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When it comes to problems, the Grammys have enough to fill a stadium, be they actual legal issues, like cases of sexual misconduct and discrimination, or just the highly-documented proof that the Grammys are out of touch with popular culture. And now, following the annual screening committee meeting—an event in design so boring that no one should ever hear about it—the body has found itself in the crosshairs of Kacey Musgraves's camp. In an announcement made last week, Musgraves's new LP, star-crossed, is being barred from consideration for the Best Country Album category for the 2022 ceremony. It's a decision so confounding that you have to wonder if the Grammys simply enjoy causing problems.
The album, released under a new partnership between Universal Music Group's MCA Nashville imprint and pop label Interscope Records, takes some liberties with what country fans of yore might expect from the genre. Musgraves's album pairs flute solos and synths alongside the banjo and south of the border guitar stylings. It's adventurous (that's why we like her, remember?), but it's also so obviously country. Hell, in some ways, star-crossed nods to fringe aspects of the genre, like the Latin influence that are hallmarks of Texan country and Tejano music, aspects of the genre that have largely been abandoned by mainstream format artists, which now favor cribbing aspects of hip-hop and EDM instead.
Perhaps most in line with the genre, Musgraves has created a heavyweight divorce album: a subset of the field that includes classics like Tammy Wynette's D-I-V-O-R-C-E and Willie Nelson's Phases and Stages as well as more recent fare like Miranda Lambert's The Weight of These Wings. Even with star-crossed's eccentricities—the dance tracks, the spoken word interludes—the genre questioning is moot. You can sprinkle a bit of oregano on your fried chicken, but that doesn't make it Italian, you know?
The Academy's decision to exclude Musgraves was exercised under regulations that require a work to be "51% country," a bar so wildly subjective it can't help but end up political, but it also seems like the most minute of the organization's problems right now. In just the past few years, the Academy micromanaged a 2019 ceremony Ariana Grande performance so heavily that she pulled out of performing entirely. And who could forget, that same year, when they wouldn't let Lorde perform her own Best Album-nominated music solo? There was also the total dismissal of The Weeknd's 2020 LP, After Hours, which garnered no nominations despite being one of the most critically and commercially acclaimed albums of the year. And in the last 20 years, the Academy has shown a growing disconnect from a reality dominated by hip-hop. Guess who has a Best Album Award? Not Kanye. Or Jay-Z. Or Kendrick.
It's even more disappointing when, even with all those glaring issues, the Academy has a recent history of being (sort of) right when it comes to country music. In the 2000s, the Grammys surprised viewers, awarding albums that were innovative in their approaches (see The Chicks' 2007 Taking the Long Way or 2010's pop-heavy Fearless from Taylor Swift). And in the past few years, the ceremony has been a bright spot for the genre, with nominations for Tanya Tucker, Brandy Clark, and Ashley McBryde. Musgraves has also, rightly, been a favorite of the Academy. And logical really fails when you consider that star-crossed was created, largely, with the same team and in the same musical vein as her 2018 LP, Golden Hour, which won Best Country Album after its release.
The effects of this decision are harrowing. And the artists that will pay most dearly are the lesser known, hopeful successors to the Musgraves of the world. With an official decree from the Recording Academy that this isn't country, young, boundary-pushing lyricists have had an entire roadmap to success removed. Radio programmers have not been kind to women in the genre recent years in terms of airtime, employing sexists policies that limit the number of spins songs from females can get per each hour of airtime. Now that population has a ready-made excuse from the industry's de facto critical authority to support their stances.
Musgraves will be fine. She's carved out her own path, despite the lack of radio support. But country stations remain the truest gatekeeper to success in the genre. And the women and "othered" artists who will follow her, attempting to widen and advance the genre, now have an additional barrier to face. Another excuse from another authority to shun them. With limited airplay comes limited exposure, limited ticket sales, and now, limited award recognition. The critical body that seemed to have a soft spot for country music's rabble rousers and trouble makers are sending a message by eliminating Musgraves from the country music race. The Grammys will support innovation, so long as you stay in your lane.
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