Since December, the Grammy Awards, which will be broadcast from Los Angeles on Sunday night on CBS, have been running a promotional campaign called Believe in Music.
A more apt slogan for the 2017 awards might be Believe in Beyoncé, because the pregnant-with-twins super diva and Lemonade auteur is the top nomination-getter, with nine, and is likely -- more than her principal rival, British mega-selling singer Adele -- to be the evening’s biggest winner.
But I’ll get to Queen Bey’s expected coronation ceremony, and the competition she faces from not only Adele, a proven Grammy favorite who swept the awards in 2012 with her mega-breakthrough album, 21, but also from Canadian rapper Drake, in a minute.
First allow me a measure of Grammy righteous indignation. The Believe in Music campaign isn’t without merit. It’s produced worthwhile videos featuring country songwriter Brandy Clark, who’s deservedly up for a pair of awards, and Anderson .Paak, the multitalented best new artist nominee whose joyous clip for “Come Down” was recorded in a church in his hometown of Oxnard, Calif., and offers inspirational reasons to believe in music.
But as is so often the case with the Grammys, the Believe in Music campaign is also irksome. A couple of weekends ago, I was in Manhattan, and I kept seeing David Bowie’s image on buses and walls.
The ads were hyping Sunday’s show. That makes sense, as the global mourning of the British rock star, along with the similar outpouring occasioned by the death of Prince, provided 2016’s best examples of just how deeply felt is our connection to pop music makers who bring us joy and shape our identities. Bowie certainly made us Believe in Music.
One problem, though: Though the Grammys are using Bowie’s image to hawk the telecast, they also made him the victim of this year’s most egregious snub. It was expected that along with Lemonade and Adele’s 25 getting plenty of attention, ultimate respect would be paid to Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, released two days before his death, which ranks with his best.
In his career, other than a lifetime achievement award in 2006, Bowie won a grand total of one Grammy, for best short-form video in 1984. He hadn’t even been nominated until that year.
So, naturally, you’d think Blackstar would be a no-brainer for this year’s album of the year. You don’t have to give it to the legendary dead guy, but at least acknowledge him posthumously for unquestioned greatness.
Blackstar did garner four lesser nominations, making Bowie one of a mere 17 potential winners to get that many. (There are 84 categories, so it sometimes seems everybody gets a gold-plated gramophone.)
So who made the album of the year cut instead? Besides Beyoncé, Adele, and Drake, there’s wild card Sturgill Simpson, a gruff country Cinderella who belongs on artistic merit. And, oh, yeah, Justin Bieber, for Purpose.
That’s right: Instead of Bowie, Bieber. That’s a fair trade. No disrespect to the shirtless-selfie-taking Canadian who is in fact making music of more substance these days, thanks in part to his collaborations with former Philadelphian producer Diplo. But, c’mon: He’s got a lot of gravitas to attain before his name belongs on the album of the year list ahead of Bowie. Such slipups are why the Grammys still struggle to be taken seriously.
But enough ranting. On to prognosticating the awards' four major categories.
Album of the Year
Nominees: Adele, 25; Beyoncé, Lemonade; Justin Bieber, Purpose; Drake, Views; Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.
Should Win: Lemonade.
Will Win: Lemonade.
Can Beyoncé lose this one?
It could happen. Beck, Arcade Fire, and Herbie Hancock have all beaten heavy favorites in recent years.
Adele offers formidable competition. Partly as a result of an old-school marketing approach that abjured streaming, 25 has sold an astounding 9.2 million copies in the United States alone. The charming and chatty powerhouse belter has a proven track record, and, more important, her middle-of-the-road music appeals to older voters. And in the top four categories, all Recording Academy members vote, so many with little interest in current pop who appreciate her obvious vocal talents could give 25 their vote.
Drake’s Views is no commercial slouch, either. It was far and away the most streamed album of 2016, with ubiquitous tracks like “One Dance” and “Hotline Bling” clicked on more than 3 billion times. But like 25, Views is artistically uneven. Drake is great at providing fans with a steady supply of content in singles, videos, collaborations, and memes. But he has not proved himself quite so accomplished at sustaining an album-length artistic statement.
Besides Beyoncé, the one who has is Simpson, whose Sailor’s Guide is conceived as an audio missive to his young son and is complete with a Nirvana cover and powerful protest song in “Call to Arms.” But Simpson wins just by being included: His name recognition has already gone through the roof, and his sales are sure to get a boost once the prime-time audience gets a look at his galvanic stage act.
Beyoncé wins because she’s not only massively popular -- she and Bruce Springsteen were the two biggest concert attractions of 2016 -- but because Lemonade is such a wide-ranging tour de force. Besides album of the year, Lemonade generated nominations in rock (“Don’t Hurt Yourself,” with Jack White), pop (“Hold Up,” coproduced by Diplo), and rap/sung categories (“Freedom” with Kendrick Lamar), and “Daddy Lessons,” deserved a country nod, to boot. Beyoncé has never won this award, and Taylor Swift has twice, so it’s time for that imbalance to be redressed.
Record of the Year
Nominees: Adele, “Hello”; Beyoncé, “Formation”; Lukas Graham, “7 Years”; Rihanna featuring Drake, “Work”; Twenty-One Pilots, “Stressed Out.”
Will Win: “Formation.”
Should Win: “Work.”
“Formation” is not even the best song on Lemonade, but it was the first single that surprise-debuted during last year’s Super Bowl weekend. It gave the project its feminist message and Black Lives Matter focus, and its political content will stand up and be heard during a telecast that is sure to stress diversity in the contentious early days of the Trump administration. Bank on its winning in either this or the song of the year category, if not both. “Work,” however, gets my vote for its insinuating groove as the sexiest song on this list.
Song of the Year
Nominees: Adele, “Hello”; Beyoncé, "Formation"; Justin Bieber, “Love Yourself”; Lukas Graham, “7 Years”; Mike Posner, “I Took a Pill in Ibiza.”
Will Win: “Hello.”
Should Win: “Formation.”
This is a songwriter’s award, whereas record of the year is for a recording. It’s a silly distinction, and kinda dumb that there’s so much overlap in two of the biggest categories.
Adele has to win something, right? I predict she gets this one, for the melodramatic power ballad that emphatically announced her return in fall 2015. “Formation” may not be a truly great song, but it beat this spotty competition. The upset candidate is “7 Years,” the pseudo-profound song about the successive stages of life by Danish pop band Lukas Graham that you probably haven’t heard unless you listen to Top 40 radio. It’s not good, but it has been streamed hundreds of millions of times and Grammy voters might think it’s really deep.
Best New Artist
Nominees: Kelsea Ballerini; the Chainsmokers; Chance the Rapper; Maren Morris; Anderson .Paak
Will Win: Chance the Rapper.
Should Win: Anderson .Paak
This is a toss-up between former Dr. Dre protege .Paak and his Malibu stunner and the Chicago rapper born Chancelor Bennett, whose Coloring Book qualified for consideration as a streaming-only release thanks to a Grammy rule change.
I’d give it to .Paak, though, because Chance has already moved up to arena-headlining status. Rapper-songwriter-singer-drummer-and-bandleader .Paak, however, is far from a household name, and his Malibu breakthrough was one of the strongest releases of 2016.
This rising-star category is also of note for its inclusion of two talented female Nashville acts in Ballerini and Morris, who have succeeded in being heard in a bro-country-dominated industry, plus, the Chainsmokers, an electronic dance DJ duo gone pop. In other words, not a single rock act among them, an unsurprising sign of these pop, hip-hop, and country times.