Beck, the innovative, 44-year-old rock musician, beat out beloved pop stars Beyoncé and Sam Smith for the Grammys' Album of the Year for Morning Phase on Sunday, February 9. Outcry began immediately with Kanye West following Beck up on to the stage to express his disapproval. Beyoncé fans cried out on social media that Beyoncé was a far better album.
BEYONCE HAS BEEN SNUBBED MANY TIMES BUT THIS ONE IS THE WORST
— Queen Bey (@queenbey27) February 9, 2015
Beyoncé not winning Album Of The Year was some fucking BULL. SHIT. FOR. REAL.
— Sam (@OfficialSam____) February 9, 2015
And though Beck is something of a critical darling, in this case, critics agreed. Beyoncé's Metacritic score is slightly higher than Morning Phase's score. If critical reception and popular opinion lies with Beyoncé, then how on Earth did Beck win?
But Beck's win shouldn't have been as much of a surprise as it was. The Grammy nomination and voting process is completely insane—and this year, that clearly favored Beck.
Why did Beck win Album of the Year?
The first thing to know here is Recording Academy voters choose who wins Album of the Year. And unlike some of the other categories, every single member casts a vote for Album of the Year. That includes artists in different genres, producers, engineering mixers, and other industry professionals.
Beck won because of how the other nominees split the vote:
Folks, when calling AotY, *always look if "rock" album has that lane to itself*. Beck win=vote-splitting in other genres. #GRAMMYs
— Chris Molanphy (@cmolanphy) February 9, 2015
As journalist Chris Molanphy mentioned in this tweet, Beck had a clear runway to Album of the Year because his voting base wasn't divided. Voters who were going to vote for Beyoncé could have swung to Sam Smith or Pharrell, or even Ed Sheeran's camp. All of those nominees had voter bases that overlapped substantially.
We've seen this time and time again, historically. Whenever a single rock band is nominated for Album of the Year, that band takes home the trophy, more often than not.
In 2011, Arcade Fire won Album of the Year over Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Eminem, and Lady Antebellum. In 2000, Santana beat the Backstreet Boys, TLC, the Dixie Chicks, and Diana Krall. From 1986–1988, a string of rock performances (U2, Phil Collins, Paul Simon) beat out pop stars like Whitney Houston, Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, Prince, and Sting.
Beck's win isn't surprising, even if it was disappointing for some.
Why do so many people think Beyoncé should have won?
Beyoncé, the artist's fifth studio album, dropped in the middle of the night in December of 2013, complete with 17 music videos. The album sent shock waves through American music, not only because it was such a surprise, but because it was so good.
Beyoncé revealed every side of the pop star that she had hinted at on previous albums. Here, she was angrier, happier, sexier, and stronger than ever before.
From the opening song, "Pretty Hurts," Beyoncé set the tone: this was an album as complex emotionally as it was sonically. Instead of following the formula for pop music greatness, Beyoncé completely rejected it. The album sounded, at turns, like an R&B, adult contemporary, and pure pop album, sometimes within a single song.
Beyoncé's fans (the Beyhive), are beyond devout — they're fanatic. So on some level, the outrage is an emotional response to a feeling of loss among her fans. But on another level, Beyoncé created an incredible, masterful album that proved a cultural sensation, and here she was losing to an old rock-and-roll boy whose album didn't reach that level of prominence.
It helps to compare the albums. Let's look at Beck's:
Is Beck's Morning Phase that good of an album?
Morning Phase is a fine album, but it's also complacent. Early in his career, Beck lived in a murky cross-genre land that interested listeners because it made them uncomfortable. He added modern synths to classic blues sounds. He made references to his R&B heroes from Serge Gainsbourg to Gordon Lightfoot. He was bold, and he probably should have won Album of the Year years ago, perhaps in 2001 for his truly incredible Midnite Vultures.
His competition that year was Radiohead's Kid A, Eminiem's The Marshall Mathers LP, and You're the One by Paul Simon. All of those albums lost to jazz rock band Steely Dan because their votes were divided.
On Morning Phase, Beck is calmer than he's ever been. There is none of the grit of 1996's Odelay and none of the straightforward emotion of 2002's Sea Change or 2005's Guero.
Instead, Morning Phase oscillates between sleepiness and an emotionless void of sound. Even on songs like "Say Goodbye," where Beck is supposed to invoke the emotional hardships of a breakup, it feels like he's shrugging his pain off.
Morning Phase is by no means the best Beck album, but it sounds truly incredible. The singer's voice is stronger on it than it has ever been and it shines, particularly on the second song, "Morning."
The album's production quality is also strong. These songs, though emotionless and sometimes plodding, are expertly mixed and don't cause a listener to stumble at all. Part of that smooth surface is why Beck's emotions get buried, but it's the kind of production Recording Academy members hold in high regard.
Wait. How did Beck get nominated for Album of the Year?
Now is a good time to don your skeptic hat and remember that the Grammys are formally, openly rigged. The nominees for Album of the Year, though voted on by Recording Academy members, are ultimately chosen by a secret committee that the Recording Academy formed in the 1990s to review voters' choices.
To the Grammys' credit, this committee has a point. Before the committee was established in 1995, there were several very strange (if not horrible) choices for Album of the Year. Take 1985s pick of Lionel Richie's Can't Slow Down Album of the Year over Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA and Prince's Purple Rain. Richie was far from the best choice that year, and his win helped create the public perception that the Grammys were cut off from what "good music" meant.
This, however, wasn't the inciting incident for the creation of the committee. What pushed the Recording Academy over the edge was Tony Bennett's MTV Unplugged Album of the Year win in 1995 over Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, and Zubin Mehta.
This secret committee reviews the top four awards (Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist), as well as some of the larger genre categories, and makes any changes it sees fit.
Beck won the popular vote fair and square because he had no genre competition. But whether he was nominated fairly (whether any artist was nominated fairly) is something to be skeptical about.
If you're looking for someone to blame for the Album of the Year Grammy, don't pick Beck, a masterful musician who has produced nine good albums in the past two decades and genuinely deserved to win this award at some point (just maybe not right now). Blame the anonymous committee that decides who gets to be a nominee for Album of the Year to begin with.