Beyoncé's "Formation" is nominated for Grammys in two of the four marquee categories, Record and Song of the Year, even though it was passed over for noms in two less high-profile categories, Best R&B Performance and Best R&B Song. That's odd. If "Formation" is nominated for two of the biggest and most competitive awards, you would think it be a slam-dunk to be nominated in its "home" categories. What gives?
As you doubtless know, the final nominations in the "Big Four" categories—Album, Record and Song of the Year and Best New Artist—are determined by a committee of Grammy insiders. The nominations in most down-ballot categories, including the two aforementioned R&B categories, are determined strictly by rank-and-file voters, without a committee review.
While it's theoretically possible that "Formation" was in the voters' top five for Record and Song of the Year, even though it fell short of the top five in these two R&B categories, it's unlikely. It's more likely that the committee heard something it liked in "Formation" and pushed it into the final five. That, of course, is their prerogative. It's why the committee was initiated by Mike Greene, the former CEO of the Recording Academy, in 1995. As Neil Portnow, who succeeded Greene in 2002, put it in an interview with HITS a year ago: "Sometimes there are moments and opportunities which can be helped by the fact that they're a smaller group with a greater focus, with a mission to have the best nominations that we can have."
Portnow stressed that to be considered by the committee, an album, single, song or new artist had to rank among the voters' top 20 choices. "To get to the top 20, that puts you in a very small percentage of the entries," Portnow said. "We have literally hundreds of entries in those categories."
The committee has the power to boost something from as low as #20 into the final five. As Portnow put it: "Now, we have an opportunity to look at this, knowing it has already been culled to the very top of the top, and from there we have the ability to create diversity and meet the highest standards and be true to the goals of the organization."
That just might be what happened with "Formation." There are several reasons that the committee might have been drawn to the critically-hailed work. It would bring more genre diversity to the finals in these two categories. In the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, it would give a nod to a work by an African-American artist that makes points about ethnic pride. It would give a boost to a megastar, someone whose appearance on the Grammy telecast would be highly promotable. Finally, it would allow the Grammy organization to maintain strict neutrality in the Beyoncé-Adele showdown, which has been this year's chief storyline since even before the nominations were announced. (If Adele was nominated in each of the top three categories, and Beyoncé was not, that might give Adele at least the appearance of an edge in the Album of the Year battle.)
I reviewed the last 22 years of Grammy nominations in the "Big Four" categories—ever since the committee was put in place. (I figured if the committee can review the voters' work, I can review the committee's work!). I paid particular attention to those singles and albums that were nominated for the top awards, even though they were passed over for noms in their down-ballot "home" categories. I then looked for recurring themes. They weren't hard to find.
1. The committee likes to champion new and developing artists (especially women).
This first became apparent in 1995, the first year the committee reviewed the nominations, when Joan Osborne's debut album, Relish, was nominated for Album of the Year, even though it had been passed over for a Best Rock Album nom.
Interestingly, when the committee gives a boost to a new or developing artist, it is usually a female solo artist. Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles" (2002), Corinne Bailey Rae's "Put Your Records On" (2006) and M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" (2008) were all nominated for Record of the Year, even they were passed over for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance noms. Similarly, Meghan Trainor's "All About That Bass" (2014) was nominated for Record of the Year, even though it was passed over for a Best Pop Solo Performance nom.
To be sure, there were other factors that may have made these records attractive to committee members. The classy "Put Your Records On" has jazzy strains. Committee members may have thought that, with a little boost, Bailey Rae could become another Norah Jones (who swept the 2002 awards). Nominating M.I.A.'s record allowed the Grammys to try to build their hip-hop credibility—a perennial challenge. "All About That Bass" dealt, in a lighthearted way, with important themes of female empowerment and healthy body images. (Committee members are parents, too.)
Once, the committee appeared to give a boost to a male artist. Frank Ocean's "Thinkin' Bout You" (2012) was nominated for Record of the Year, even though it was passed over for a Best R&B Performance nom. Here, the committee was no doubt also striving to boost genre and racial diversity.
Sara Bareilles wasn't a newcomer in 2013 when her third major-label album, The Blessed Unrest, was nominated for Album of the Year, but she was an underdog; someone who could use the boost that a nomination in a marquee category can bring. In any event, her album was nominated even though it was passed over for a Best Pop Vocal Album nom.
2. The committee likes to support superstars.
This, too, first became apparent in 1995, when Michael Jackson's History: Past, Present and Future—Book I) was nominated for Album of the Year, even though it was passed over for a Best Pop Vocal Album nom. This was Jackson's first album after his career was rocked in 1993 by child molestation allegations.
Taylor Swift's "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" (2012) received a Record of the Year nom, even though it was passed over for a nom for Best Pop Solo Performance. This was the all-important first single from Swift's album, Red. Swift wound up opening the Grammy telecast by performing the song.
A pair of music legends—Paul McCartney and Paul Simon—also appeared to get a boost from the committee. McCartney's Flaming Pie (1997) and Simon's You're the One (2000) were nominated for Album of the Year even though they were passed over for Best Pop Album noms. Their stature seems to have worked in their favor. (Also, Simon was that year's MusiCares Person of the Year honoree.)
3. The committee likes to boost genre and racial diversity.
D'Angelo and the Vanguard's deeply soulful "Really Love" (2015) was nominated for Record of the Year, even though it was passed over for a Best R&B Performance nom. And, as noted above, Bailey Rae's "Put Your Records On" and Ocean's "Thinkin' Bout You" were nominated for Record of the Year, even though they were passed over for noms in performance categories.
A Post-Script: The Record and Song of the Year nominations for "Formation" boosted Beyoncé's total number of noms this year to nine, which is more than any other artist. Without these two noms, she would have had seven noms, which would have put her in a tie (with Chance the Rapper) for second place. Drake, Rihanna and Kanye West all amassed eight noms this year.
The Record of the Year nomination for "Formation" also allowed Beyoncé to tie Barbra Streisand for the most Record of the Year noms by a woman in Grammy history (five). Without that nom, she'd be tied (with Swift) for second place, with four noms each.
So the work of the committee matters. It has implications. It shapes, alters and defines Grammy history.
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