It’s Not Just About Beck and Beyoncé: Grammy Album of the Year Is a Flawed Award

By now you may have heard Kanye West’s thoughts regarding last night’s Album of the Year Grammy win for Beck, that Beyoncé was robbed again at the hands of a white music industry that’s “disrespectful to inspiration,” that “smack[s] people in their face after they deliver monumental feats of music.” These are salacious sound bites indeed, and they’re only enhanced by Kim Kardashian’s, “Uh oh, don’t let this be another ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people’ moment” face. And really, Kanye isn’t wrongnot even Beck thinks so.

It’s worth remembering, however, that Album of the Year is a deeply flawed award in ways that extend beyond the Grammys’ race and gender-related biases. As rock ‘n’ roll has progressed from a crude genre begrudgingly awarded Grammys to one whose big wins are considered conservative, the past two decades have been rife with Album of the Year Grammys awarded to career artists on the comeback. As industry gatekeepers age and phase out and new ones come in, the Academy’s perception of which artists are worthy of career recognition likely changes too. I doubt NARAS would cop to this kind of generational shift, but it’s unstoppable — in fact, it’s the exact force that keeps culture moving forward.

In 1993, Eric Clapton got his due from baby boomer voters with an AOTY win for his Unplugged album. Dylan followed in 1998 with a win for his comeback album, Time Out of Mind. Then there was Santana in 2000, honored for his comeback, Supernatural, which satisfied the Grammy crowd even more by being rife with then-current stars. Steely Dan’s first album in 20 years, Two Against Nature, beat out a formidable crop of Grammy favorites (Paul Simon, Eminem, Beck, Radiohead) in 2001. And it goes on from there: Herbie Hancock and friends in 2008, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Alison Krauss in 2009, and now, in his own way, Beck.

The competitors who were up against Beck and Beyoncé likely affected how the votes played out in Beck’s favor. Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Pharrell, and Beyoncé all fall under the broad category of pop; at the very least, all of them had hits on Top 40 radio last year. Some of these albums sway more towards R&B and hip-hop than others, but Beck — even with his tamest album to date — was the only clear choice for rockist voters. And does it really surprise you? The Grammys have grown increasingly pop-oriented even as they’ve carved out permanent shrines for Paul McCartney and Dave Grohl.

Beck has a history with the Grammys that begins with his first big hit, “Loser,” and its nomination two years after its 1993 release. Two years and two albums after that, Beck was scoring Album of the Year nominations. Odelay didn’t take home the big enchilada, but the star who slipped weirdness by the mainstream via the post-grunge alternative-rock boom was officially Grammy approved, not to mention a Gen-X icon. Every album he’s released in the last two decades has picked up at least one Grammy nomination; Midnight Vultures even saw an AOTY nomination in 2001. Last night, Beck won because of timing, a Grammy-approved career, and splintered votes among pop listeners — not because he, like Beyoncé, made his most innovative album to date.