Ed Sheeran just proved that Grammy nomination prognostication is a completely thankless art. Virtually every story written in the lead-up to this year’s announcements posited Sheeran as going head-to-head with Kendrick Lamar in the three key all-genre categories… and possibly prevailing. So why was the “A Team” singer relegated to the junior varsity league?
Headlines told the tale: “Experts agree that Ed Sheeran (‘Shape of You’) will win Record of the Year,” said a headline at Gold Derby, where entertainment journalists pick winners for all the major awards. Variety, too, flagged Sheeran as one of the year’s obvious contenders.
Yet this is the first time in six years — going back to before he had any records out in America — that Sheeran isn’t nominated in one of the top categories. He was nominated for song of the year in 2013, 2016, and 2017, winning in ’16 for “Thinking Out Loud”; he also contended for album of the year in 2015 and record of the year in 2016, following his best new artist nod in 2014.
And now, in a year when he had the year’s biggest single, with “Shape of You” — surpassing even the ginormous “Despacito” — as well as 2017’s biggest pre-Swift album, in “÷ (Divide)” (both stats per the sales and streaming data of BuzzAngle Music), he comes up with just two noms, for pop solo performance and pop vocal album.
In a conversation with Variety about the nominations, Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow cautions against reading too much into the so-called Sheeran snub. “I think it’s the challenge of trying to create objectivity out of something that’s inherently subjective,” he says. “It’s going to come down to five in each category, so hard choices have to be made. In terms of Ed and the recordings he made, certainly our voters thought highly of him and he is nominated [in two pop categories].” As for the big kahunas, “that’s subjective, that’s our members’ call, and I have to respect that.”
A quick survey of some voting members of the Academy turned up shock even in their ranks that Sheeran didn’t make it through. Some wondered if this wasn’t a case of the Grammys’ famous blue ribbon committee subverting the will of the larger membership by voting in a more critically acclaimed artist like Childish Gambino in ahead of Sheeran’s blockbusters. The “big room” in the Grammy nominating process, where the top four categories are winnowed down, consists of 25 or more members who look at a list of the 20 top vote-getters from general members and cast their own weighted, secret votes after listening sessions and lively discussions. Clearly, those particular key members loved hip-hop this year, but apparently not as much pop (or the completely MIA country or rock).
“It’s interesting that all the white people are not going to have any white people to vote for,” laughs one voting member (who is himself white). But on a serious note, this Grammy insider figures that the committee members who wanted a classic pop performer in the mix probably just congregated around Bruno Mars instead of Sheeran. “Did you see Bruno’s show?” asked the voter. “Every member of that band was playing his ass off and the choreography was unbelievable. I don’t think it’s any wonder that Bruno’s the guy all the [non-hip-hop-leaning] people went for. If there was an entertainer of the year category for the Grammys, he would win it.”
Sheeran may also have been a victim of the “almost as good” factor, with many believing the “Divide” album was just a step below the “Multiply” collection that came out three years earlier. But that factor didn’t hurt Adele, who prevailed with “25,” the bestseller of its year, despite a nearly universal feeling that it wasn’t on a level with “21.” And it wouldn’t explain the exclusion of “Shape of You” for record of the year, which often has more to do with rewarding ubiquitous earworms than artistic peaks.
Another Recording Academy member wondered if “Shape of You” was the right song at the wrong time, with its “I’m in love with your body” lyrical hook being considered in a moment where the conversation is about women rebelling against objectification. “Shape of You” has hardly been held up as objectionable by many feminists, but still, the member asks, “Something must have resonated wrongly with the committee with Sheeran. Is it possible they see that song as a cavalier approach to women in a world that is looking to be a little less cavalier?”
Some other voters are just perplexed. Sheeran is widely seen as one of the good guys for his versatility and creativity, with many in the industry marveling at his ability to sell out arena tours as a one-man band. And in this case, at least, the love he shows for hip-hop has been echoed back by a lot of rappers and urban music pros, who would have been unlikely to complain if he showed up in their company as at least a nominee.
“Ed’s talent and work ethic are so amazing,” says a baffled admirer in the Recording Academy who has no professional connections to Sheeran. “Almost after every show he performs, he’ll most likely be writing a new song in his hotel room. With the body of work he’s released over the last five years and the sales and the overall past Grammy love, I would have bet like everyone else that this was his time to nail the top three award nominations. What is wild about the voting process is that he could have missed a tie by one vote out of however many people are in that room, and we’ll never know. The Jay-Z and Kendrick albums are awesome records, and so is Bruno’s. I would have thought Ed’s ultra-successful pop record would have been right up there in the bunch.”
But, adds this same voter, striking a happier chord, “We could also be seeing a change in nominations because of the successful new influx of Grammy membership. Which is cool.”
What’s clear is that, purposely or inadvertently, the Grammys have dodged a bullet in late January with this late November exclusion. A year ago, it was seen as a Beyoncé-versus-Adele contest, with Beyoncé prevailing. But Adele had the sweep… and so favorite Beyoncé herself, she felt compelled to apologize for winning. The result was a #GrammysSoWhite hashtag to echo the charge that’d earlier been lobbed at the Oscars. This year, some Recording Academy members feared a rerun, in which Sheeran would best Lamar in the popular vote — but Tuesday morning’s nominations render that point moot.