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Grammys 2017: Why Adele beat Beyoncé for Album of the Year

You can probably blame the most boring reason ever: vote-splitting.

The 59th GRAMMY Awards - Backstage
Adele holds onto just two of her many Grammys.
Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The Grammys televised just nine awards this year. Those nine included the big four prizes — Best New Artist, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Album of the Year — which are the only four awards that every branch (rock, country, rap, etc.) of the Recording Academy is eligible for. (Record, Song, and Album are the only three prizes every musician in the Academy is eligible for.)

And the other handful of awards (out of 75 others handed out) the Grammys choose to broadcast each year speak volumes about what the Academy fears can happen in those top categories. In 2016, the Academy pushed Cast Album Recording into the main program, in hopes of getting a little Hamilton buzz going. And in 2017, it promoted categories like Rock Song and Country Solo Performance to the main show, because rock artists weren’t represented in the top four categories, and because country artists were unlikely to win those top prizes.

But the promotion of the otherwise little known “Urban Contemporary Album” category to the main show for the 2017 awards suggests the Academy was afraid of a very real possibility: Beyoncé, the biggest star in the music industry, might lose every one of the three top awards she was nominated for, and not get the chance to give a televised speech. She was considered a lock for the Urban Contemporary prize, and that meant she got to speak on TV, where she delivered a very nice speech about the importance of diverse voices having representation in media.

Music journalist Chris Molanphy suggested this very idea early in the show, and it hung over the proceedings:

Indeed, as Beyoncé’s album Lemonade and song “Formation” lost Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year to Adele’s album 25 and song “Hello,” Adele seemed a little embarrassed to keep winning.

The Grammys tend to honor albums that have sold well and earned critical respect, which applies to both Lemonade and 25. To be sure, 25 has dwarfed Lemonade’s sales, crossing the 20 million mark worldwide since its release in late 2015. However, it’s not as if Lemonade has been a slouch on the charts. It was the third best-selling album of 2016 in the US. The second best-selling? You guessed it — 25. (It’s also a bit unfair to compare Adele’s worldwide sales to Beyoncé’s US sales, but Adele has outsold Beyoncé in the US as well — albeit by not nearly as wide a margin.)

And when it comes to critical acclaim, Lemonade was a year-end list mainstay and notched a Metacritic score of 92. While 25 notched a respectable performance in both measures, with a 75 on Metacritic, it didn’t measure up to Lemonade at all.

So the traditional criteria are more or less a split, with one side favoring 25 and one side favoring Lemonade. Considering that the Grammys are often reticent to reward artists with the top prizes multiple times, and considering that Adele won the top three awards in 2012 for her previous album (21), Lemonade seemed like a somewhat safe bet. So what happened?

Beyoncé’s natural voting base ended up split with a couple of other albums

The easiest way to predict the top prizes at the Grammys is to look at them not in terms of artists or even quality but in terms of genre. Strip away everything but the genre, and you’ll often notice that the top categories usually have multiple nominees from the worlds of pop or hip-hop (and sometimes multiple nominees from both), with only one or two nominees from other, older-skewing genres.

This is very much true for the 2017 lineup, where Lemonade, which appeals to both pop and hip-hop voters, competed against Justin Bieber’s Purpose (pop) and Drake’s Views (hip-hop). Meanwhile, the country nominee, Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth and Adele’s more adult-contemporary skewing 25 were the only representatives of their respective fields.

Simpson isn’t as well known as the other four nominees, which likely made it harder for him to secure votes from, say, random rock voters who didn’t have an obvious horse to back. If those random voters tied to genres not represented in Album of the Year didn’t want to vote pop or hip-hop, that left only Adele, who won.

The problem with this vote splitting — which has only become more starkly obvious in recent years — is that it tends to reward older or at least whiter artists at the expense of young, often black artists who have more pop cultural cachet at this moment in time.

The power structures of the music industry, like the power structures of every industry in America, are full of aging white baby boomers, who might be outnumbered in aggregate by younger, more diverse people, but who also tend to vote as a bloc and promote the sorts of things that appeal to their ears.

That might explain why a black artist hasn’t won Album of the Year since 2008 — and even then, the win went to jazz musician Herbie Hancock for an album of Joni Mitchell covers. (If you were to guess that Hancock was the only jazz performer nominated for Album of the Year that year, you would be right!)

What’s more, just 10 black artists have won Album of the Year since it was first handed out in 1959, with only Stevie Wonder winning it more than once. (Wonder won three times in four years in the 1970s.)

Some of those prizes have gone to artists like Michael Jackson, Outkast, and Lauryn Hill, who were at the cutting edge of music when they won. But Album of the Year has also gone to artists like Natalie Cole and Lionel Richie, who are both good at what they do but appeal to the Academy’s traditionalist streak.

And notably, Ray Charles didn’t win until after he died, for a rather weak album of duets with other famous people, not for his groundbreaking work in the 1950s and ’60s.

What will continue to frustrate the Recording Academy is that there’s no easy way to fix this problem of vote-splitting in categories that are open to multiple genres, especially as more and more of the best albums of the year face biases both subtle (genre bias) and more overt (racial bias).

25 is a fine album, especially for spending a rainy fall evening sipping wine by a roaring fire. But Lemonade sounds like the world we live in, the world of 2016 and 2017. Beyoncé will almost certainly win album of the year someday — but she might have to be about 30 years older and release an album of pop standard covers to make it happen.

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