January 25, 2013


Is Alternative Music Taking Over the 2013 Grammys?

Getty Images, 2
Getty Images, 2

Someone in the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences must have discovered Pitchfork around 2008. In the last five years, the Grammys have turned from privileging chart-toppers and classic legacy artists to rewarding left-field alternative acts. In short, the Grammys have graduated from high school to college. 

Examples abound. Arcade Fire beat Eminem, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Lady Antebellum to win Album of the Year in 2011. Bon Iver won Best New Artist in 2012, confusing many viewers (including category competitor J. Cole). And in the most controversial moment of all, Justin Bieber was defeated for 2011 Best New Artist by jazz singer Esperanza Spalding, causing a nation of Beliebers to cry out, "Who's Esperanza Spalding?" and, "What is jazz?"

The 2013 Grammy nominees continue the award show's burgeoning trend toward honoring alternative musicians. From folk rock (Mumford & Sons) to long-reigning indie champs (Jack White, the Black Keys) to alternative R&B (Frank Ocean), alt artists are well represented. Just 10 years ago, this was not the case.

To illustrate, we've taken a look at this year's major Grammy categories and compared them to those back in 2003. The results are startlingly divergent. Take a look for yourself.

Record of the Year
The Black Keys: "Lonely Boy"
Kelly Clarkson: "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)"
Fun. ft. Janelle Monae: "We Are Young"
Gotye ft. Kimbra: "Somebody That I Used to Know"
Frank Ocean: "Thinkin Bout You"
Taylor Swift: "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together"

Only two of the six nominees for Record of the Year are straight-up pop hits—and this is a category that traditionally caters to mainstream fare. Yes, fun.'s "We Are Young" topped the charts, but its unconventional structure is decidedly more indie than bubblegum pop. As a point of comparison, these are the five artists who competed for Record of the Year in 2003: Norah Jones, Vanessa Carlton, Eminem, Nelly & Kelly Rowland and Nickelback. You've come a long way, Grammy.

Album of the Year
The Black Keys: El Camino
fun.: Some Nights
Mumford & Sons: Babel
Frank Ocean: Channel Orange
Jack White: Blunderbuss

Frank Ocean is essentially an alternative act even if he's not precisely an "indie" artist: His popularity sprouted out of music blogs, college campuses and celebrity tastemakers instead of Billboard Top 40 hits. This means that all five of this year's Album of the Year contenders are alternative picks. Compare that to 2003, when a whopping zero alt albums were nominated for the Album of the Year. Unless, of course, you consider Bruce Springsteen or Norah Jones to be indie.

Best New Artist
Alabama Shakes
Hunter Hayes
The Lumineers
Frank Ocean

None of this year's nominees are quite as indie as Bon Iver or Esperanza Spalding, but they're all alternative-leaning acts with the notable exception of country hitmaker Hunter Hayes. For a radical comparison, rewind back 10 years: Ashanti, Norah Jones, Michelle Branch, Avril Lavigne and John Mayer competed for this honor. And when Michelle Branch is the most obscure artist on your list, you know it ain't terribly alternative.

So what does this mean? Is it time to reignite a disgruntled record exec's shrill argument that the Grammys have lost touch with the common listener? Probably not. Let's recall that the Billboard Top 10 is changing along with the Grammys. Genres that could barely crack the Top 40 five years ago suddenly dominated the Top 10 in 2012. Folk rock (The Lumineers) reached the Top 5, confessional indie (Gotye) and Queen tribute music (fun.) both grabbed the No. 1 slot, and Mumford & Sons' Babel scored the second-highest debut of the year. So perhaps the Grammys' predilections aren't becoming more obscure: They're just adapting to fit the eclectic tastes of a post-iPod music world.