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The Biggest Snubs and Surprises of the 2020 Grammy Nominations, From Lizzo to Lil Nas X

10 minute read

Over the past few years, the Grammys have been fighting a war against obsolescence. As streaming and social media have allowed artists to directly interact with fans, the value of traditional gatekeepers has decreased, leading the biggest music stars—from Beyoncé to Rihanna to Taylor Swift to Ed Sheeran—to skip last year’s ceremony entirely.

The nominations for the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards, announced Wednesday morning, seem like an urgent bid for relevancy: three of the most nominated artists—Lizzo, Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X—also happen to be newcomers and rulers of the streaming economy. All three were nominated for Record of the Year, Album of the Year and Best New Artist, pushing Grammy veterans like Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga to the sidelines.

But while the nominations showed that voters are paying some attention to up-and-comers, they also reflected several head-scratching decisions across the board. Here are the biggest snubs and surprises of the 2020 Grammy nominations.

Surprise: Lizzo leads the nominations

With a whopping eight nominations across multiple genres, Lizzo leads the Grammys with the most nominations this year, a testament to her cross-category appeal. It’s squarely on the nose that Lizzo, a hybrid singer/rapper who’s also an accomplished (and fun-loving) flutist, would defy being boxed in by anyone, much less the Academy; besides nabbing nominations in the four major categories (Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Best New Artist), she’s also up for Best Pop Solo Performance, Best R&B Performance, Best Traditional R&B performance, and Best Urban Contemporary Album. It’s only fitting: Cuz I Love You, an album filled with self-love anthems and ebullient bops, was widely embraced by millennial multi-hyphenates. (Cady Lang)

Snub: Taylor Swift is largely shut out

Taylor Swift’s lack of recognition in 2018 for her album Reputation was perhaps unsurprising: after an intense period of media scrutiny, Swift embraced a darker sound—and visual identity—that may have alienated some fans. But this year’s release, Lover, was a much more immediately palatable record, filled with romantic ballads, pop-friendly hooks and even an appearance from the Dixie Chicks; it seemed like a shoo-in for an older Grammy voting base.

Nope. The 35-time-nominated singer-songwriter received just three nominations for Lover—and only one of them was in a major category (the title track is up for Song of the Year). It seems voters forgot that her lead single “ME!” existed; even more surprisingly, her video for “You Need to Calm Down”—which was widely expected to grab a nomination thanks to its strong LGBTQ message and appearances from Ellen DeGeneres, Laverne Cox and Queer Eye’s Fab Five—was shut out of the Best Music Video category. (Andrew R. Chow)

Surprise: Lil Nas X receives recognition for more than “Old Town Road”

How should the Grammys deal with one-hit wonders? The question has dogged the awards show for years: they’ve often found themselves chasing a momentary fad while letting a more promising artist slip away. In 1979, they awarded Best New Artist to A Taste of Honey of “Boogie Oogie Oogie” fame over Elvis Costello and the Cars; in 1998, they feted Paula Cole (“Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?”) over Fiona Apple and Erykah Badu.

This dilemma was probably on the minds of voters as they decided how to handle Lil Nas X, who was undeniably the music story of the year thanks to “Old Town Road,” the viral meme-turned-longest-running number one song of all time. “Old Town Road” showed how much the creation and dissemination of music has changed thanks to new forces like TikTok; the song represented a litmus test for how voters feel about these industry shifts.

But Lil Nas X isn’t actually a one-hit wonder anymore: his follow-up single, Panini,” racked up over 200 million views on YouTube and climbed all the way to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Voters recognized this and honored Lil Nas across the board with six nominations, including for record of the year and music video of the year (for “Old Town Road”) and best rap/sung performance (for “Panini”).

The success of “Panini,” combined with Lil Nas’ inarguably charismatic presence on social media, points to the idea that he has genuine staying power and that his Best New Artist nod is deserved. But the nomination of his non-album 7 for Album of the Year is a shocker. 7 is 18 minutes long and filled with thin melodies and half-baked production; it blocked out many other deserving projects, including Rosalía’s El Mal Querer, Tyler the Creator’s Igor and Solange’s When I Get Home. (The fact that Solange didn’t receive a single nomination this year is inexplicable.) 7‘s nomination shows that in the Grammys’ quest for relevance, they went too far in pandering to the zeitgeist. (Chow)

Snub: Global artists—including BTS—are underrepresented

The dominance of streaming means that music tastes have gone global, with South Korea and Latin America becoming two particular hotbeds of creativity. But in the major categories, only one foreign-language artist was nominated—the Spanish singer Rosalía.

And while the omission of artists like BTS, Blackpink, Bad Bunny and J Balvin in those categories is glaring in itself, the Grammys fare even worse in the regional global categories, which are woefully outdated. Latin-American albums are separated into “Latin pop” and “Latin rock, urban or alternative” with seemingly no rhyme or reason: Luis Fonsi, Maluma, Bad Bunny and J Balvin—all of whom operate in similar spaces of Latin trap, Latin pop and reggaeton—are split among those two categories next to the mariachi group Flor De Toloache.

And the catch-all category World Music Album looks more and more absurd with each passing year—especially given how it completely ignores K-pop, one of the largest music industries in the world. In 2019, BTS’ Map of the Soul: Persona became the best-selling album in South Korean history, and the Halsey-assisted single “Boy With Luv” became the most successful Billboard Hot 100 song ever by a Korean group. Blackpink, a South Korean all-girl group, developed their own massive fanbase and set many records of their own. The fact that both were shut out suggests the Grammys need to go back to the drawing board and seriously reconsider how to handle the globalization of pop music. (Chow)

Surprise: Female artists are gaining more recognition

Just two years after former Recording Academy president Neil Portnow infamously said that female artists should “step up” in response to critiques about a lack of recognition for women at the Grammys, women are leading in some of the night’s major categories. Five of the eight Album of the Year nominees are women, while all but one of the Best Pop Solo performance nominees are female artists. The shift can also be seen in genres that have long been male-dominated; women made up the majority of nominees for categories like Best Country Song (Tanya Tucker, Ashley McBride and Miranda Lambert) and Best Rock Performance (Brittany Howard, Karen O, Bones UK). It’s a big night especially for young female artists. Lizzo, who’s the most-nominated artist of this year’s show, and Billie Eilish are both up for the top prizes of night: Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best New Artist. (Lang)

Snub: Megan Thee Stallion and the women of hip-hop

It’s well-documented that the Grammys often fall short when it comes to recognizing hip-hop artists, and this year’s nominations prove that despite a concerted effort to diversify its voter base, the Recording Academy is still out of touch with the culture. Case in point? This year’s emerging hip-hop artists were largely snubbed when it came to Best Rap Album, with popular artists like DaBaby, Gunna, and Lil Baby being passed up in the category. Perhaps the most glaring example is the complete exclusion of Megan Thee Stallion, arguably the most exciting talent to emerge in hip-hop this year, whose music and presence were near-ubiquitous in the zeitgeist. The oversight especially stings when you consider that the rap categories only had one female rapper nominated (Cardi B’s feature on Offset’s “Clout,” for Best Rap Performance). Although this year’s Grammy nominees included more female artists than in the past, they weren’t to be found in the hip-hop categories, which is a shame in a year when female rappers including Megan, Rico Nasty, Tierra Whack, Doja Cat, Rapsody and more have been making unprecedented waves in the industry.” (Lang)

Snub: Hip-Hop Producers

Music in 2019 is dominated by hip-hop—and hip-hop in 2019 is propelled by sound as opposed to lyricism. So it’s shocking that rap producers got so little representation in the Producer of the Year, Non-classical category. To start, voters missed an obvious, high-profile candidate: Tyler the Creator, whose gorgeous and unpredictable album Igor was nominated for Best Rap Album but should have earned him a spot among the year’s top producers as well.

But this year, rap was full of versatile, indefatigable producers who bounced from project to project, leaving an outsize impact on the genre’s sound as a whole. Wheezy had a hand in projects by Young Thug, Future and Gunna, as well as three Grammy-nominated projects by 21 Savage, Bon Iver and Meek Mill. JetsonMade hypercharged massively popular songs from DaBaby, Lil Keed and YoungBoy Never Broke Again. And Kenny Beats deserved a look just for his YouTube series “The Cave,” in which some of hip-hop’s biggest names, from Vince Staples to Danny Brown, dropped by to write and record brand new songs off the rip. (Chow)

Surprise: The Tanya Tucker revival

The Grammys love a good redemption story, and this year, they put the spotlight back on Tanya Tucker, the 61-year-old country outlaw star who was first nominated in 1973 and last nominated in 1994. Tucker has been through many personal battles over the years, many of which addresses on While I’m Livin’, a grizzled and heartfelt album created with the help of another Grammy favorite, Brandi Carlyle. One of the album’s standouts—“Bring My Flowers Now,” grabbed three nominations, including Song of the Year. Here’s hoping she’ll get to bring the song—a heartbreaking meditation on mortality and regret—to the show itself. (Chow)

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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com