The Grammys are one of music’s biggest conversation starters, about who is nominated, who isn’t, what the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) got right but more often what they got wrong. So it’s not surprising that the 2021 nominations earlier this week were the subject of many online debates, including those about whether the Grammys mattered in the discussion of the year’s best music.
One of those conversations hinged around the nominees for Best New Artist, the only Grammy that is awarded specifically to a musical act and not a song or album. This year’s nominees included a mix of expected names like quick-rising pop star Olivia Rodrigo and British multi-genre singer-songwriter-poet Arlo Parks, and there were also some pleasant surprises like Pakistani jazz singer Arooj Aftab.
The most talked about point with those nominees was the presence of some very familiar names to anyone who’d paid attention to popular music over the last couple years. Indie rock project Japanese Breakfast, British psych-pop band Glass Animals, and Billie Eilish’s brother and collaborator Finneas. All three of these artists had been around and been successful since before this nominating year, so what gives with them being nominated as if they were “new?”
There is actually precedent for already established acts to be nominated for Best New Artist over the decades. The qualifications for the award have changed many times over the years, to allow or disallow certain types of artists: Do solo acts or supergroups who broke out of established bands count as “new”? How about an artist who had been underground or under-appreciated for years that finally had a breakthrough? Those questions have been answered, and then answered again, by the Grammys over its six decades in existence. But those answers are a little vague, and they’ll need a bit of a history lesson.
To understand how, say, Glass Animals got into the running this year, you have to go back to the start of the award. You don’t necessarily need to care about the Grammys as an actual award for merit, but the history of who is eligible and why is an interesting dive into music history, even if the actual answers are a little on the foggy side.
From Bobby Darin to Crosby, Stills & Nash
The Grammy Award for Best New Artist was first awarded in the second Grammys ceremony. 1959 saw the first two Grammy ceremonies presented in the same year – the first and only time that would happen. Over the course of 1958 and 1959, Darin had gone from the rock ‘n’ roll singer behind novelty hit “Splish Splash” into the crooner of standards like “Mack the Knife” and “Beyond the Sea” that he is best remembered for today.
While Darin had burst onto the scene in 1958, there was no BNA that first ceremony and he’d crossed over to a much wider audience during 1959, so the win is understandable. Also, the initial Grammys were sticklers of what they considered to be sophisticated music – and the rock ‘n’ roll and R&B that the kids loved in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s was not part of that.
As a result, the first few years of the Best New Artist award tended to go to middle-of-the-road choices with the exception of comedian and national treasure Bob Newhart, who won the second award in 1961. Even when a relatively hip act like The Four Seasons or Peter, Paul & Mary were nominated, they lost to crooners like Robert Goulet. Goulet had a great career, but I’m afraid for anyone older than 40, he’s better remembered now for his late-career appearances in cartoons and parodies of himself – Goulet had a great sense of humor about his image – than he is for any of his songs, let alone those of those two acts he beat. Goulet was also the first borderline case in Grammys history: He’d already appeared on the Broadway cast recording of Camelot, which had won in 1960, but as Paul Grein wrote for Billboard in 2020, that award went not to its stars, but to his composers. So technically, Goulet establishing a pop career independent of theater counted, but it was the first grey area in an award that would become full of them.
That all changed in 1965 when The Beatles pretty much walked away with the statue. Even though they had some legitimate competition that year with fellow Brit Petula Clark and “Girl from Ipanema” stars Antonio Carlos Jobim and Astrud Gilberto, it was likely obvious that the Liverpudlian mop-tops were going to win the thing in 1965. While the Beatles had been recording since 1962, they didn’t break through in America until 1964, which means their win makes sense.
That’s how it went for much of the next few decades. There would sometimes be an act that was a couple years old being nominated – Jefferson Airplane in 1968, the already-broken-up Cream in 1969 – but their nominations made sense; It’s not like they picked an act that had many years of recording under their belts before their nomination. Right?
Well, let’s talk about Cream for a second. Cream were one of the first, and certainly one of the first successful, “supergroups,” musical acts that consisted of established musicians that combined their powers into one accomplished act. You could argue that Eric Clapton, already famous as the guitarist for The Yardbirds, was the only real pre-established star in Cream to an American audience, so they might now be as much of a borderline case as some others. The same can be said for 1970 nominee Led Zeppelin, which also featured a Yardbirds alum in Jimmy Page. The other three guys in Zep had all been either session musicians or folkies before the band formed, but you can’t really say any of them were well known beforehand aside from Page.
But that leads to the winner of that 1970 award, Crosby, Stills & Nash. All three members had seen pop success as members of three very popular acts: The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and The Hollies. The CSN combination was new, but those three musicians were already well known. At the time, the Grammys didn’t make it clear who exactly was and was not eligible to be considered “New” enough for Best New Artist, and CSN was a new band, after all. Surely they were as eligible as Jefferson Airplane who were nominated for their breakthrough Surrealistic Pillow that was technically their second album.
That’s the argument that could be made then, and there weren’t a lot of borderline cases like that over the next few years with the exception of more supergroups like Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1972 nominees), Bad Company (1975 nominees), and Asia (1983 nominees). The Recording Academy sure liked to nominate bands featuring at least one former member of King Crimson, didn’t they?
The 70s, 80s and 90s: Jody Watley and Lauryn Hill
Instead of who was eligible, the argument around Best New Artist in the 1970s and ‘80s were about who was or wasn’t nominated, the career longevity of the winners, and nominees that were snubbed in favor of flashes in the pan. In 1977, the vocal group Starland Vocal Band won Best New Artist against album rock titans Boston, and proceeded to not only vanish from the public eye shortly thereafter but became a punchline that The Simpsons could still joke about decades later. But that’s also not the whole story: For every Debby Boone or A Taste of Honey, there was a long-lasting star like Natalie Cole or Bette Midler that took home the award.
There were several years where the award was very competitive and you could argue all day which eventual pop titan should have one over another eventual pop titan: Witness 1971 where The Carpenters beat Elton John, or the next year where Carly Simon won against both Bill Withers and the aforementioned ELP. The 1980s was full of great BNA classes and winners: Cyndi Lauper, Sade, Bruce Hornsby & The Range, Culture Club coming out on top of the 1984 field which was the first to feature entirely British acts that had become popular on the nascent MTV. In 1981, Christopher Cross swept all four general field categories in a move that seemed then like a connotation of a great new talent (Cross had a great, well respected career, but you’ll also notice that the Pretenders were nominated that year too).
Then comes 1988 and the win by Jody Watley. Let me preface this first: I really like Jody Watley and I like her first album a lot. Her win makes sense on paper, even against solid competition like Terence Trent D’Arby and Swing Out Sister. But Jody Watley wasn’t a new artist, and this wasn’t a borderline case like, say, CSN or Led Zeppelin or Jefferson Airplane. Watley had spent a full decade as a member of the popular R&B act Shalamar before she went solo. She’d even been previously nominated for a Grammy with Shalamar. People knew who she was.
Should a solo act coming off a successful band be considered a Best New Artist? In 1988, that was unclear. It’s more clear now, where solo acts from a pre-established group are not eligible. Harry Styles wasn’t nominated when he made his break from One Direction, and neither were Justin Timberlake or Beyonce. Once again, Billboard’s Paul Grein notes that Watley would not be eligible today, as artists with previous Grammy nominations are not supposed to be eligible. Put a pin that, we’ll come back to it when we talk about both Lady Gaga and Finneas.
Coming into the ‘90s, there was of course the whole Milli Vanilli scandal that isn’t exactly what this column is about but you can learn more about it from a recent episode of Chris Molanphy’s Hit Parade podcast. The next winner who is in a bit of a grey area in terms of eligibility is a similar case to Jody Watley. In 1996, the Fugees won two awards for their album The Score and their hit cover of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song” and then, two years later, member Lauryn Hill won Best New Artist. Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was the big winner of the 1999 awards taking home four other trophies aside from Best New Artist, including Album of the Year. But she was definitely a borderline case when it came to a “new artist”: She was a member of a group who had a successful solo turn. It is unclear whether Hill’s win caused a silent rule change for the Grammys because no other similar nominations, of a solo act or supergroup, have been made since her win; That’s almost certainly why Silk Sonic, for instance, weren’t nominated this year. However, that doesn’t mean there were still unclear rules and unusual winners and nominees after her. Indeed, what counted as new to the Grammys got more nebulous.
Shelby Lynne and Fountains of Wayne: Industry veterans with breakthrough years
In 2001, country singer Shelby Lynne took the stage at the then-Staples Center to receive her own Best New Artist award. In her speech, she noted the most unusual thing about her win: It took her “13 years and six albums” to get on the stage. Lynne wasn’t a new act, nor was she even a breakthrough solo star from an established group. Instead, Lynne presents a new kind of grey area for the Best New Artist award: An artist who had been around for some time who then happened to have a breakthrough year. Although she had some country radio hits in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Lynne’s sixth album I Am Shelby Lynne from 2000 was her first to really break into the mainstream critically or commercially, giving her a belated success that she had worked hard for. But does that make Lynne a “new artist”? She probably would be one to many Grammy viewers, even if they had heard of her story before. Still, Shelby Lynne is definitely the kind of case that wouldn’t be eligible now.
For a time in the 2010s, the Grammys had a rule in which an artist had to have released no more than 30 tracks or three albums to be considered eligible. Even though that rule has since been changed – to a minimum of five tracks or one album in the eligibility period – Lynne would still be the type of artist that would not have been nominated this year.
That leaves us with the last kind of case, a variation of Lynne’s position of having a breakthrough year. Fountains of Wayne had released two of the best power pop albums of their era before releasing 2003’s also excellent Welcome Interstate Managers. That album contained the Cars-esque fluke novelty hit “Stacy’s Mom”, which gave the Fountains a long deserved mainstream hit that wound up overshadowing the rest of their brilliant catalog and the album it came from. That success earned them a Best New Artist nomination in 2004 that baffled even the members of the band. Reached for comment by Idobi.com after the nominations were released in December 2003, co-leader Adam Schlesinger was quoted as saying “I was told that it has to do with, defining it as the record that sort of gets you into the larger public consciousness or something. So I guess, in that sense, maybe it’s a fair definition. Yeah, this is our third record. Our first record came out in October 1996, so it’s ironic.” It’s hard to nominate an act who has already released material but has very clearly had a breakthrough year. Fountains of Wayne seem like the type of case where they would have probably been better off being recognized with another nomination somewhere else. Either way, they didn’t win: Goth metal pop band Evanescence won that trophy anyway with a bit more understandable qualifications of a big blockbuster full-length debut album that had been preceded by a couple indie EPs.
Silversun Pickups and the Lady Gaga rule that got Drake nominated
Another case like Fountains of Wayne came in 2010 when neo-shoegazers Silversun Pickups were up for BNA following the success of their sophomore album Swoon. That album and its single “Panic Switch” were definitely among the band’s biggest successes and it was a huge surprise for an act on an independent label to be nominated at that time. Yet, a few years earlier they had been all over rock radio with their excellent full-length debut Carnavas and late 2000s alt-rock radio standard “Lazy Eye”. Silversun Pickups are a great band and it was cool that they were even recognized, but they’re another borderline case that would have been better recognized in another category, like Best Rock Song or Best Alternative Album, neither of which they actually got nods for. Like Fountains of Wayne, the Pickups also came home empty handed, losing to Zac Brown Band, who also had two albums but one was an indie that made no noise followed by a mainstream breakthrough, a la Evanescence.
The same year as Silversun Pickups’ unusual nomination saw the incident in which the Grammys publicly changed the eligibility for the Best New Artist award. In 2010, Lady Gaga was ruled ineligible because her song “Just Dance” had already been nominated for Best Dance Recording in 2009. The Grammys had actually been too early in recognizing a breaking artist, for once: “Just Dance” had entered the Hot 100 in August after months of being a sleeper hit on the dance and club charts, and was beginning its charge into the Top 40 when nominations were released. By the time of the ceremony in January 2009, “Just Dance” was the number one song in the country, completing its 27 week ascent to the top and beginning Gaga’s huge 2009. But that nomination for “Just Dance” meant Gaga was left off the 2010 BNA nominations list. After this, the Recording Academy changed its rules so artists that had been nominated but hadn’t won a Grammy and had not released a full length album, like Gaga, could be eligible for a Grammy. That Guardian article I link there notes that an artist would have previously been ruled ineligible if they’d been nominated before, even as a guest artist on a recording, which meant that cases like Watley and Hill would have specifically not happened again. However the requirement for having not released a full album was a second condition that went along with not being nominated for a Grammys. That means that, say, Silversun Pickups would have been eligible like they ultimately were in 2010 because they hadn’t been nominated before, but if they had for Carnavas, they would not have had.
That rule change went into effect right away. In 2011, Drake was nominated for Best New Artist after already having been nominated for two awards the previous year for his debut single “Best I Ever Had”. Drake didn’t win that award; Controversially it went to jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding, a great artist who’s had a terrific career since, but who also surprised everyone by winning in 2011 against a stacked nomination field with Drake, Florence + The Machine, Justin Bieber and Mumford & Sons. However, Gaga turned out to be a great example of the rules of the award actually being too stringent for once, and it immediately paid off with the nomination of Drake in the same circumstance. If an act like Silversun Pickups could get nominated even after being all over rock radio for a few years, surely early nominations in other categories shouldn’t stop an act from being nominated.
Bon Iver, Chance the Rapper, Lizzo, and more rule changes
2012 was the first year since Shelby Lynne’s win that an artist who had already had some established success was nominated for BNA. This time it was more of a Silversun Pickups/Fountains of Wayne case than something like Lynne. Indie folk solo project/band Bon Iver walked away with the Best New Artist prize, winning over Nicki Minaj and J. Cole. That eligibility period, Bon Iver released his/their sophomore effort Bon Iver, Bon Iver, which followed up the critically lauded For Emma, Forever Ago from 2008. You could argue that the second album is what really launched Bon Iver to indie stardom, but it’s not like For Emma was an obscure release before that year.
There were more changes to the eligibility for Best New Artist in 2017, where the ultimately hard-to-understand requirement where an artist previously nominated for something else could be nominated for Best New Artist provided they hadn’t already released a full length album was changed to remove that album requirement. New rules were also put in place that laid out who could be nominated, which were listed in a Grammy press release from 2016:
- The artist must have released a minimum of five tracks or one album, but no more than 30 songs or three albums. The latter half of that requirement would have made Fountains of Wayne and SIlversun Pickups eligible, but not Shelby Lynne, but the maximum requirement was removed in 2020
- The artist must not have entered the category more than three times, including as a member of a group. This seems like a rule to prohibit nominations like Lauryn Hill, Jody Watley, or Bad Company but neither Shalamar nor The Fugees nor King Crimson had ever been nominated for Best New Artist.
- Here’s the most nebulous part, and I’ll quote it in full: The artist “Must have achieved a breakthrough into the public consciousness and impacted the musical landscape during the eligibility period.” What does that mean? That would cover cases like Feist and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, who had already released music that was regionally popular but didn’t have a mainstream breakout until the years they were nominated (Feist lost to Amy Winehouse in 2008, Macklemore won against Ed Sheeran, Kacey Musgraves and Kendrick Lamar in 2014).
In 2017, the ceremony for which those new rules went into place, Chance the Rapper won Best New Artist. Between his two previously issued mix tapes 10 Day and Acid Rap, Chance had released 28 songs as a lead artist, barely making him eligible when nominated in 2017 ostensibly for his “breakthrough into the public consciousness” Coloring Book.
The same thing happened with two artists nominated in 2020. Lizzo was nominated even though she’d already released two full length albums and several non-album singles like “Truth Hurts”, which had been released in 2017 but didn’t become a hit until that nominating year. Phoebe Bridgers was also nominated after the success of Punisher even though it was her second album, because the Grammys probably ruled it to be her breakthrough.
In 2020, either after the Grammys or as rules put in place for that Grammys (It’s unclear), the Recording Academy again tweaked the rules to remove the maximum number of recordings that an artist could release and still be considered eligible for Best New Artist. If it went in place for the 62nd Grammys, Lizzo’s nomination eligibilty would become clearer, as it is likely she’d released 30 tracks before her eligible Cuz I Love You album or she came very close to it. Either way, the removal of that rule makes it more understandable why an act like Glass Animals would be nominated this time around. And that, at last, leads us back to this year’s nominees.
Oh yeah, this year’s nominees, almost forgot.
This year, the three acts that seem like borderline cases are Finneas, Glass Animals, and Japanese Breakfast. Let’s start with the last of those acts, because they’re the easiest to discuss. Michelle Zauner’s indie rock project had released two albums before 2021’s Jubilee, but this year she both released that album – which was her biggest hit yet and spun off her first chart single “Be Sweet” – but also became a New York Times best-selling author with her memoir Crying in H Mart. Zauner is a borderline case like Silversun Pickups, so there’s precedence there even if it’s kind of a hazy one. Glass Animals hew closer to Fountains of Wayne in precedent: They’d also released two albums and had been a stalwart of Billboard’s alternative airplay chart since the release of their 2014 Alt-J-gone-R&B hit “Gooey”, but this year saw the band explode in popularity with their fluke sleeper hit “Heat Waves” and successful album Dreamland. If you weren’t a fan of radio rock, you probably haven’t heard of Glass Animals before this year. They too are a borderline case, but there is precedent to their nomination and they’re not a totally out there selection. I kind of expected them to be there.
And then there’s Finneas, who almost certainly shouldn’t be nominated this year. Once again, I want to make a clarification that’s not a value judgement of Finneas as a musician. I think he’s a talented artist whose nomination is specifically for the music he made as a topline solo performer. However, as the producer, co-songwriter and primary collaborator for his sister Billie Eilish, Finneas already has eight Grammys on his shelf, including one all his own for Producer of the Year, Non Classical. What happened to that requirement that an artist is ineligible if they won a Grammy, not nominated for one? Was he an exception because he’s being nominated as an artist and not a behind-the-scenes name? That, at least, is unclear.
In a way, a precedent can be found for his nomination in Toto’s in 1979. Toto were also mostly behind-the-scenes players who made a splash as artists upon forming a band. But none of the members of Toto had any Grammys before 1979. Finneas is being nominated purely as an artist and not as a songwriter or producer, but his selection just feels weird considering who was ruled to be eligible this year.
In October, Paul Grein of Billboard reported several acts as being either eligible or ineligible for this year’s Best New Artist award under the rules. Finneas, Glass Animals, and Japanese Breakfast were all named in that article, leaving it somewhat unsurprising that they would be nominated. But Polo G, Girl in Red, and Rina Sawayama were on that list too, and all of them would be more understandable nominations than someone who already has eight Grammys. Polo G already had two top 10 albums before he blew up with Hall of Fame earlier this year, but the Grammys had ruled 2021 as Polo G’s “breakthrough year.” Despite him being explicitly cleared for a nomination, Polo G was missing from this year’s list.
The Grammy for Best New Artist has rules, but there’s so many provisions to them that clearly determining who is eligible has to be something that needs to be clarified before the nominations are decided. And even then, you get cases where the nomination strikes music fans as unusual that only make sense if you consider rules that are both specific and vague at the same time. The end takeaway for the Best New Artist nominees this year is that the field is fine apart from maybe Finneas’ extremely borderline nomination. But at the end of the ceremony, that trophy is going home with Olivia Rodrigo, isn’t it? And the borderline cases are going to be co-signed to long history essays like this one. Unless Finneas wins, and I hope that doesn’t happen. Even he thinks it’s Rodrigo’s award.