Grammy awards season is, at last, in full swing. Delayed from its January date, the 2021 Grammy Awards take place this Sunday, March 14. As schedules are finalized, statuettes buffed, and performers prep their socially distanced stage shows, Pitchfork is here with your one-stop shop compiling everything to look out for. Keep scrolling for all the controversies, snubs, and prospective landmarks that could go down on Sunday.
What will the show look like?
Good question. The Recording Academy has kept things vague with regard to COVID-safe staging and presentation, saying artists would “be coming together, while still safely apart, to play music for each other as a community.” In practice, this means that, with the gala operating at reduced capacity, there will be a mix of live, in-person and pre-taped, video-linked appearances.
A recent Rolling Stone article featuring Ben Winston (who is executive-producing his first Grammys telecast) revealed that the show will not take place at STAPLES Center, as it did last year. Instead, the Grammys will be filmed at “an undisclosed building in Los Angeles.” The ceremony will feature four stages for performances and another for presenters, according to RS.
“People will perform while the other three or four artists watch, applaud, and enjoy” from their own stages, Winston said. “As soon as that one finishes, the next one goes, the next one goes, and the next one goes. Every 45 minutes, you change out those stages, and you bring another four megastars into the room.”
There’s a giant slate of performers for the evening, including (deep breath) Cardi B, Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, HAIM, Megan Thee Stallion, Harry Styles, Bad Bunny, DaBaby, Dua Lipa, Post Malone, BTS, Brandi Carlile, Doja Cat, Brittany Howard, Miranda Lambert, Lil Baby, Chris Martin of Coldplay, John Mayer, Maren Morris, Mickey Guyton, and Roddy Ricch.
Some late additions to the bill were Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, who just formed the group Silk Sonic. Their playful campaign, #LetSilkSonicThrive, aimed to get a last-minute invite to the show. It was successful.
In recognition of financial hardship in the pandemic-struck live music industry, host Trevor Noah will also introduce workers from various independent venues to present awards.
History in the making
The 2021 Grammys could feature several landmark achievements, including one for Mickey Guyton, who has already made history as the first Black woman nominated as a solo country artist. Victory in the Best Country Solo Performance category would help “Black Like Me” correct an unwritten rule, she has said, whereby woman are “only allowed to sing about heartbreak and cute, fun songs, but God forbid we have other feelings.”
If she picks up enough victories in one day, Beyoncé could break some records, too. With four wins, she would top Alison Krauss for most Grammys won by a female artist. If she wins five, she bests Quincy Jones’ record as the living artist with the most Grammys. She’ll need eight if she wants to take the record for most Grammys ever, which is held by the late classical conductor Sir Georg Solti.
Elsewhere, an illustrious slate of artists are up for their very first Grammy: Travis Scott, the Strokes (who had never even been nominated), Harry Styles, Jay Electronica, and Freddie Gibbs all stand to take home their first trophy. The stakes are doubly high for BTS: Triumph for “Dynamite” in the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance category would make them the first K-pop group to win a Grammy.
A blemish on the Record of the Year shortlist was the nomination of Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald, who worked on Doja Cat’s “Say So” under his Tyson Trax pseudonym. As fellow nominee Fiona Apple noted, the 2018 Grammys invited Kesha—who has alleged sexual abuse by Gottwald—to perform a song about surviving abuse at the ceremony. (The producer has denied Kesha’s allegations and sued for defamation.) Apple spoke in a Guardian interview about her wish to smash any award she might win in protest, before “inviting all the ladies up” on-stage to share it. “My second thought,” she added, “was I wonder if I can get all these ladies to boycott this shit because of Dr. Luke.”
The controversy further muddied the moral waters of the Recording Academy, epitomized by its 2019 appointment—and subsequent ousting—of Deborah Dugan as its first woman president and CEO. Dugan was hired amid promises of a fresh start after the controversial tenure of Neil Portnow, but she wound up filing an explosive discrimination complaint against the Academy, following her sudden removal. As well as defamation allegations, her complaint described a “boys’ club” mentality and failures to address systemic diversity issues.
Those issues came to a head when three of the five nominees for Best Children’s Music Album asked the Recording Academy to rescind their nominations, citing “a process that has—both this year and historically—so overlooked women, performers of color, and most especially Black performers.” The award will go ahead, contested by the two artists who declined to pull out, Joanie Leeds and Justin Roberts.
If you are so inclined, you may spare some sympathy for Justin Bieber, who despaired that the widely panned Changes was nominated in Best Pop Vocal Album, rather than an R&B category. “I am very meticulous and intentional about my music,” Bieber wrote on Instagram. “With that being said, I set out to make an R&B album. Changes was and is an R&B album. It is not being acknowledged as an R&B album, which is very strange to me.”
But the biggest controversy of all at the 2021 Grammys just might be…
Who was snubbed?
Hot on the heels of his Super Bowl halftime show—and in the year of eligibility for smash single “Blinding Lights”—the Weeknd looked like a shoo-in for the major categories. Instead, Abel Tesfaye and his chart-topping album After Hours picked up precisely zero nominations, prompting Tesfaye to tweet that the awards body was “corrupt.” In response to the controversy, the chair and interim president/CEO of the Recording Academy, Harvey Mason jr., said the Weeknd just didn’t get the votes—and denied reports that the Academy had presented Tesfaye with an ultimatum to play either the Super Bowl or the Grammy ceremony, both of which are broadcast on CBS.
Grammys staple Bob Dylan was another notable absence from the list of nominees. On the back of his critically acclaimed album Rough and Rowdy Ways, as well as the remarkable and Billboard-charting “Murder Most Foul,” the 38-time nominee did not receive a single nod. Dylan’s reps did not comment on whether his work was submitted. His last studio album, 2017’s Triplicate, was nominated that year for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album.
Fans of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion can breathe easy, however: “WAP” was not submitted, according to the artists’ teams. The plan, they said, is to submit the track next year alongside the campaign for a forthcoming Cardi album.
Other notable nominations
Look beyond the headline artists up for the so-called “big four” Grammys and you’ll find some notable collaborators. JAY-Z is nominated for Song of the Year alongside Beyoncé as a co-writer on “BLACK PARADE”—unbelievably, that would be 22-time winner JAY’s first ever win in the big four.
Aaron Dessner is up for Album of the Year and Song of the Year as a co-writer and co-producer on Taylor Swift’s folklore and “cardigan”; he’ll be hoping to expand his collection after the National’s Best Alternative Music Album win for Sleep Well Beast. Meanwhile, HAIM’s Album of the Year nod could potentially bag a win for co-producers Rostam and Ariel Rechtshaid.
Should Chloe x Halle win Best R&B Song for “Do It,” they would nab co-writer Victoria Monét her first Grammy in the process. If Skip Marley and H.E.R. win in the same category, however, it would be a milestone for serial songwriter Bibi Bourelly, who is nominated for the very first time, despite her illustrious catalog of co-writes for Rihanna, Usher, Christina Aguilera, and others in recent years.
Keep an eye on the Best Dance Recording category, too, where Disclosure, Aminé, and slowthai (“My High”), Toro y Moi (Flume’s “The Difference”), Jayda G and Fred again.. (“Both of Us”), and KAYTRANADA and Kali Uchis (“10%”) are all up for their first Grammy. Disclosure and KAYTRANADA are also up for Best Dance/Electronic Album, where somebody is guaranteed to win their first Grammy; the other nominees are Arca, Baauer, and Madeon.
Elsewhere, Fiona Apple is nominated three times, hoping to take home (or, perhaps, smash) her first trophy in 23 years: It was way back in 1998 that “Criminal” won Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. Nas received his first nomination two years earlier, in 1996, and is still waiting to pick up a win; King’s Disease is nominated for Best Rap Album.
Last but not least, give some (over)dues to Emily Lazar, who—in the Album of the Year category alone—is up for three Grammys as a mastering engineer, with HAIM, Coldplay, and Jacob Collier. Any of those would earn her first Grammy win in a major category, following her 2018 engineering award for Beck’s Colors.
Read “12 Thoughts on the Grammy Nominations” and follow all of Pitchfork’s coverage of the 2021 Grammys.