Beyoncé’s Album of the Year loss to Beck came as shock too many.
Controversy surrounded the event after Kanye West told Beck in a post-show interview that he should “give his Grammy to Beyoncé.”
When Beck was asked if Beyoncé should have won he said, “Absolutely, I thought she was going to win.”
Tell Me Why
This year, the Grammys‘ biggest prize seemed like a two-way race between Beyonce‘s self-titled magnum opus and Sam Smith‘s stunning breakthrough In the Lonely Hour, with the former heavily favored over the latter. So Beck‘s win for Morning Phase, while hardly undeserved, came as a big surprise and has become a major topic of discussion in the aftermath of Sunday’s awards.
BEYONCÉ was the most culturally impactful album of the eligibility period, changing the industry from the moment of its “surprise” digital drop. Its ambition- six-minute songs sprawl out with a risk-taking looseness of structure, and every track is accompanied by a unique and cinematic video – made it the most impressive work of the year in pop music.
It seemed like an obvious choice for the Grammy: critical acclaim and commercial success rarely collide in such a big way. Beyoncé is an unusual Grammy favorite: she has 20 wins under her belt, but only one in a general field category: “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” took home Song of the Year in 2010. (Similarly, Kanye West‘s 21 awards don’t include a single General Field win).
So why didn’t one of the Grammys’ favorite artists win for what may be the greatest album she ever makes? As it turns out, for a lot of reasons.
1. Accessible art wins AOTY. BEYONCÉ was essentially a pop album, yes, but it was anything but a mainstream one. Explicit, deeply personal, and challenging, it was hardly radio-ready. (Beyoncé realized this: “Prob’ly won’t make any money off this,” she lamented on the track “Haunted.”)
Beck’s Morning Phase wasn’t exactly Teenage Dream, either, but its ethereal aesthetic makes for a remarkably pleasant listen. It sounds counterintuitive, but, in terms of sound, Beck released a more universally-appealing album than Beyoncé did.
Grammy voters respond to that. Three years ago, they ignored Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in favor of nominees like Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and winner Adele (21). I’m obviously not comparing Beck to Bruno Mars, but hopefully you get my point: great albums that “sound nice” do better than great albums that are challenging.
2. Hip-Hop/R&B doesn’t win in the General Field. This one speaks for itself: Hip-Hop and R&B do not win in the General Field. In the past 20 years, there are just three exceptions in Album of the Year: Lauryn Hill‘s monumental The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Outkast‘s radio-friendly (“Hey Ya,” “The Way You Move”) Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and Ray Charles‘ posthumous Genius Loves Company back in 2005. These are exceptions that prove the rule: Hill was too successful to ignore, Outkast’s album saw extremely mainstream success, and Charles’ album was hardly contemporary R&B, and gave the Grammys a chance to give out a posthumous award.
3. Pharrell got some of her votes. Like I said, Hip-Hip and R&B don’t win in the General Field. You can blame it on the age and race of the voters, you can blame it on their limited personal tastes, or you can blame it on the fact that artists in these genres already win boatloads of awards from their genre-specific categories.
There’s simply a limited number of voters who are pulling for R&B albums to win the major awards, so having two such albums in the race for Album of the Year exacerbated the issue. Pharrell‘s G I R L was certainly not the best album of the year, but it’s understandable why votes may have been thrown his way: he’s a legendary producer whose true debut as a solo artist gave us one of the biggest hits of all time (“Happy”). G I R L actually defeated BEYONCE in the Best Urban Contemporary Album category, so there’s no question that Beyoncé’s masterpiece suffered a case of vote-splitting.
4. Beck was overdue for a win. Beck was first nominated for Album of the Year with 1997’s Odelay, which is still talked about as one of the greatest albums of all time, let alone the ’90s. The critically-acclaimed alternative record lacked the mass appeal of Celine Dion’s adult contemporary hit-factory Falling into You, which ended up with the trophy.
It’s not unprecedented for the Recording Academy to give “apology Grammys:” awards given to one of an artist’s lesser albums in order to make up for an earlier snub. For example, Mumford & Sons win for Babel in 2013 might as well have been for their debut, Sigh No More. The most notorious example is the 2001 win for Steely Dan‘s Two Against Nature, which won out against superior albums by Eminem, Radiohead, Paul Simon, and, in fact, Beck. It was more-or-less agreed upon by Grammys commentators that the voters intended to recognize not the album, but Steely Dan’s long career. The same could be said of Herbie Hancock‘s 2008 win over Amy Winehouse.
What goes around comes back around, though: perhaps someday we’ll see Beyoncé Knowles take home an Album of the Year Grammy not because she deserves it, but because she’s overdue for one.