Anyone looking for controversy about the winners of this year’s Grammy awards is likely to alight on the subject of Beyoncé: you could try and make a case that one of the big gongs should have gone to Kendrick Lamar, but Mr Morale & the Big Steppers – a brilliant album, but a knotty, complex one, which furthermore achieved a fraction of the sales of its predecessor Damn – was probably never in with a chance. Without wishing to cast shade on those doughtily toiling away in the areas covered by the best score soundtrack for video games and other interactive media and best new age ambient or chant album categories, the Grammys are ultimately about four awards: album of the year, record of the year, song of the year and best new artist.
As a solo artist, Beyoncé has only ever won one of them once – song of the year in 2010 for Single Ladies – which seems a fairly inexplicable state of affairs: you don’t need to be a rabid member of the Bey Hive to know that she’s had an immense cultural and commercial impact over the last 20 years. That nothing changed this year, making her an eight-time unsuccessful nominee in the record of the year category, is doubtless going to raise some thorny questions and provoke outrage – she had to make do with best dance/electronic recording and best dance/electronic music album, and with becoming the artist who’s won the most Grammys ever, presumably enough to stop her withdrawing from the awards in future as the Weeknd and Drake have done in recent years.
In fairness, it wasn’t as if the actual winners of those categories carried the tang of the inexplicable necessary to constitute a blatant Beyoncé snub. Harry Styles’s Harry’s House beating Renaissance to album of the year doesn’t feel the same as Beck’s Morning Phase triumphing over Beyoncé in 2015, nor does it feel the same as if, say, Coldplay’s Music of the Spheres had won this year. Styles is currently a commercial juggernaut, who’s pulled off one of the trickiest tasks in music – shifting from member of a manufactured boyband to an artist people who don’t give much quarter to manufactured boybands take seriously. If you want to know how difficult that is, look at the current sales figures and profiles of his former One Direction bandmates.
If there’s something faintly puzzling about Lizzo’s About Damn Time winning record of the year, rather than Beyoncé’s Break My Soul, Styles’s As It Was or indeed Steve Lacy’s Bad Habit, it was still a hugely successful single, and moreover a spectacularly good disco pastiche in a world filled with limp examples of the same. The weirdest success was Bonnie Raitt’s Just Like That winning song of the year, at least from the perspective of the UK, where the album it’s from didn’t even make the charts. Then again, Raitt is an artist with what the US critic Ann Powers has called “Grammy immunity” – she won four of the things back in 1990 for her belated commercial breakthrough, Nick of Time; three more for its follow-up in 1992 and a lifetime achievement award last year.
If you’re going to throw a big Grammy a venerable artist’s way, you could find a worse song than Just Like That, which is a masterclass in mature songwriting. Its premise sounds appallingly mawkish – it’s about a parent who blames herself for the death of her son being approached by the man to whom her son’s heart was donated in a transplant – but Raitt handles the subject with a surprising subtlety. It’s an exercise in soft emotional power rather than blatant tearjerking. That’s possibly not enough to stop Beyoncé’s advocates spitting feathers in response to Raitt’s win, but it’s hardly an unfathomable winner on its own merits.
As for the other big award, best new artist, there’s something curiously pleasing about Samara Joy’s win. In recent years, the Grammys has always opted to dole the award out to someone who’s already achieved vast commercial success: last year it was Olivia Rodrigo; before that Megan Thee Stallion; before her Billie Eilish and Dua Lipa. If they had continued in that direction, Måneskin would probably have triumphed, although the question of whether their success is predicated on novelty value or something more lasting still hangs over the former Eurovision winners. Certainly they’re one of the biggest-selling groups in a field where several of the nominees didn’t even seem particularly new: Molly Tuttle’s first album came out in 2006; Tobe Nwigwe’s first EP six years ago; Muni Long is 34 and released her debut album, albeit under her real name, Priscilla Renea, in 2009. Under the circumstances, Samara Joy – a hugely gifted jazz vocalist, gradually emerging as a significant songwriter as well as an adept interpreter of standards – feels like a worthwhile choice: rooted in tradition, but too soulful to qualify as easy listening.