, rather than reflecting its problems back to it.