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Do queer themes face an uphill battle at the Grammys?

While we are living in landmark times for queer inclusion and acceptance, there are still a lot of challenges for queer people in all spaces of society, including the music industry. This extends, but is not limited to, the awards circuit, where a lot of queer-centric music can go under-rewarded or outright ignored, especially where older, predominantly straight musicians and listeners are the main base of voters. But what about the Grammys specifically? Are they more connected with inclusive younger audiences than other major award shows?

To an extent, the Grammys seem to embrace queer artists pretty well. High-profile LGBTQIA+ artists like Brandi Carlile, Lil Nas X, Sam Smith, and Kim Petras are all Grammy winners, and all have won in the last five years. Carlile is a Grammy favorite, as are fellow queer women Billie Eilish and Lady Gaga; those three have accumulated nine or more Grammys each. Nas, on the other hand, won his Grammys in 2020 with the success of his record-breaking number-one single “Old Town Road.” Just a year and a half ago Smith and Petras became the first nonbinary and trans artists to win in the pop field, with their hit collab “Unholy.” So it’s safe to say that queer music can succeed at the Grammys. However, there are some exceptions and limitations.

For instance, while the Grammys nominate queer talent, winning seems to be a bit harder when queer themes are present. Take, for example, Lil Nas X. While he was out as gay by the time voting was underway for the 2020 Grammys, his EP “7,” including his hits “Old Town Road” and “Panini,” didn’t really touch on queer subjects, especially since it was released before he came out. But compare that to his “Montero” era that followed, which was more successful overall and far more acclaimed. Strangely, “Montero” missed some key nominations (namely Best Pop Solo Performance and Best Pop Vocal Album), and Nas ended up leaving empty-handed despite being predicted to win Best Music Video for “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” and Best Melodic Rap Performance for “Industry Baby.” The first of those two losses was particularly strange, as the music video for “Montero” was easily the buzziest of the year, winning top honors at the MTV Video Music Awards. One would be naïve to ignore the possibility of “Montero’s” more unabashedly sexual queer themes upsetting some voters, especially as Nas was not shying away at all from his gay identity.

Then there’s Miley Cyrus, who is pansexual, but her Grammy success came from “Flowers,” which was inspired by her split from opposite-sex husband Liam Hemsworth. While Lady Gaga has won many Grammys, none are for songs about women, or songs about gay rights (like “Born This Way”). And then there’s Brandi Carlile, who has been a vocal queer activist. However, Carlile’s music is less explicitly queer, since a lot of her lyrics can be applied to any gender. Carlile is also mostly in the Americana categories at the Grammys, which is arguably the most progressive block of the Recording Academy, typically nominating songs touching on social issues or by queer and/or BIPOC talent. That is, of course, not to fault these women for their music, but to show that while the academy is open to queer talent, it seems to prefer a certain type of queer music that is less direct about its themes.

Take “Unholy,” which is fairly sexually charged. In it, Sam Smith does not sing directly to the man in question but rather plays the narrator of the story, and you would have to know Petras is a trans woman to understand the queer subtext of her verse, which a lot of voters perhaps did not know. The last Grammy ceremony was also a very interesting example of how things can play out. For Best Pop Dance Recording, Troye Sivan’s “Rush,” an explicitly queer anthem, lost the award to Kylie Minogue’s “Padam Padam.” Of course, the category wasn’t “Best Queer Song,” but it’s interesting to see how certain types of queer anthems, which are broader and more general, can connect more with voters than the ones like “Rush” and “Montero,” which wear their queerness on their sleeve.

Certain genres also tend to be more open than others. While multiple queer artists have won in the alternative, Americana, and pop fields, R&B rarely sees wins for queer artists, with acts like Tinashe, Janelle Monáe, Kehlani, and Omar Apollo all being Grammy-less. And even the artists that have won, like Frank Ocean or Meshell Ndegeocello, have only won one award in that field despite illustrious careers. (Ocean stopped submitting to the Grammys after his “Channel Orange” win, though.). Let’s not even get into country music, which doesn’t nominate many queer acts at all (or BIPOC acts, for that matter). It’s pretty much just Brandi Carlile there, which is likely just Americana voters crossing over to vote in country considering Carlile is MIA at other country award shows like the ACMs and CMAs.

And in almost all of these cases, whether or not the songs are loud and proud about their queerness, they almost never win in the big leagues. Carlile has yet to win a general field Grammy, just like Lil Nas X, Sivan, Gaga … and other unmentioned stars like Elton John, Boygenius and K.D. Lang. Smith has wins for Record and Song of the Year, but his winning single “Stay With Me,” again, does not reference queerness in its lyrics, which is the same case as Cyrus’s “Flowers”; you can also apply this to Billie Eilish’s general field wins, since the artist only recently confirmed her queerness publicly.

What’s especially worth noting is that, in many cases, the queer nominees are the most acclaimed in their category. Boygenius’s “The Record,” for example, which won three Grammys, fell short of winning in the general field, clouded by the Taylor Swift-mania of “Midnights.” “Montero” was also a more acclaimed record than that year’s Album of the Year winner, Jon Batiste’s “We Are.”

So the Grammys are certainly open, but in order to properly acknowledge queer talent, there needs to be more openness to consider all queer music, not just the cishet-palatable material. After all, if queer artists need to appeal to a certain kind of straight palate in order to be accepted … are they truly accepted?

Make your predictions at Gold Derby now. Download our free and easy app for Apple/iPhone devices or Android (Google Play) to compete against legions of other fans plus our experts and editors for best prediction accuracy scores. See our latest prediction champs. Can you top our esteemed leaderboards next? Always remember to keep your predictions updated because they impact our latest racetrack odds, which terrify record executives and music stars. Don’t miss the fun. Speak up and share your huffy opinions in our famous forums where thousands of showbiz leaders lurk every day to track latest awards buzz. Everybody wants to know: What do you think? Who do you predict and why?

Who will win Grammy for Album of the Year?
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