WXTJ Writes! By Matthew Wang: Grading the 66th Grammy Awards

Because the 66th Grammys happened recently, I have decided to engage in a fun, pointless exercise: grading the decisions the Grammys made on the big four categories. If you aren’t familiar, the Grammys are the most prestigious awards in music, and their most prestigious categories are Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Best New Artist, and Album of the Year. I will look at the nominees of each category and choose my pick based on the criteria the Recording Academy provides, then compare it to the actual winner and grade it from A to F. This is just my personal opinion, so don’t take it with any amount of seriousness. Most of this will just be me complaining.

It’s worth mentioning that the criteria specifically state that the winners should be chosen “without regard to album sales or chart position”. But if chart position and album sales were not a factor, you wouldn’t have #1 hits taking up half of the nominees. Clearly, they care about the success of your music. Because of this, I will also take success and cultural impact into account, but it won’t hold the same weight as artistic quality. Anyways, enough blabbering, let’s get into the winners.

Song of the Year:

Nominees: “A&W” by Lana Del Rey, “Anti-Hero” by Taylor Swift, “Butterfly” by Jon Batiste, “Dance the Night” by Dua Lipa, “Flowers” by Miley Cyrus, “Kill Bill” by SZA, “Vampire” by Olivia Rodrigo, & “What Was I Made For?” by Billie Eilish

Winner: “What Was I Made For?”

Grade: C

My Pick: “A&W”

For SOTY, the voters generally prefer to go more left field with their picks (last year’s winner notably never even reached the Hot 100!) However, I was fully expecting “Anti-Hero” to take this one. Song of the Year is one of Taylor’s few loose ends, being that she has never won the award despite songwriting being one of her best assets. Winning this award, after seven nominations, would have been the perfect end to her already historic career. But of course, the Grammys are gonna Grammy, and they instead gave it to “What Was I Made For”. 

In hindsight, WWIMF winning should have been more obvious. If you were alive and conscious at any point in 2023, you were aware of the Barbiemania. If someone tells you the monoculture is dead, just point to the Barbie movie. You could not go outside on Halloween for even 10 seconds before immediately seeing a Barbie-related costume. It was everywhere. The producers knew a movie like Barbie needed a banger soundtrack to go along with it, and they enlisted every current hitmaker they knew: Lizzo, Dua Lipa, Nicki Minaj, Ice Spice, you get the gist. The album is filled to the brim with fun pop hits, the perfect music to soundtrack the hot pink world of Barbie

But WWIMF is nothing like the danceable bops of the rest of the soundtrack. It’s a melancholy ballad about struggling to find your identity, featuring Billie Eilish’s signature hushed and ethereal vocals. I won’t spoil the movie in case you haven’t seen it, but the song and its accompanying scenes serve as the emotional centerpiece of Barbie, transforming the movie from a fun comedy movie to something much more complex and multifaceted. It’s the perfect type of song to sweep awards, and they knew it. That’s why they enlisted Billie, an awards season juggernaut. At just 22 years old, she has already won 9 Grammys, 6 of those being general field wins. She also has an Oscar and is most likely going to win her second Oscar soon, just in case you need to feel even worse about your own achievements. Billie is a clear Grammys favorite, and combined with the blockbuster success of Barbie, it was a perfect storm.

I’m not that mad at this win. It is undeniably a beautiful song and is probably my second favorite on the soundtrack (my favorite is “Angel” by PinkPantheress, everybody please stream, please). Personally, what I find most impressive about this song are Billie’s standout vocal performance and the overall production, so I would have preferred it to win Record of the Year if anything.

However, this award honors songwriting, and when it comes to songwriting, there’s one song that blows everything else out of the water. No matter your opinion of Lana Del Rey, you have to admit that she is easily one of, if not the best songwriters around. Her ability to create stories with her lyrics is nearly unmatched, and “A&W” is the perfect example of that. “A&W” is a crowning achievement in her discography. It’s a beautiful meditation on love, sexuality, and fame, and is easily my favorite single of the year. It was an absolute no-brainer pick for me. I would have also loved to see it go to “Kill Bill” or “Vampire”, both of which I also loved. However, “What Was I Made For” is still a very good song, so I’m not too mad.

Record of the Year:

Nominees: “Anti-Hero” by Taylor Swift, “Flowers” by Miley Cyrus, “Kill Bill” by SZA, “Not Strong Enough” by Boygenius, “On My Mama” by Victoria Monét, “Vampire” by Olivia Rodrigo, “What Was I Made For?” by Billie Eilish, & “Worship” by Jon Batiste

Winner: “Flowers”

Grade: F

My Pick: “Kill Bill”

I’m not sure what they were thinking. The website GoldDerby runs predictions for each of the Grammys’ categories, and “Flowers” led the pack for ROTY the entire time. Every single time, I was baffled. I’m not gonna sugarcoat it: I do not like “Flowers” at all. It’s not even that her singing sucks or that the songwriting is nonsensical or any of that. It’s just so bland. Nothing in the song is particularly impressive or of note. It is about as safe and inoffensive as a song can be, never traversing even a step outside the most used and abused pop formulas. Scroll through a retail store’s playlist and you’ll most likely find twenty different songs that sound exactly like it. It is a complete nothing burger of a song. 

This problem is exacerbated further when you look at the other nominees, many of which do have interesting production and vocal performances. I listened to “Flowers” and “Kill Bill” side by side, and the difference was light and day. I thought, do people really think “Flowers” is better than “Kill Bill”? In what world? Luckily, an anonymous voter allowed his ballot to be shared. He states “I honestly find it distasteful that anyone would consider such a violent song like ‘Kill Bill’ anything worthy of praise. I listened to her album a mere one time before voting and the degeneracy of songs like ‘Kill Bill’ and the others is just something I can not support”. How amazing that we can gauge someone’s political opinions from these few sentences. It’s a wonder why any voter would publicize their opinions, as all they seem to do is further illustrate how little weight the Grammys actually hold.

To me, the “Flowers” win can be categorized as a Jamie-Lee-Curtis-Oscars-win, a.k.a a career win, a.k.a “we’re sorry we haven’t given you the accolades you deserve, here have this, as a treat”. It is strange that someone with a career as successful as Miley’s hadn’t won a single Grammy up to that point. Then again, she was a Disney star, and we know that the Grammys voters love to hold people’s backgrounds against them. I’m sure there are people there who genuinely think that “Flowers” was the most deserving pick, but I fear that I will never understand them. 

Best New Artist:

Nominees: Coco Jones, Fred Again, Gracie Abrams, Ice Spice, Noah Kahan, The War and Treaty, & Victoria Monét

Winner: Victoria Monét

Grade: A

My Pick: Victoria Monét

For the number of questionable choices the Grammys make, you can usually depend on them to make a sound decision for Best New Artist. Now some people may consider the Grammys to be playing fast and loose with the definition of “new artist”, considering she’s written songs since 2010. But the criteria for BNA states that the artist “must have achieved a breakthrough into the public consciousness during the eligibility period”, and it is true that Victoria’s career as a solo artist didn’t truly break into the mainstream until recently. For someone who has worked so tirelessly as a songwriter for other artists, she is more than deserving of the three Grammys she won, and in all honesty, those Grammys were long overdue.

Her win becomes even more satisfying when you think about her treatment by MTV. She wanted to perform at the 2023 Video Music Awards (VMAs) but was ultimately rejected due to it being “too early in her story”, which is both untrue and blatantly disrespectful considering how long her career has actually been. Not only is she a fantastic songwriter, but she is also a fantastic performer, and could have easily put on a better show than many of the other performers there. The VMAs will probably scramble to get her on next year’s show, considering her single “On My Mama” is only continuing to rise, and I sincerely hope she makes them eat their words.

We also should address the artist who many people believe was snubbed: Ice Spice. No one can deny that she had a killer 2023, going from being known for a single viral TikTok song to making songs with heavy hitters like Taylor Swift (she was also part of Boy’s A Liar Pt. 2, which is an immaculate single). But I don’t find her actual artistry as good as Victoria’s, and I do wonder if she will have enough longevity to maintain her career at the level she is at right now. The REAL snub is PinkPantheress, who would have been my pick for the win had she not been snubbed from the nominations entirely. She just has such a unique perspective and vision, and I feel that she is a great representation of the aesthetics and tastes of Gen Z. However, out of the actual nominees, Victoria Monét is the best pick, and I am very glad they made the right decision. 

Album of the Year:

Nominees: Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd by Lana Del Rey, Endless Summer Vacation by Miley Cyrus, Guts by Olivia Rodrigo, Midnights by Taylor Swift, SOS by SZA, The Age of Pleasure by Janelle Monáe, The Record by Boygenius, & World Music Radio by Jon Batiste

Winner: Midnights

Grade: D

My Pick: SOS 

The writing was on the wall. I remember following the ceremony, and in the moments leading up to the announcement, I thought, just give it to Midnights already. Nobody can deny Taylor Swift’s domination in 2023. Midnights debuted with mind-boggling numbers, selling nearly 2 million units and hogging all top ten spots of the Billboard Hot 100 in its first week, with “Anti-Hero” reigning supreme for an additional seven weeks. She sent an additional two albums to #1 with the Taylor’s Versions of Speak Now and previous AOTY winner 1989. Her sleeper hit “Cruel Summer” saw a complete resurgence, being sent all the way to the summit of the Hot 100 four years after release. Even today, it is still sitting comfortably in the top ten. Her blockbuster “Eras Tour” completely shattered every single tour-related record to ever exist. In just a single year, she transformed from an A-list superstar to an inescapable juggernaut, perhaps the closest someone will ever get to Michael Jackson’s fame in his prime. Taylor Swift’s 2023 might be the greatest year for a musician of all time, and the Grammy voters were well aware of it. Explaining his rationale, the previous anonymous voter said “Although I did not enjoy [Midnights] compared to Taylor’s previous work, she has been the inescapable face of music so how can I deny her music’s biggest award?”

And therein lies the problem. The Grammy voters seemed to have thought this award was for “Year of the Year” or “Artist of the Year” (in which case I would be perfectly fine with awarding it to Taylor). But AOTY is a music award, and when I look at the nominees music-wise, I just can not justify Midnights winning this award. Even comparing it to Taylor’s previous wins, Midnights pales in comparison. The production is passable, the songwriting is average for Taylor, and I wouldn’t really consider any song on it a standout in her overall discography. It is certainly the most agreeable and easy-listening album, which explains its success, but nothing about it is particularly groundbreaking or exciting.

Now you might be thinking But why are you comparing it to her previous wins? Shouldn’t you compare it to the other nominees? Unfortunately, comparing it to the other nominees just makes the Midnights win make even less sense. The nomination slate for this year was unusually strong, with three albums on this list that I unequivocally LOVE. SOS by SZA came with enormous expectations, being released five years after her excellent debut Ctrl, and it not only managed to meet those expectations but completely exceed them. It became likely the most acclaimed album of 2023, spent ten weeks at the top of the Billboard 200 (the most of any female artist this decade), and spawned two mega hits with “Kill Bill” and “Snooze” (every single person I know had “Kill Bill” in their top 100 songs of 2023 on Spotify). By all metrics, it was the most deserving of the nominees, yet was completely shut out of the general field awards. 

There’s also …Ocean Blvd by Lana Del Rey, the artist the Grammys love to ignore. I knew it had little chance of taking AOTY, but I was surprised when it didn’t win a single award. Quality-wise, it’s my favorite of the bunch. It’s interesting that an artist as influential as Lana Del Rey has not won a single Grammy, even though many artists directly influenced by her have won Grammys themselves. According to our old friend, the anonymous voter, he states “I haven’t taken Lana Del Rey seriously as an artist since the infamous SNL performance and never will.” That’s right, one bad performance from 10 years ago disqualifies you from winning an award for the rest of your life, no matter how good your work is. In case you still need to be convinced that these awards mean nothing.

Obviously, these are only the opinions of one voter who reportedly is male, middle-aged, and leans rock & country. But looking at the overall quality and reception of these albums, it seems clearer and clearer that many members of the Recording Academy simply voted for Midnights because of its immense success. Even many Swifties online admitted to that. And that’s not what the award is about, at all. Hell, the award states it honors albums “without regards to album sales, chart position, or critical reception”. Sure, if you ignore critical reception, you can give it to Midnights, considering not a single music publication site ranked it as their top album of the year, but if you also decide to remove album sales and charts from the equation, then Midnights is out of luck. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that the voters do not seem to understand the criteria of their own awards, and it’s ruining the integrity of the awards. But hey, that’s just my opinion.

Matthew Wang (he/him) is a 1st year student who is definitely too obsessed with pop culture. You can find him fencing in Memorial Gym, studying in Clark Hall, or solving crossword puzzles wherever.

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