In a time of political uncertainty, the Grammy nominations offered a clear mandate: innovation over tradition, the future over the past.
With barely a glance into the rearview mirror of pop music, the Recording Academy announced hundreds of nominees spread over 84 categories on Tuesday and clearly emphasized musicians who are actively shaping the sound of popular music on radio, YouTube, Spotify and social media platforms.
In years past, the top categories frequently included career-recognition nominations for veteran stars such as Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock and Steely Dan. But this year’s graying contenders, including Paul Simon, David Bowie and Sting, were snubbed for a slate dominated by millennials.
Beyoncé received nine nominations (making her, at the ripe old age of 35, the eldest top nominee). Kanye West, Rihanna and Drake each got eight and Chance the Rapper seven, a remarkable number for any newcomer, doubly so considering that his music is available solely through streaming services, which before this year would have made him ineligible.
The Recording Academy modified its rules earlier this year to recognize the new reality of the streaming era: Today, many recordings are no longer released in physical form or as paid digital downloads, which historically was the bar by which music was deemed legitimate for Grammy consideration.
“We need to be, want to be and believe we are up to the moment and as accurate as possible in the reflection of the year in music,” Recording Academy President Neil Portnow told The Times on Monday. “We never want to be in a position where music that deserves to be in the mix is usurped by some technicality in the process.”
The 23-year-old Chicago rapper, born Chancellor Johnathan Bennett, released his debut album “Coloring Book” in May as a free stream rather than on physical CD or as a paid download. For the first two weeks, it was available only on Apple Music before being made available through other streaming and download services.
The rule change, and Chance’s nominations (including for best new artist) reflect an ongoing evolution of the awards process inspired in part by stinging rebukes to the Recording Academy in past years offered by a famously contentious constituency.
Surprisingly, however, the youth vote was, with a few exceptions, as political as it got. Nominated recordings, spanning an eligibility period from Oct. 1, 2015 to Sept. 30, 2016, contain little content directly addressing a volatile year that included a divisive presidential campaign, the Black Lives Matter movement and renewed conversations about sexual assault.
The most provocative nominee is Beyoncé’s “Formation” single, which touches on themes of identity, especially for black women. When she performed “Formation” during the halftime show at the Super Bowl in February with Black Panther-inspired costumes, it ignited a firestorm of public debate.
“If you’re an artist or songwriter,” said Portnow, “it doesn’t necessarily mean you sit down behind your laptop and immediately bang out what your feelings are or make whatever musical statement you may have. It takes time.”
The last year’s biggest blockbuster album, Adele’s “25” (which has sold more than 9 million copies in the U.S. since its release late last year), yielded five nominations for the British singer-songwriter. She is competing in all three of the general categories for which she’s eligible — album, record and song — a testimony to her unequaled reach across age, gender and stylistic boundaries.
In the record-of-the-year category, which lauds songwriting, vocal performance and production, the other nominees are Adele’s heartbreak-apology “Hello”; Danish group Lukas Graham’s “7 Years,” which recounts turning points in life; Rihanna featuring Drake’s “Work” exploring romantic disillusionment and betrayal; and Twenty One Pilots’ ode to millennials’ mounting sense of real-life pressures in “Stressed Out.”
Millennial icon Justin Bieber’s album-of-the-year nomination for his “Purpose” collection signaled the growing maturity of his music, but it still surprised many, especially since it came at the expense of Paul Simon’s widely acclaimed “Stranger to Stranger” late-career album that had been an odds-on favorite.
Along with Adele, Beyoncé and Bieber , the album category also includes Canadian rapper Drake’s hit collection “Views” and country-Americana singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson’s critically lauded “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.”
With artists of color dominating so many categories, the nominations might be interpreted as a further response to the chastising of the entertainment industry on the subject of diversity, but the Grammy nominations have never been plagued with the problems that drove #OscarsSoWhite.
Music by definition is very inclusive, very diverse, and those who make music tend to have greatly opened their minds to diversity.
“We typically don’t have that as an issue,” Portnow said. “We have always had a great advantage on the creative side of the community of being a melting pot.
“Music by definition is very inclusive, very diverse,” he added, “and those who make music tend to have greatly opened their minds to diversity — whether it’s gender or genre or generation or ethnicity.”
Chance the Rapper’s new artist competition are country singers Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris, Oxnard-reared musician-producer Anderson .Paak and New York City-based electronic act the Chainsmokers. But icons and artists of a certain age were not overlooked entirely; Barbra Streisand faces off against Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Andrea Bocelli and Josh Groban in the traditional pop vocal album category.
Still, the Grammy nominating committees’ penchant for posthumous recognition was held in check despite the recent parade of high-profile deaths including Bowie, Glenn Frey, Prince, Merle Haggard, Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister, Mose Allison, Juan Gabriel, the Weavers’ Fred Hellerman, rapper Shawty Lo, Bobby Vee, pop-jazz singer Kay Starr, Sharon Jones, Leon Russell and Leonard Cohen.
Bowie appears posthumously in four categories: alternative music album for “Blackstar,” which he recorded last year while dealing with terminal cancer; rock song and rock performance for the title track; and another for engineered non-classical album.
The latter category also includes the only nod to Prince, with a nomination for his “Hit N Run Phase Two” collection.
Not surprisingly however, the academy members found a place to recognize a perennial favorite — the Beatles — with a nomination in the music film category for the Ron Howard-directed documentary “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years.”
“One person I talked to who saw it actually said, ‘Wow — and I thought Bieber was big’,” Howard told The Times on Tuesday. “So now they have this other benchmark.”
Awards will be announced during the annual Grammy Awards telecast from Staples Center in Los Angeles, scheduled for Feb. 12.
A complete list of nominees is available at the official Grammy website, www.grammy.com.