For years, the Grammys fielded all-too-familiar accusations over some of the more head-scratching choices. Critics charged them with being out of touch with modern music. Exhibit A, for album of the year: They often turned that contest into a de facto lifetime achievement award, recognizing releases by acts who were in the sunset of their artistic careers, like Steely Dan and Herbie Hancock, while continually passing over deserving younger stars like Beyoncé and Kanye West.
The Recording Academy attempted to address its seemingly terminal unhipness by inviting younger and more diverse members into the voting body. That led to more in-with-the-times recent album of the year coronations like Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons and, last February, Kacey Musgraves. But has the younger- and hipper-skewing Grammys come at the expense of veteran acts who are old enough to remember an era when vinyl was on the way out, not back in?
Some of the glaring 2020 snubs beg the question. Bruce Springsteen, 70, released one of the most acclaimed albums of the year, “Western Stars,” which was accompanied by a well-received documentary, yet the rock ‘n’ roll icon, who is batting 0 for 2 in Album of the Year, didn’t earn a single nomination. Neither did former Grammy darling Sheryl Crow, 57, who has won nine times but hasn’t been nominated since 2009, despite the fact that “Threads” will, by her account, be her last full-length studio album. Then there’s Madonna, 61, whose “Madame X” seems, by today’s youth-powered streaming standards, a commercial disappointment — though it outsold both Crow (23,000 album units to date) and Springsteen (60,000 on week one) with 101,000 album units out the gate and 141,000 total since its release, per BuzzAngle — but at least united otherwise polarized critics in noting how daring it was for a veteran artist. Shut out in any category this year, she will extend her streak of never winning in any of the four big categories.
Age is definitely more than a number when it comes to Grammy frontburner contests: Four of the lead performers in record of the year aren’t old enough to rent a car and three others were born after the ’80s. Across the board, the nominees are short on truly seasoned talent, unless you consider Ariana Grande, Bon Iver and Lana Del Rey, all of whom came to prominence this decade, to be vets. Lady Gaga, 33, managed three nods, including song of the year for the “A Star Is Born” track “Always Remember Us This Way,” but she couldn’t swing one for the overall soundtrack. Beyoncé, 38, got four nominations in secondary categories — none for the album version of her groundbreaking “Homecoming,” which couldn’t rise above the Academy’s aversion to live sets and current obsession with newly minted talent.
For the second straight year, every album of the year nominee is under 40. Meanwhile, Billy Ray Cyrus, 57, a guest artist on Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” is the only over-40 up for record of the year, and Tanya Tucker, 61, is the only singer of a song of the year nominee who was already a star when Billie Eilish was born. These days, it’s hard to imagine fairly recent veteran album of the year winners like Robert Plant, Herbie Hancock, Ray Charles or, yes, two-time champs U2 even scoring nominations.
Alas, all is not lost for the over-40 recording crowd. Tucker, previously a 10-time nominee, could win her first Grammy, thanks to the four nominations netted by her 2019 comeback album “While I’m Livin’.” One might get the impression that her 2020 Grammy love might have a lot to do with her hip Grammy-bait producer Brandi Carlile, but country voters generally are still fairly kind to vets. Three of them — Willie Nelson, 86, Blake Shelton, 43, and Tucker — are competing for best country performance, while Tucker and Reba McEntire, 64, are both up for best country album.
And even if you’re not a little bit country, if you’re past retirement age, you can still score Grammy affection in the minor categories. At 87 (70 years older than Billie Eilish!), the legendary conductor and composer John Williams has earned his 68th and 69th nominations, best instrumental composition for “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge Symphonic Suite” and best arrangement, instrumental or a capella, for “Hedwig’s Theme.”
Despite his extra-vintage status, he has a pretty good shot at winning for the 24th and 25th times. He probably can thank Eilish, Lizzo and Lil Nas X for staying out of his lane on the old-timer road.