America’s biggest music awards are still hugely important for the boost they give artists. So, Greg Kot asks, why is their history littered with mistakes?

Love or hate them, the Grammy Awards are usually the one evening all year that most of America pays attention to music. It’s the sole music awards show in the US that matters. No one knows who won the MTV Music Video Awards the next day, only that somebody did something outrageous (take a bow, Miley Cyrus). But the Grammys actually have a significant impact on sales. In recent years, artists such as Adele, Frank Ocean and Arcade Fire have benefited from 100%-plus bumps in album sales in the days following their nationally televised appearances on the awards show.

Who’s going to get the boost this year? I’d bet on Ella Yelich-O'Connor, otherwise known as Lorde, who is in the running for four awards on 26 January in Los Angeles.

Oddly enough, the best new artist award isn’t among them. For all their impact, the Grammys are a frustrating beast, with a 56-year history of oversights and missteps. For an institution that claims to reward artistic ‘excellence’ in the music world, the Grammys sure get a lot wrong: Christian vocal group Take 6 has more Grammy Awards than The Beatles for example. Jethro Tull once won an award for best heavy metal band over Metallica and AC/DC, even though Jethro Tull is not a metal group. Milli Vanilli once won a best new artist award even though it turned out the duo didn’t actually sing on their album, but merely posed for the cover (the award was later rescinded). 

Snubbing Lorde for a best new artist nomination isn’t quite as egregious as some of those gaffes. But it’s still a major oversight. How did this happen and what kind of impact will it have on Lorde?

Royal favour

First, a little background: as anybody with a pair of headphones and a working mobile phone is likely to know, the 17-year-old newcomer has had a heck of a year – and not just because some stylist hooked up the New Zealand teen with a very cool Cramps T-shirt on the cover of the latest Rolling Stone.

Lorde’s debut EP was released in New Zealand in November 2012. It included the song Royals − a clever piece of anti-bling teen rebellion – which inexorably conquered pop charts around the world. And now Royals has been nominated for two of the most prestigious Grammy prizes − song and record of the year – in addition to best pop solo performance. Lorde’s debut full-length release, Pure Heroine, has been nominated for best pop vocal album.

How she didn’t warrant a nomination for best new artist is a puzzler, because Lorde is more qualified than some of the artists who did. For one thing, she made her worldwide debut last year, which makes her an actual ‘new; artist. Pure Heroine came out only last September to mostly gushy reviews and ascended to number three on the US Billboard chart.

The same kind of freshness can’t be ascribed to the other best new artist nominees: James Blake has already released two albums; Kendrick Lamar had two hyped mix tapes and numerous cameos, including one with Drake, before releasing good kid, MAAD city last year; Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have been active for a decade on the indie-rap scene out of the Pacific Northwest; country singer Kacey Musgraves has been releasing music since 2002; and though UK singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran has only one album (+), it came out in 2011 after he released five EP’s.

The Recording Academy, which represents the industry professionals who vote on the Grammys, isn’t as concerned with such technicalities. The best new artist award, it says, is “for a new artist who releases, during the eligibility year, the first recording which establishes the public identity of that artist." Or, in other words, you aren’t a ’new’ artist until the Recording Academy says you are.

Jimmy Jam, chairman emeritus of the Recording Academy, told CNN that Lorde essentially got snubbed because she fits the ‘new’ artist category almost too well. “She is still very new,” he said. “Sometimes I think the Grammy voters like to say, ‘Well, let's see what else you have before we say you're the best new artist.’"

Mr Jam is responsible for some of the greatest pop and R&B hits ever recorded, but that’s absurd. As pop rabble-rouser Lily Allen noted in taking issue with that logic (calling them “Shammys”), Lorde won’t be a new artist anymore if she has to make more records to prove her staying power. Jam should have just called it like it is and said something more credible, such as, ‘We blew it’.

Blessing or curse?

As for Lorde’s future fortunes, maybe it’s all for the best. The best new artist category has long been seen by some artists as a curse rather than a coveted award. Indeed, the Grammys’ track record for recognizing new talent has been pretty erratic: the academy voters chose Robert Goulet in 1963 instead of The Four Seasons, Tom Jones instead of The Byrds in 1966, José Feliciano over Cream in 1968, The Carpenters and not Elton John in 1971, America over John Prine in 1973 (and, oh yeah, the Eagles too), A Taste of Honey ahead of Elvis Costello in 1979, and Sheena Easton over Luther Vandross in 1982.

They also anointed such duds as the Starland Vocal Band, Christopher Cross and the aforementioned Milli Vanilli as best new artists. And they’ve passed over newcomers whose first albums are widely considered masterpieces: Patti Smith, De La Soul, REM, Missy Elliot, Led Zeppelin, Eric B and Rakim, Jeff Buckley, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Run-DMC, The Ramones, Wu-Tang Clan, and on and on.

That’s pretty good company. Though no masterpiece, Pure Heroine establishes a voice that testifies about what it means to be part of a generation that is relentlessly solicited, constantly connected, and prematurely cynical. It’s a canny pop construct, with Royals as Exhibit A: a song that pokes fun at materialism even as it name-checks the products the narrator claims not to care about. It allows Lorde to have it both ways. So too with the best new artist category. She may have been snubbed for one big honour, but her song and record of the year nominations are still likely to resonate at the sales counter for weeks afterward.

Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be found here.

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