Taylor Swift’s Mixed Grammy Bag: How Does Her History With a Fickle Recording Academy Bode for ‘Folklore’?
Taylor Swift has been on a roller-coaster ride from the beginning of her career when it comes to the loop-the-loop that is the sometimes-nonsensical Grammys. It’s been no small theme in her trajectory: Becoming the youngest artist ever to win album of the year certainly counts as one of the signature triumphs of her career. And getting nearly shut out from nominations years later with “Reputation” was a dramatic enough moment that the disappointment was the basis of the opening scene for her “Miss Americana” documentary.
When her highly praised “Lover” album of last year again barely rated any mentions among the Grammy nominations, eyebrows were raised as supporters wondered what kind of statement might be being made by the blue-ribbon nominating committee that narrows down nods in the top four categories. If an album that’s critically hailed, zeitgeist-y and a commercial blockbuster can’t get an album of the year nod, what agenda are the Grammys following? It’s a matter of greater suspense now that this summer’s “Folklore” has become her best-reviewed album to date — which could augur for a boatload of nominations… or not.
Here, as part of Variety‘s 2021 Grammy early-preview package, is a look back at how the Grammys rewarded her — or didn’t — through a decade and a half of album cycles.
The Grammys weren’t too eager to reward a teen queen yet, giving her just one nomination in the cycle following the release of her self-titled debut — for best new artist, which she lost to Amy Winehouse (no shame there).
Talk about a Grammy rags-to-riches story. After the lone nod for her debut, Swift got a whopping eight nominations for her sophomore album. She won half of those, in what still counts as her biggest one-year Grammy haul to date, including the all-important album of the year prize. She became its youngest winner, at 20, a record she held until Billie Eilish came along and got it at an even more tender age.
Swift’s third release was a stylistic tour de force in which she branched further into pop and — scoring points against the skeptics who thought she had to be the product of Svengalis — was a solo writer on every track on the album. Maybe Grammy voters or committees were thinking they didn’t want her to get a swelled head, though, after having handed her such enviable gold the previous time up. For “Speak Now,” she was denied an album of the year nomination and got only three nods total, all of them in country categories, winning two.
(2013 and 2014 ceremonies)
Swift continued to compete primarily in country categories, even though it was clear to anyone with ears that she’d become primarily a pop artist. Over these two years, she was nominated for seven trophies, but won just one. (Four of the noms were for “Red” and three were for off-album collabs with the Civil Wars or Tim McGraw.) “Red,” beloved by fans and critics, did at least get her an album of the year nom again, and “We Are Never Getting Back Together” was up for record, even if both fell short at the wire. It was beginning to seem like she was getting a message: you had your moment, with “Fearless.”
(2015 and 2016 ceremonies)
Wait, come back, Taylor! All is Grammy-forgiven, and your best is clearly yet to come! “1989” generated 10 nominations over two years, and won three of those, including her second album of the year prize. Repeating in that top category is a rare honor that’s only ever been afforded to six artists, historically. Was she indomitable after all?
(2018 and 2019 ceremonies)
No, she wasn’t. She scored two noms in ‘18 for non-album efforts (for writing Sugarland’s “Better Man” and serving as a movie theme creator with “I Don’t Wanna Lie Forever”). When the year of “Reputation’s” eligibility rolled around, Swift got just a single nomination for the album… and it wasn’t even in a major category, but for pop vocal album (which she lost). One hates to use the word “snub” loosely this was a Snub with a snake-shaped capital S.
You could write off the Grammys’ no-thanks attitude toward “Reputation” to that darker album being admittedly polarizing. But with popular opinion on most matters controversial having shifted toward Team Taylor, more universally strong reviews for “Lover” than those that greeted “Reputation” surely portended for a return to Grammy gold — until they didn’t. Of the mere three nominations handed to the album, only one was in a top category (song of the year for the title track). The Grammy telecast’s producers tore their remaining hair out, unable to book her for the show, yet again. She was hardly alone in being subject to this seeming randomness; conspiracy theorists have also wondered if nominating committees shut out a smash like Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” because they were worried that if went to the general votership, it would win. But maybe it’s not all that shady; the committee probably really just does love Bon Iver that much more.
Swift had an ingenious way of getting back into the Grammys’ good graces: she booked Bon Iver, who could be said to have taken some of her slots in the previous Grammy slate, to do a duet on her new album! Just kidding — if anything, her Justin Vernon boosterism actually makes a generous implicit case that the committee was on solid ground with the BI love last time around. Anyway, with the surprise release of “Folklore,” an album that was started and finished in quarantine, the Grammys have been handed a gift on a silver platter: the biggest album of the year has a narrative around its making that speaks to productivity and grace under pressure during COVID.
A look at the album’s Metacritic average score among music critics (88, by far her highest yet) establishes that she’s now about as antagonist-free as a superstar gets in the pop wars of 2020. And “Folklore” has spent seven non-consecutive weeks at No. 1, far more than any other long-player this year, So can she be denied her first album of the year nomination since the “1989” coronation? Of course she can — it’s Grammy-town, Jake. But the odds favor the Grammys getting in line for at least a little rubber-stamping of that success.
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