If any Grammy category drives observers to confusion, it’s Best New Artist.
Best New Artist has a maddeningly vague set of criteria. The less-than-helpful guidelines say an artist is eligible in the year the artist “establishes [their] public identity.”
Perfectly clear, right? Why go with something easy to apply like “the year they release their first album?” Too easy. Too straightforward.
What would the Grammys be without a little WTF in the mix?
Best New Artist, If “New” Is Viewed Broadly
The thing that often catches attention about nominees for Best New Artist is how their inclusion often abuses the concept of “New.” Some well-known veterans have found themselves in this race over the years.
Because of the squishy rules, the Grammys have decided, for example, that a well-known member of a popular group is eligible for Best New Artist when going solo. So despite the fact that someone could be a huge star, he or she is regarded as establishing a new identity when working outside their famous band. So when Lauryn Hill left the Fugees or Sisqo stepped out from Dru Hill, they were eligible.
In other years, artists with several releases already under their belts found themselves competing for Best New Artist. Most infamously was Shelby Lynne, who had five major label country albums under her belt before her sixth, I Am Shelby Lynne, won her the award in 2001.
The Jonas Brothers got nominated for Best New Artist on their third album, their second to go double platinum, but its predecessor apparently didn’t count because it sold mostly to Radio Disney fans. Nominees/winners like Fun, No Doubt, Paramore, Amy Winehouse, David Gray, Kid Rock, Paula Cole and Backstreet Boys all had at least one prior release before landing in the Best New Artist derby. The Grammys went ahead and ignored Alanis Morissette’s past as a Canadian teen pop star when they included her after Jagged Little Pill.
Other nominations seem to be an odd bit of timing. Drake was a well-known actor, had a top-selling EP and a string of hit singles. But he didn’t get a Best New Artist nomination until after his first full album. Heather Headley was already a Tony-winning Broadway star when she got a nod in 2004.
Is it really necessary for the rules to be so flexible? This whole “We won’t count it until you make it big” attitude seems counter to the point of a Best New Artist award.
Putting the “New” in Best New Artist
Of course, some years the Grammys go in the opposite direction and nominate someone so new that everyone has to look them up to find out who they are.
Several Best New Artist nominees and winners might not exactly be household names, but are at least well-known within their genres. Think acts like alt rockers Bon Iver, adult alternative sister act Haim, R&B singer Ledisi, indie pop songstress Imogen Heap or dance/soul act Digable Planets. They were successful within their own lanes and were able to muster their respective bases to make the final cut.
But the Best New Artist category loves a surprise. We’ve seen it this year with Australian singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett. Almost no one had heard of her before her surprise Best New Artist nomination. She’s not the only example from the past dozen or so years. Just two years ago, British electronic pop singer James Blake received a surprise nod. While he’d done moderately well in the UK, Blake was all but unknown in the U.S. before his nomination.
Back in 2011, Esperanza Spalding emerged from the Boston jazz scene to take a shocking Best New Artist victory. Spalding had earned a good rep among other musicians, but was unheard of among the general public. It was reminiscent of Best New Artist nominee Sudan Tedeschi in 2000. Tedeschi had won a small but devoted following in the Boston area blues/roots music scene, but her Grammy nod caught just about everyone by surprise.
So while the category’s parameters can be stretched thin to usher in artists who haven’t been “new” in some time, voters are also willing to give the spotlight to some vanguard talent that deserves a wider platform.
Best New Artist, If You Ignore “Best” and “Artist”
The Grammys wouldn’t be the Grammys without nominees who get in based on things other than talent or merit. Best New Artist is no different.
Milli Vanilli actually won Best New Artist in 1990. Before it came out that the duo hadn’t sung a single note on their debut album. The Grammys went ahead and retroactively voided that “victory.”
That makes Best New Artist nods for the likes of Ace of Base, Kris Kross, Rick Astley, Nu Shooz, Timbuk3 and Debby Boone (who actually won) almost logical. But come on. No matter how much people loved the movie, nominating The Blues Brothers in 1980 made sense only if the voters inhaled a mountain of coke beforehand.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on December 17, 2015.