When Jon Batiste’s We Are won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2022, we at The Daily Beast called it a “puzzling” choice that kept with “the Grammys’ history of having its finger removed from the pulse.” Our critic Kyndall Cunningham even wrote, “I think if you polled the music-listening population, most people would say they’ve never listened to that album, let alone know that it exists.”
Batiste took home five awards that night, but his Album of the Year win was the most controversial, as We Are bested the heavily favored Sour by Olivia Rodrigo as well as Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever. What explanation could there be for an album that had only made it to No. 86 on the Billboard 200 winning the Grammys’ biggest prize, aside from the Recording Academy being totally out of touch?
As it turns out, the jazz-soul musician’s win was entirely predictable for structural reasons—which begs the question of whether or not we’re in for another Batiste-level upset at the 2023 Grammys this Sunday.
But first, a little crash course in Grammy voting. All members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) are eligible to vote for the Grammy Awards. That includes not only people working in the pop marketplace, but those involved with jazz, blues, gospel, Americana, children’s music, comedy, and classical music. Members can vote in up to 10 categories across up to three fields on their ballot, in addition to the four General Field categories: Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist. Therein lies the rub: Pop artists clearly dominate the Grammy telecast and the media narrative every year, but not the voting body. NARAS chapters in Los Angeles and New York might be different and lean pop, but not so in the chapters farther from those industry hubs, where artists in other music fields likely outnumber the pop practitioners.
Those voters’ musical values help to explain We Are’s unexpected win.
“I want to do what the Grammys ask you to do, which is vote based on artistic merit,” says Charles Driebe, who has managed a number of Grammy winners in roots music fields. “I think musicianship is part of it. Lyrical content is part of it, and the depth of the music and the message. I’d be more interested in rewarding a career artist, someone who looks like they’re going to have a meaningful career or is in the midst of having a meaningful career.”
Another Grammy voter, guitarist David Doucet, heard artistic merit in Doja Cat’s “Woman” for Record of the Year (“I thought it was the most rhythmical,” he said) and Bad Bunny’s Un Verano Sin Ti for Album of the Year (“It was really lively. If it were on vinyl it would be coming off the vinyl.”). Doucet took the process seriously and listened to all the nominated music, but his choice for Best New Artist was easy. He liked Wet Leg, but “picked Molly Tuttle because I know she can play,” he said.
Voters who prioritize demonstrable musicality saw a genuinely accomplished piano player in Jon Batiste. Those who value musical innovation saw Batiste successfully stretch himself on We Are into music that blurred together modes of Black musical expression while sounding fresh and accessible. Voters who liked to feel like they’re voting for a “real” artist could point to his Juilliard education. His Stay Human band updated the New Orleans street parade concept, and he previously crossed genres to collaborate with Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on the soundtrack to the Pixar animated film Soul.
In short, a Venn diagram of the NARAS voting communities for Album of the Year last year overlapped on one small point occupied by Batiste. His win wasn’t entirely structural, though. It helped that the album felt socially engaged and timely, as a song like “Freedom” framed a celebration of Black America and its musical culture as a subversive act.
It also helps that, as New York Times critic Giovanni Russonello observed, “Batiste’s biggest model, as a musician and a public figure, is a very old one: Louis Armstrong, the first pop-music virtuoso of the recorded era, who was getting his start about 100 years ago. That mix of affability and seriousness, the deployment of humility, the insistence on values outside of an explicit political claim, the old-time Crescent City flair: All were aspects of Batiste’s acceptance speech and the WE ARE LP itself, and all are pieces of the Satchmo playbook.”
That brings us to the 2023 Grammys, airing live this Sunday. Does anybody have the right combination of industry respect, musical chops, and pop savvy to “pull a Batiste” and upset frontrunners Beyoncé, Adele, Lizzo, and Kendrick Lamar? The clearest interlopers are ABBA, Mary J. Blige, and Brandi Carlile—their presence in the Record of the Year and Album of the Year categories means they have significant support from the Recording Academy. For years, panels of “experts” would finalize the nominations, but the opacity that these panels created fueled criticism—most pointedly from The Weeknd—and prompted NARAS to do away with them. Now, members whittle down hundreds of eligible recordings in each category to the final five or 10 in a preliminary round of voting. That means ABBA, Blige, and Carlile have significant constituencies despite their more lackluster (at least, compared to Beyoncé) chart performances.
ABBA has a good story, as they returned after a 40-year break to record Voyage, a project bolstered by the band’s savvy decision to create hologram versions of themselves to perform the songs “live” on “tour” while the members stayed at home. Blige, meanwhile, has a fruitful history with the Grammys dating back to 2009; she’s racked up 37 nominations and nine wins in that time. She’s nominated six times this year, but it’s hard to imagine someone seen so clearly in the R&B world being able to cross voting blocs like Batiste did.
If there’s a Batiste this year, it’s Carlile. Her seventh studio album, In These Silent Days, reached No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart, and she’s become a regular presence at the show in recent years, racking up 24 nominations since 2015.
It’s also understandable if her supporters in NARAS feel some level of attachment to her success. Carlile’s thunderous performance of “The Joke” on the Grammy telecast in 2019 was her breakout moment; it helped the song top Billboard’s Rock Digital Song Sales chart and became the biggest-selling single of Carlile’s career to date. It also won two Grammys and, most importantly, let a roomful of Grammy voters and 19.9 million people at home hear the power and drama she can muster on stage. Before the song ended, Maren Morris and much of the audience gave her a standing ovation while Post Malone nodded approvingly.
Like Batiste, Carlile has never fit neatly into any musical box, but she’s a known commodity in the music business, thanks in part to her willingness to collaborate—she took home a pair of Grammys in 2020 for producing Tanya Tucker’s Bring My Flowers Now. She has collaborated live or on record with The Highwomen, Dolly Parton, Dave Matthews, Sturgill Simpson, The Indigo Girls, and countless others, which means tons of musicians and those in the industry around them know Carlile well.
Batiste benefited from a similar awareness within the industry stemming from his own collaborations and his national platform as bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, where he performed with many of the show’s musical guests. At a time when, as Driebe complained, “It’s impossible to keep up with all the new music” and Doucet didn’t know where to hear these songs in the wild, that kind of familiarity counts.
Carlile brings artistic gravitas and social engagement to the table as well, which makes her a viable alternative for pop skeptics and musical traditionalists alike. I’d still bet on Beyoncé and Renaissance, but if the pop vote splits between her, Lizzo, Adele, and Harry Styles, Carlile’s In These Silent Days could come out on top and give Grammy critics yet another reason to complain about an out-of-touch institution.
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