Beyoncé, the all-time leading Grammy winner, should never attend another Grammy Awards
What does it mean that the winningest artist in Grammy Awards history is not a Grammys artist?
At Sunday night’s 65th Grammy Awards, Beyoncé took four prizes to break the record previously held by the late classical conductor Georg Solti and bring her total career win count to 32.
“I’m trying not to be too emotional,” she said as she accepted the fourth award, for dance/electronic music album, for her joyful and audacious techno-disco-funk fantasia, “Renaissance.” “I’m trying to just receive this night.”
Trying, but not succeeding: Eyes closed, her voice trembling ever so slightly, the singer appeared genuinely moved by her accomplishment as she thanked some of those who’d helped her, including God and her parents as well as her Uncle Jonny, whom she’s said introduced her to the art that inspired “Renaissance,” and “the queer community, for your love and for inventing this genre.”
A classy speech, to be sure, and one in which Beyoncé was right to take some pride: As understood all too well by the marginalized pioneers she shouts out on “Renaissance,” shaping culture can be lonely work, and here she was being celebrated by her peers for her innovative vision.
At least until she wasn’t.
About an hour and a half after that record-breaking win, Beyoncé lost the award for album of the year to “Harry’s House” by Harry Styles. It was her fourth defeat for the Grammys’ equivalent of best picture and the 15th time she’d lost in one of the ceremony’s top categories of album, record and song of the year. In fact, of the 32 Grammys that Beyoncé has collected over the last two decades, only one — one! — has been a major prize: song of the year, which she won in 2010 as a writer of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” All the rest have come in genre categories like R&B song and urban contemporary album.
I don’t mean to suggest that those genre awards don’t matter. (More on why they do in a moment.) But the story the Grammys tells about popular music — tells us today and tells future generations examining the historical record — takes place in the major categories; that’s where the Recording Academy’s taste and value system come into focus.
And that taste, unlike Beyoncé’s music, is fundamentally conservative.
Not conservative in a political sense, of course: As an institution, the Grammys is as progressive — and eager to be seen as progressive — as any university or showbiz organization, which is why this year’s telecast opened with performances by Bad Bunny, the Puerto Rican superstar who sings and raps mostly in Spanish, and the folk-rock singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, who was introduced by her wife and their two (very cute) kids.
Yet Carlile’s rootsy, hand-played music — which has earned her nine Grammys, including three on Sunday — upholds all kinds of old-fashioned ideals about tradition, craftsmanship and authenticity; ditto Lizzo, who won record of the year for the throwback-soul jam “About Damn Time”; Adele, who took the prize for pop solo performance with “Easy on Me”; and Bonnie Raitt, who at 73 seemed as surprised to win song of the year for “Just Like That” as she was to win album of the year for “Nick of Time” back in 1990.
Nobody’s disputing these artists’ huge talent or their positive impact, just as nobody disputed the charms last year of Silk Sonic's "Leave the Door Open" (which won record and song of the year) or Jon Batiste's "We Are" (which was named album of the year). But the reason each has established a prominent place in the Grammys ecosystem alongside H.E.R. and Bruno Mars and Alicia Keys and John Legend — and Samara Joy, the 23-year-old jazz singer just named best new artist — is because their music is rooted in familiar forms and comforts.
One irony of Beyoncé’s loss in album of the year is that “Renaissance” might be the most historically minded project of all those nominated; as much as it’s a club record, it’s a work of scholarship about the shifting contours of Black and queer identity. But with its intricate weave of samples and interpolations, it’s also structurally daring in a way that obviously triggered the academy’s suspicions about “real music” — suspicions foreshadowed in the Grammys’ pretelevised ceremony when Beyoncé’s longtime collaborator The-Dream lost the songwriter of the year award to Tobias Jesso Jr., a more conventional tunesmith known for his work with Adele and Harry Styles.
It’s worth making a point here about methodology. All 11,000 or so of the academy’s voting members are allowed to vote in the Grammys’ four general categories of album, record and song of the year and best new artist. But “to ensure music creators are voting in the categories in which they are most knowledgeable and qualified,” as the academy rules put it, members can vote on only 10 of the dozens of more specific awards (such as R&B performance), and all 10 of those must be within no more than three genres.
This explains the cognitive dissonance stemming from the fact that Beyoncé is both the most-awarded artist in Grammys history and a trendsetter who keeps getting robbed. Specialists recognize her ingenuity and reward her for it where their votes are determinative; the electorate as a whole, though, either doesn’t care or doesn’t understand and so consistently rejects her in the top categories in favor of safer choices.
Does it sound like I’m explaining away an excruciating series of blown calls? Voters shouldn’t be allowed off the hook because of their middlebrow views. After all, Beyonce’s latest loss comes amid a larger historical context, which is that a mere three Black women — Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston and Lauryn Hill — have won album of the year in the Grammys’ 65 years. That’s a clear distortion of Black women’s importance in pop music that undermines the Grammys’ role as a record-keeping enterprise.
And it’s not just the prestige of album of the year that’s being withheld from Beyoncé; it’s also the academy’s acknowledgment of her creative agency. Because she gathers so many collaborators to help execute her plans, voters seem stubbornly unwilling to accept Beyoncé as the auteur in control of her music — a vexing if hardly novel problem running along both race and gender lines.
Less perniciously, simple politics is at play too. The academy rewards artists it knows, whether through business relationships or through a willingness to perform at its charity galas and appear on its TV shows. Carlile has done just about every one of those you can think of; Styles’ manager, who sat next to him during Sunday’s ceremony, is Jeffrey Azoff, whose father Irving is one of the most well-connected people in the music industry. Beyoncé, in contrast, doesn’t play much ball.
Nor do a growing number of intrepid Black artists — Drake, Frank Ocean and the Weeknd among them — who’ve decided the Grammys’ values don’t align with theirs. The misgivings don’t end with them either: Like Beyoncé, Adele and Taylor Swift declined to perform on this year’s show, a sign perhaps that the Beyoncé issue is turning off even those acts that have fared exceedingly well at the Grammys.
Then again, Swift’s smash “Midnights” LP came out after the ceremony’s eligibility window had closed (and she'd already played the original version of her nominated song "All Too Well" on the Grammys in 2014); she’ll likely be back to sing during next year’s show, where precedent suggests she’ll stand a much better chance of winning album of the year than another sure-thing contender: “SOS” by the idiosyncratic R&B singer SZA.
And what of Beyoncé herself, who’s said that “Renaissance” is the first volume in a planned trilogy? Certainly, her career — including a world stadium tour set to launch in May — is proceeding just fine without having won what she deserves. But if she doesn’t need the Grammys, the Grammys need her: Overnight ratings for Sunday’s telecast were up 30% from 2022, a jump attributable at least in part to the suspense surrounding Beyoncé’s opportunity to break the all-time record.
More significant, the show needs a superstar whose ambition and adventurousness make her a beacon to other artists. Lose the trailblazers and you risk losing those who come behind them.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.