Who Stood to Gain From the Grammys’ Sudden Expansion of Its Big Award Categories?

Kanye West Taylor Swift
Jordan Strauss-Invision-AP /Kanye 2020

The day before the 2022 Grammy Awards nominees were announced, representatives from the Recording Academy, which oversees the awards, began informing members of the media that the four top awards — the “Big Four” of Best Album, Song, Record and New Artist — would be expanded to ten from the previous eight. While the timing of the move was unusual, it was positioned by CEO Harvey Mason jr. as a long-discussed topic that, once they saw the large number of great nominees, presented “an incredible opportunity for us to honor more artists and shine a light on more great music, and potentially offer a greater opportunity for more genres of music to be honored,” he told Variety on Monday.

But late Wednesday, one day after the nominees were officially announced, the New York Times listed the artists and recordings that had been added to the big categories at the last minute, based on an earlier, preliminary nominees list that it had obtained (the Academy has not disputed the accuracy of that list). Mason said that the added nominees were simply the ones who’d received the ninth and tenth-most votes. Those artists include Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Lil Nas X, Doja Cat, ABBA, Brandi Carlile, and the two Best New Artist adds, Baby Keem and Arooj Aftab.

Looking at the list of last-minute nominees, it seems plausible at least that those artists received the ninth and tenth-most votes. But the Grammys long have been accused of insider dealing, including by Deborah Dugan, Mason’s predecessor as CEO, who was controversially ousted just before the 2020 awards and filed a blockbuster, allegation-filled legal complaint against the organization; the two parties settled earlier this year.

It also should be noted that the Grammys changed their nominee-voting system this year, which had previously been curated by “secret” nomination-review committees consisting of unidentified industry experts that made last-minute tweaks; those committees were eliminated in April, in the wake of the Weeknd’s stunning exclusion from all nominations last year, despite having one of the most successful albums and singles of 2020. In all but a few speciality categories, the Academy says the votes come directly from the Academy’s voting membership, which is between 11,000 and 12,000 voters, and are tabulated by the top auditing firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited. See the full list of official nominees here.

Most notably, Swift, and the Academy, had much to gain by her addition: It’s her only 2022 Grammy nomination, she won Best Album last year with “Folklore,” the predecessor to this year’s nominee, “Evermore,” and has three total Best Album wins amid her 11 career trophies. But more to the point, considering the media and fan firestorm around the Weeknd’s exclusion last year, and the massive social-media power of Swift’s following, the prospect of her being completely excluded from the 2022 Grammys was daunting for any number of reasons.

Yet that take is countered by the other late-addition best album nominee, Kanye West, whose countless controversial statements in recent years have cast a pall over his creative work for many. He is certainly no friend to the Academy, as he recently posted a video of himself urinating on a Grammy award (presumably one of his 22 trophies) and caused drama for it with this nomination, which includes a songwriting credit for Marilyn Manson, whom West has embraced amid multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against the shock-rock singer. He has three other 2022 nominations, all in the rap category. Both Swift and West are extremely powerful players in the music industry and both are affiliated with Universal Music Group, the world’s largest music company.

It is more challenging to find controversy in the other categories receiving adds. Record of the Year saw the addition of ABBA’s first single in nearly 40 years, “I Still Have Faith in You.” While the group is one of the top-selling acts of all time, they have never received a Grammy and frankly it does not appear to be a glaring item on whatever career bucket list they might still have. And while the add for Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” is a nice boost, he already had four nominations, including one for album of the year. (ABBA is affiliated with Universal, Nas with Sony Music.)

Song of the Year brings forth a similar take. Doja Cat already had seven nominations, including Album and Record of the Year, and recent Grammy darling Brandi Carlile already had four, including Record of the Year. (They are affiliated with Sony and Warner Music, respectively.)

Finally, looking at the always-controversial Best New Artist category, rapper Baby Keem already had two nods, Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance, for his collaboration with multiple Grammy winner Kendrick Lamar. And while Arooj Aftab is the least familiar in the category to most fans, the jazz-leaning Pakistani singer-songwriter-producer moved to the U.S. in 2005, is a Berklee School of Music graduate and her song “Mohabbat” was listed by former President Barack Obama on his summer 2021 playlist. Her third and most recent album, “Vulture Prince,” was released on the indie New Amsterdam Records earlier this year; Keem is affiliated with Sony Music.

Additionally, singer-songwriter Linda Chorney has noted that she was erroneously credited with a nomination in a Roots category by some publications that were apparently citing an early version of the nominees list, although it was unclear at the time of this article’s publication whether that was the same list that the New York Times has cited. While those publications corrected their lists, Google never forgets.

Advance lists of the nominees, which are traditionally serviced to the media 24 hours before the announcement, arrived much later than usual on Monday. Sources tell Variety that the expansion of the top lists was the cause of the delay.

Asked directly about the timing of the rule change, Mason told Variety on Monday, “It’s something that we’ve talked about for quite some time but it ended up happening fairly recently,” he said. “We looked at the voting and the amount of submissions [for the 2022 Grammys] and saw it as a great opportunity.” He also flatly denied that ratings for the Grammy Awards telecast were a factor in the decision.

On Thursday, he added in a statement on Thursday: “Realizing that today is a time to celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends, we reluctantly felt compelled to respond to the suggestive and sometimes erroneous reports we have seen in the media regarding the Academy’s decision to expand our general fields from eight to 10 nominees,” it reads in part. “The love and passion for what our community has produced has also led to one of the most robust nominating processes in the history of our Academy. I applaud our Board of Trustees, for having the agility and foresight to approve this expansion as a way to honor more music, more artists and more genres. And yes, they did it quickly and decisively, and they did it without knowing who the additional nominees would be.

“For those who would suggest any counter-narratives to stir drama and drive clicks, I would ask that you please take a fresh look at the new Recording Academy. Happy Thanksgiving to all of this year’s nominees and music fans everywhere.”

Whether or not his big-hearted explanation is fully accurate remains to be seen, and although Mason and the Academy have made big moves to clean up their act since he took office early in 2020 — at least outwardly — the string of major controversies that have marred each year make it more difficult to take such statements at face value.

Additional reporting by Chris Willman.