Lil Nas X is nominated for Album of the Year. Sorry, I just wanted to type that as soon as possible. Speaking through the holy vessels of Gayle King, Alicia Keys, and Bebe Rexha, the Grammys announced their slate of 2020 nominees Wednesday morning, with the usual pungent mix of anticlimax (thanks to a Grammys website snafu the day before, the internet had already sussed out that Lizzo, for example, was likely to get eight noms) and total bewilderment. (Lil Nas X is nominated for Album of the Year; sorry, I just wanted to type that again.)
The Grammys, which will air on January 26, have historically struggled with both coherence and, in a more visible way recently, diversity, deeply offending female artists en masse and alienating some of pop music’s biggest stars in general, from Jay-Z to Frank Ocean to Justin Bieber. This new batch of nominees will help solve, well, at least one of those problems, maybe. It’s progress; as always, it’s also a little baffling. Here’s a look at your early victors and, well, uh, not-victors.
Winner: Lizzo, Obviously
That’s right: eight nominations for Lizzo, a 2019 breakout star by any measure even if her first no. 1 single, “Truth Hurts,” is very conspicuously not a 2019 song. (“Truth Hurts” is up for both Record of the Year and Song of the Year, along with Best Pop Solo Performance, the latter BTW being one of the few categories Beyoncé’s Lion King adventure managed to crack.) Lizzo is a delightful human who excels at award shows in particular, from the BET Awards to the VMAs, so don’t be surprised if she smokes her fellow performers and ends up striking one of those classic I’m holding too many Grammy statues poses.
Lizzo is a reliable controversy magnet, too, from the frivolous (she is currently being sued by the Postmates driver she flamed on Twitter) to the more consequential (there is now a convoluted legal fracas over who, exactly, wrote “Truth Hurts”). Sometimes the award-show dominance and the controversy collide; her breakout full-length, Cuz I Love You (up for Album of the Year), won big at Sunday’s Soul Train Awards, much to the consternation of fellow nominee Ari Lennox. I’d say Lizzo’s a lock for Best New Artist, at least, but the Grammys don’t really do locks unless Adele’s involved. But for good or ill or some intoxicating combination thereof, you can be pretty sure who will have the most eventful Grammy night.
Loser: Taylor Swift, Again, Somehow
The big whoop last year was that Swift’s polarizing 2017 album, Reputation, managed one measly Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Album, but this year’s far sturdier and crowd-pleasing Lover was primed to return her to some semblance of glory. But she got only one major-category nomination Wednesday (“Lover” is up for Song of the Year) out of three total. Whether you’re a “Cruel Summer” or “Soon You’ll Get Better” sort of person, Lover’s best songs have somehow not yet gotten the spotlight they deserve, and Swift’s steadily escalating battle with her old record label has overshadowed her new album overall. But this counts as another pointed snub, and it likely won’t take too many more of those before Swift turns on the Grammys entirely and paradoxically comes around to Frank Ocean’s way of thinking.
Winner: Fresh New Faces and the Same Old Grammy Bafflement
Listen, Lil Nas X is a delightful human, and the legit cultural phenomenon that is “Old Town Road” is as deserving a Record of the Year nominee as has ever existed. (Song of the Year honors a single’s songwriting; Record of the Year rewards a single’s production and performance.) But an Album of the Year nod for 7, a wan EP with one relatively modest follow-up hit (“Panini” is somehow still top 10) and a whole lot of chaff for an 18-minute exercise, is my favorite Baffling Grammy Choice in the last half-decade at least.
It’s a discordant grace note amid this nomination slate’s very lovely and deserved youth movement: six nominations each for Lil Nas X and Billie Eilish (whose “Bad Guy” is up for both Record and Song of the Year), five for the R&B upstart H.E.R., and a stacked Best New Artist category overall. (Lizzo will battle it out with the likes of Eilish, Lil Nas X, Rosalía, Maggie Rogers, and the rad country singer Yola.) The 2020 Grammys will likely not be one of those geriatric-feeling years when Sting somehow shows up every 10 minutes. They’re trying to get cooler, or at least younger. But they’ll always be at least a little weird about it.
Loser: Neil Portnow, Forever and Always
We are approaching the two-year anniversary of then–Grammys boss Neil Portnow’s suggesting that vastly underrepresented female artists just needed to “step up,” triggering a wave of industry derision and one really excellent Fiona Apple T-shirt. But he is no longer the president of the Recording Academy, and the 2020 nominations are conspicuously dominated by Lizzo and Eilish and Ariana Grande and H.E.R., not to mention Brandi Carlile and Lady Gaga (both up for Song of the Year) or, for that matter, Lana Del Rey. (Norman Fucking Rockwell! is, indeed, an Album of the Year nominee, though Rexha disappointingly announced it as Norman Effing Rockwell.)
The 2019 Grammys, held in February, were a relatively delightful experience thanks in part to big wins from Kacey Musgraves and Cardi B, and we are primed for another burst of fresh air this year. But award-show gender imbalance is a tricky and volatile thing: Country fans will tell you that last week the CMAs took great pains to construct a loose Year of the Woman narrative only to cap it off by handing the biggest award of the night, Entertainer of the Year, to Garth Brooks for, like, the 50th time. Pop music is not, at this juncture, a dudely enterprise in the slightest, but don’t be shocked if Khalid (Record of the Year) and Lewis Capaldi (Song of the Year) emerge as spoilers in a few different senses.
Winner: Arena-Indie Veterans
If you’re looking for Album of the Year long shots, meanwhile, say hello to Bon Iver (who won Best New Artist in 2012 and picked up a new nickname) and Vampire Weekend, who are both in the mix (Bon Iver’s “Hey Ma” is up for Record of the Year too) and holding it down for longtime Pitchfork readers of a certain age. One would not have guessed, a decade ago, that these particular fellas would eventually represent the older end of the major-Grammy-category spectrum and represent quote-unquote rock music pretty much entirely. “What a time to be alive,” as the saying used to go; “The culture is lit, and I had a ball” probably works a little better nowadays.
Tentative Winner but Nonetheless Perpetual Loser: Rock Music, Forever and Always
A grim and dispiriting thing I really enjoy doing is scrolling way, way down every year to see how the Grammys handled quote-unquote rock music this year, always a reliable fount of bracing (and dispiriting) wackiness. By the usual metrics, though, the 2020 Best Rock Songs slate, for example, is pretty odd and yet not half bad, featuring Tool, the 1975, Vampire Weekend, sentient Grammy nomination Gary Clark Jr., and Brittany Howard. No, “rock” is not the first word you’d use to describe any of the songs involved. But “not a confounding atrocity” is the baseline here, and by that measure, this year’s Grammys are doing OK so far. With a few notable exceptions, or maybe just the one.