The biggest award of the night at the Grammys is Album of the Year and this morning, the 2015 nominees were announced. They are: Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd, Alabama Shakes, Taylor Swift, and Chris Stapleton. Every single one of these albums is good, and I can't tell for sure who will win. But I can almost certainly predict who won't: The Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar. Music's biggest award show is also one of its most biased.
Last year, the internet exploded on Grammy night when Beck's Morning Phase was named Album of the Year over Beyoncé's Beyoncé. After a year in which Beyoncé dominated the music scene—and a year of frustrating racial injustices—it was almost unbelievable that Beck's album could beat out an album with as much impact and importance as Beyoncé's. People were furious, and they had a right to be.
Although race probably played a role in the voting for last year's Album of the Year, it was Beck's rock privilege that earned him the award. Look at the nominees: Beyoncé, Beck, Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, and Pharrell. Or, put another way: R&B/pop, rock, pop, pop, R&B.
Beck won Album of the Year last year because his vote wasn't split at all. The voters who prefer R&B and pop had their votes split between Beyoncé and three other nominees, while rock fans had a single artist to unanimously cast ballots for: Beck.
This scenario, where a single genre wins simply because its vote isn't split, plays out over and over again. In 2000, Santana beat the Backstreet Boys, TLC, the Dixie Chicks, and Diana Krall. Arcade Fire won Album of the Year over Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Eminem, and Lady Antebellum in 2011. From 1986–1988, a string of rock performers (U2, Phil Collins, Paul Simon) beat out pop stars like Whitney Houston, Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, Prince, and Sting.
So when we look at this year's ballot—Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd, Alabama Shakes, Taylor Swift, and Chris Stapleton— what we should really see are where the votes will split: rap/R&B, rap/R&B, rock, pop, country. Kendrick Lamar and The Weeknd will mostly likely lose, which will frustrate fans of both artists.
It should be noted that the voting process for Grammys awards is terribly messy. The gist of it is this: Members of the Recording Academy (there are hundreds) vote on which albums they want to win awards. For 74 of the genre categories, the artists with the most votes get Grammy nominations. But for the biggest categories (including Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist), there’s a second step.
In the mid-1990s, a private committee was created to review the voters' choices in the top 4 categories, plus the Country, R&B, Latin, Gospel, Jazz, Classical, and Music Video categories. The committee then adjusts the nominations however they see fit. Maybe for television ratings. Maybe for diversity. Maybe to make sure that actual good albums are included in the big categories.
The committee was, after all, created for a reason, as Bill Wyman wrote for Slate in 2011: It was established after Lionel Richie's Can't Slow Down won Album of the Year over Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA and Prince's Purple Rain. (Richie's album hasn't held up nearly as well as Springsteen's or Prince's.) But this information is not mentioned on the Grammys website.
This year's nominations for Album of the Year are all worthy of awards. The Weeknd's Beauty Behind the Madness is an ambitious opus of R&B. Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly is a stunning, mesmerizing work of social justice. Taylor Swift's 1989 is a perfect pop album. The young Chris Stapleton deserves attention for Traveller, and the Alabama Shakes' Sound & Color is a haunting, pristine piece of rock.
Both Kendrick Lamar and The Weeknd will have the opportunity to pose with an armful of Grammys; Lamar is nominated for 11 awards, and The Weeknd is nominated for seven. But it's a pretty safe bet that neither of them will be able to win Album of the Year. That said, I hope I'm wrong.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.