Grammys Snubs and Surprises: Kacey Musgraves, Jon Batiste and Abba

A jazz musician snagged the most nominations, and the Weeknd, an artist who said he’s boycotting the awards, found his name on the ballot.

Doja Cat, Justin Bieber, Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo — sure, of course.

H.E.R., Brandi Carlile, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga — OK, fine, that makes some sense. These are the Grammys, after all.

But Jon Batiste — the most-nominated artist overall? And … Abba? Who knew.

The contenders for the 64th annual Grammy Awards in January were announced on Tuesday. The New York Times music team — reporter Joe Coscarelli, chief pop music critic Jon Pareles and pop music critic Jon Caramanica — are here to break them down.

JOE COSCARELLI Let’s just start with the real shocker: A jazz pianist leads the field with 11 total nominations.

Yes, Batiste is a genre-crossing multihyphenate who works as the bandleader and musical director for CBS’s “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” He’s already won a Golden Globe and an Oscar (best original score for Pixar’s “Soul,” alongside Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) and is liable to pop up anywhere music is played — even alongside Madonna, as she promoted her “Madame X” concert movie in Harlem.

Yet seeing him not only in the R&B, jazz, classical and American roots categories but also in the general field — record and album of the year — alongside those I considered shoo-ins (Rodrigo, Eilish, Taylor Swift, Doja Cat) was the sort of surprise that only the Grammys can consistently provide.

Which is to say, was this actually a twist or was this the most Grammys thing that could have possibly happened? I’m torn, because on one hand, it felt like we were moving away from this. On the other, Jacob Collier got an album of the year nod last time around.

JON CARAMANICA Last year, when talking about the ubiquity of the retro rock-soul band Black Pumas, we underscored a now-familiar Grammy sleight of hand: Rather than nominate older musicians well past their prime popularity, the show instead nominates younger musicians who make music in an old-fashioned way. That can mean Black Pumas, and it can mean Billie Eilish.

This year, it means Jon Batiste, who is 35, but pointedly carries on the long tradition of New Orleans music, and who in recent years has become an institutionalist, a slightly less progressive version of his bandleader competitor, Questlove of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

The Grammys are, naturally, the ultimate institution — I would not be surprised if, a decade or two from now, Batiste becomes the show’s musical director. That he is also the bandleader on the marquee late-night show on CBS, the network that also broadcasts the Grammys, isn’t evidence of a fix, but it’s a reminder that the presumed and actual audiences for the awards show and the network both skew old — and that in this echo chamber, and perhaps only in this echo chamber, Batiste qualifies as a pop star.

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JON PARELES Batiste is an impressive musician and performer — pianist, singer, dancer — and his album, “We Are,” is a trove of good intentions and good playing, including New Orleans connections with appearances by Trombone Shorty and the Hot 8 Brass Band. Like Black Pumas (also nominated this year!), Batiste’s album harks back to vintage soul and R&B, clearly a sweet spot for Grammy voters, although it also ventures toward hip-hop. The album is a serious, thoughtful statement, celebrating New Orleans roots — Batiste is a member of a longstanding musical family — and his own memories of growing up. It also has positive-thinking message songs like “Freedom” and “We Are.” But Batiste’s nightly broadcast exposure clearly has a lot to do with all his nominations; someone’s still watching network TV.

You get a lot of Grammy nominations by qualifying for multiple categories — and a lot of nominations does not guarantee a lot of wins. Batiste is in R&B, jazz, American roots, soundtrack (for “Soul”), music video and even contemporary classical for one of the album tracks, “Movement 11” — which is a stretch, since it shares far more similarity to a two-minute jazz improvisation with added strings than it does to its fellow nominees, like the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen’s knotty orchestral song cycle, “The Only One.”

COSCARELLI Rounding out album of the year, in addition to Batiste’s “We Are,” you have “Love for Sale” by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, “Justice (Triple Chucks Deluxe)” by Justin Bieber, “Planet Her (Deluxe)” by Doja Cat, “Back of My Mind” by H.E.R., “Happier Than Ever” by Billie Eilish, “Montero” by Lil Nas X, “Sour” by Olivia Rodrigo, “Evermore” by Taylor Swift and “Donda” by Kanye West.

Many of those artists are also represented in song and record of the year, where you also get a mix of Brandi Carlile, Ed Sheeran, Silk Sonic and Abba’s “I Still Have Faith in You,” which is apparently a record that moved people? That means no Halsey, Ariana Grande, BTS, Megan Thee Stallion, Chris Stapleton or Tyler, the Creator in the major categories, which plenty will see as galling.

The 2019 best album winner, Kacey Musgraves, was also eligible again, for her latest LP, “Star-Crossed,” which wasn’t nominated as a body of work. Instead, she landed only two nods overall: best country song and best country solo performance for “Camera Roll,” despite the album being reportedly removed from the country categories by the Recording Academy’s genre police.

PARELES One thing that struck me, as a writer for a sometime print publication, was the sheer typographical burden of this year’s Grammy nominations. The list simply has not looked like this before. The album of the year category goes on for three full pages to name all the songwriters, producers and engineers credited on albums by Batiste, Bieber, Doja Cat, H.E.R., Lil Nas X, Swift and West.

It’s a reflection of how albums are made now. It’s not a band and a producer sequestered in the studio. It’s about beat-shopping, samples, songwriting camps, remote collaborations, multiple tweaks and iterations — and all the participants want those credits and publishing points. The nominees alone are going to be a sizable voting bloc for each album, especially in a category split 10 ways.

COSCARELLI But then there’s Gaga and Bennett, Eilish and Rodrigo, whose credits are minuscule by comparison. That could potentially give them an edge with more conservative voters who remain concerned with the bespoke quality of the music.

Along with expanding the Big Four categories to 10 nominees each — and lowering the bar for how much any one collaborator has to contribute to be among those recognized in the best album field (hello, Zadie Smith!) — this year also marked the end of the so-called Nominations Review Committees. (These were the source of the Weeknd’s frustration last year, after he was snubbed and eventually decided to boycott.)

Rather than some shadowy cabal taking the members’ top vote-getters, considering them and then making their own final decision on the nominees anyway, the Recording Academy says these picks are pure: Whoever got the most votes from their music industry peers is who is appearing on the final ballot.

Do you see that reflected here? My sense is that it benefits those with wide name recognition and enduring industry connections and respect — Bieber, Abba, maybe even Carlile, who has a record of the year nomination and two for song, including an Alicia Keys duet. At the same time, you could imagine the secret committees keeping out something like Lady Gaga and Bennett’s “Love for Sale,” because it’s so stereotypically Old and Stuffy Grammys — the kind of thing it felt like they were distancing themselves from in recent history.

CARAMANICA I will not lie: my heart palpitated a little erratically (and worryingly) when I read the first name in the first category, record of the year: Abba. Now look, I exult at weddings just like the next sap, and I honor anyone whose albums were in my parents’ vinyl collection. But this new Abba music is thin, thin, thin. It exists primarily as an advertisement for the old Abba music, and the group’s avatar-led stage show that’s debuting next year.

PARELES That’s obviously one of the Grammys’ better-late-than-never nominations. Abba never got a Grammy in its prime; this nomination is the apology.

Meanwhile, count me surprised that Arooj Aftab turns up in the best new artist category. She is a Pakistani musician who studied at the Berklee School of Music and is based in Brooklyn, mingling South Asian music, jazz and chamber music; some of the songs on her (third) album, “Vulture Prince,” presumably the one that caught the Grammys’ attention, have lyrics by the 13th-century Persian mystical poet Rumi. It’s a lovely album, but I hardly expected to see her name alongside Rodrigo and Saweetie. Persian aside, there’s also still a language barrier for Grammy voters in this category; where are streaming blockbusters like Rauw Alejandro, whose debut album came out last November?

COSCARELLI Best new artist is confusing, especially with the removal of the nomination committees taken into account. Enough people knew Aftab, Baby Keem and Japanese Breakfast to put them ahead of, say, Polo G, Tems, Jack Harlow and Maneskin (shudder)?

I do miss the secret committees when it comes to rock. Last year, they seemed to make a point to shake up typically staid categories like best rock song, album and performance, the latter of which was all women for the first time, including Fiona Apple, Phoebe Bridgers and Haim. This year it’s back to basics: AC/DC, Black Pumas (for a live release), Chris Cornell, Deftones and Foo Fighters. Kings of Leon, Weezer and Paul McCartney also turn up in the rock field.

That can’t help but feel like regression, even if it’s what the voters wanted.

Randall Hill/Reuters

CARAMANICA Joe, you see that shift also in the best rap album nominations. Last year, they consisted of purist-oriented artisanal albums at the intersection of process and aesthetic that the Grammys has long valorized in other genres. This year, the nominees are … reasonably popular and generally respected rap albums.

That includes “Donda,” which is also nominated for album of the year. West received five total nominations this year, representing something of a coming in from the cold for someone who, in Grammy terms, now qualifies as a legacy artist. He has been nominated over 70 times in his career, but apart from last year’s win for best contemporary Christian music album, hasn’t taken home a trophy since 2013. He also hasn’t been nominated for album of the year for an album of his own since his 2007 album “Graduation.” (He has been nominated as a producer on others’ albums.)

The nominations of “Donda” and “Hurricane” (best melodic rap performance) also means nominations for the Weeknd, even after his boycott. (He is also nominated for his contributions to Doja Cat’s album.)

COSCARELLI The inclusion of “Donda” in album of the year can’t help but highlight the lack of Drake’s “Certified Lover Boy,” which earned a rap album and a rap performance nod (for “Way 2 Sexy”) but nothing in the top categories. Both are among the year’s biggest albums commercially.

Also on that best-seller list? Morgan Wallen, who has outperformed both rappers but came away with absolutely no nominations amid his soft industry banishment for drunkenly shouting a racial slur in a video captured by a neighbor. Does that count as a snub, or just a cultural land mine avoided?

CARAMANICA It’s also worth mentioning Taylor Swift here — a lonely nomination for album of the year, for “Evermore,” perhaps the least commercially impactful album of her career, and also another nomination in the same category by dint of her writing “contributions” to Olivia Rodrigo’s “Sour.”

PARELES In a way, Swift’s album nomination is the appropriate one: “Evermore” is an old-fashioned full-length album, made to be heard as a whole. Also on the absentee list: Lana Del Rey and Lorde, even though their (and Swift’s) producer Jack Antonoff is nominated as producer of the year, in part for his work with them.

COSCARELLI I see neither of you want to touch the subject of Wallen right now — just like the Grammys.

CARAMANICA On the other hand, there are a handful of TikTok hits that have now led to Grammy nominations: Giveon’s slow and aching “Heartbreak Anniversary” is nominated for best R&B song, and the British rock band Glass Animals had a huge TikTok hit this year with “Heat Waves,” and now the band, which has been releasing music for several years, is nominated for best new artist. Walker Hayes’s goofy country stomper “Fancy Like” started its ascent on TikTok and now is nominated in best country song.

PARELES Well, at least they’re trying. You have to sympathize, a little, with how difficult it is for the Grammys to try to sum up all of music when there are so many niche audiences that barely intersect. But we’re lucky that hardly anyone who cares about music takes the Grammys as the ultimate judgment.

Source: Music -


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