As expected by everyone, your grandmother’s new favorite artist, Adele, won 5 Grammys at this year’s awards, including 3 of the “Big 4” – “Record of the Year,” “Song of the Year,” and “Album of the Year.” Adele probably would have won “Best New Artist” too if she had been eligible, but, she already won that one back in 2009. This industry powerhouse has been nominated for 18 Grammys in her short three album career, and won an astounding 15 of them. This year, Adele won all 5 of the Grammys she was nominated for, and it’s the second time in two album cycles that she’s won those three awards on the same night. A ridiculous feat, and it’s definitely newsworthy, but it’s certainly not surprising. Looking closer, there are numerous reasons why Adele was the odds on favorite to win everything this year.
Reason #1: Adele is Naturally Talented
Starting with the most fair (and least hot take), Adele is actually (shock) a talented performer. She is undeniably a great singer who would have fit alongside of Etta James or even Aretha back in the day and is probably most comparable to someone like the late Amy Winehouse as a modern comparison. She also has created a lot of memorable, and dare I say it, great songs too. I adore 21 as both a collection of singles and as a cohesive album, and I still think it deserved every award it got. It elevated Adele above the living room and into the arenas, it was passionate and fiery, it was catchy enough for pop radio, and yet refreshing enough to listen to alone with your headphones on. 25 was essentially a rehash of 21, but critics praised it as an absolute masterpiece. A couple of fiery ballads, a few interesting production techniques, with Adele’s aforementioned natural talent, and I guess its easy for the average listener to overlook some similiarites between the two albums. So, I’ll give Adele the benefit that her talent and body of work is fairly impressive and unique in pop music nowadays.
Reason #2: Adele boosted physical sales to levels never seen before
Producers, music industry execs, and label presidents may claim that Adele won so many Grammys because of her natural talent, and that may have been true with 21, but with 25, there was so much more at play. You may remember that the release of 25 was a “physical-release” only – that is, 25 was not streamed anywhere when it was first released just before the 2015 holiday season, meaning that if you wanted to listen to Adele, you would have to buy it. The results of that strategy were pretty impressive – it sold 3.38 million copies in its first week in the US, shattering the record for first week sales by over a million. By year’s end, it had sold 8 million copies in the US, and over 17 million copies worldwide. In a world of dwindling physical sales, many industry leaders claimed that Adele had single-handedly saved the music industry (and also lined their pockets) with the physical only release model, and set the standard for high profile releases.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if those same people had a say about something else? Oh, that’s right, they do. Many of them also vote on the nominees, and the winners of the Grammys. So is it any surprise that the music execs and label heads who were making money hand over foot because of Adele, voted for Adele?
Reason #3: Adele was the “safe” vote
Not only did Adele help boost physical sales to levels they hadn’t seen in nearly two decades, Adele was, let’s face it, a safe vote. Just like the Oscars, there is some bias with these things towards white, safe, mainstream acts. There’s a reason that the last ten, yes TEN, Album of the Year awards have gone to white, safe, acts, and the last one to win it was Herbie Hancock doing a cover of Joni Mitchell songs. With this inherent bias in mind, Kendrick Lamar was never going to win Album of the Year (even though he probably deserved it more than Taylor Swift) because To Pimp A Butterfly was the anti-Grammy. It was hard hitting, had real social commentary, and more crucial, was important to music. Taylor’s 1989 was what every industry Grammy voter wanted to see – Taylor finally made the full deal with the devil (instead of the sorta half deal she made on Red), she worked with Max Martin on the whole thing, and the rest was pop history. Taylor won because she as a performer and her well produced hook-laden pop music was more mainstream and safe.
Oh, and, coincidentally, Taylor was the one who fought back against streaming services and drove physical album sales through the roof in 2014.
This year, Adele was up against Beyonce’s Lemonade, again an album which like Kendrick’s, was full of social commentary, was not meant for mainstream radio play or for adult contemporary listeners, but was important, both artistically and socially. Adele’s 25, and lead single “Hello” were fine, but, for better or worse, they won because both were Grammy-safer than Beyonce, and that was good enough.
Reason #4: Vote-Splitting
The last thing to consider is something called “vote-splitting,” something Vox describes perfectly in their take of why Adele won every award she was nominated for over Beyonce.
The easiest way to predict the top prizes at the Grammys is to look at them not in terms of artists or even quality but in terms of genre. Strip away everything but the genre, and you’ll often notice that the top categories usually have multiple nominees from the worlds of pop or hip-hop (and sometimes multiple nominees from both), with only one or two nominees from other, older-skewing genres.
This is very much true for the 2017 lineup, where Lemonade, which appeals to both pop and hip-hop voters, competed against Justin Bieber’s Purpose (pop) and Drake’s Views (hip-hop). Meanwhile, the country nominee, Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth and Adele’s more adult-contemporary skewing 25 were the only representatives of their respective fields.
Simpson isn’t as well known as the other four nominees, which likely made it harder for him to secure votes from, say, random rock voters who didn’t have an obvious horse to back. If those random voters tied to genres not represented in Album of the Year didn’t want to vote pop or hip-hop, that left only Adele, who won.
The problem with this vote splitting — which has only become more starkly obvious in recent years — is that it tends to reward older or at least whiter artists at the expense of young, often black artists who have more pop cultural cachet at this moment in time.
In layman’s terms, Adele won because Bieber, Drake, and Beyonce were all part of the pop and hip-hop, which in turn made younger, more contemporary voters split their votes between those three albums. Adele’s 25 really had no counterpart in the Album of the Year category – so all the mainstream rock and adult contemporary voters cast their ballots for Adele in droves – mainly because they didn’t want to vote for something that was mainstream pop or hip-hop.
Adele said it herself after the show: “What the fuck does she [Beyonce] have to do to win Album of the Year? That’s how I feel.”
That’s how it feels to us too.