About 20 minutes into the 2023 Grammys, I knew Beyoncé wasn’t winning Album of the Year.
What tipped me off was the ceremony’s host, Trevor Noah. During his opening monologue, Noah somewhat awkwardly traversed the audience and talked about the power of music and other platitudes. He approached Beyoncé’s table, only to find that she wasn’t there. Noah playfully assured the audience that Beyoncé was attending and that she was on the cusp of being the most-awarded individual in Grammy history. It was the night’s most consistent theme: Beyoncé is the music industry’s queen, and that night was a jubilee.
If Beyoncé is queen, she is missing the Grammys’ crown jewel, Album of the Year. One of the ceremony’s most prevailing controversies this past decade centers on Beyoncé’s perceived snubs. Beck pipped Beyoncé in 2014 when she was nominated for her industry-shifting self-titled album. In 2016, Lemonade collided with Adele’s record-thrashing 25 and lost, shocking everyone, including Adele, who dedicated most of her speech to Beyoncé. Renaissance, a joyous celebration of Black queer-driven dance music, was largely expected to break the streak, despite a stacked shortlist that included Lizzo, Bad Bunny, Harry Styles, and even ABBA.
Throughout the night, the overwhelming deference to Beyoncé carried a whiff of desperation. The producers knew the zeitgeist-capturing potential of Beyoncé finally receiving her first Album of the Year trophy. Millions were waiting for, or at least expecting, this moment, tuning in to see it live. (She notably didn’t perform, but getting her to appear was a triumph in its own right.) The producers also knew that the Recording Academy could snub her again, infuriating fans and dooming the possibility of Beyoncé ever again participating. (The Grammys have already weathered The Weeknd and Drake boycotting them; losing Beyoncé would be an existential crisis.) The constant reminders of her imminent history-making moment felt like the producers hedging their bets, providing cover for the Academy to play in her face. If she won, great. If she lost, she had the consolation of being relentlessly feted, as if that was good enough.
It’s a cynical reading proven right. Beyoncé lost Album of the Year again, this time to Harry Styles for the album Harry’s House. Lizzo and Adele looked stunned. Styles, understandably overwhelmed and overcome, held his head in his hands. Meanwhile, Beyoncé graciously smiled as Styles explained, in an unintentionally tone-deaf speech, that his win doesn’t usually happen to someone like him. It was an ugly moment, but not because Styles didn’t deserve to win. Instead, it was the preceding embarrassing pretense that was particularly grating. The ceremony raised the stakes all night, knowing it could potentially, even likely, backfire.
This situation isn’t unprecedented: recent awards history has an even worse example. The 93rd Academy Awards broke tradition by ending the ceremony with the Best Actor category instead of Best Picture. Although unconfirmed, the likely reason for the switch was the late Chadwick Boseman, nominated for his final film role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Boseman had been the frontrunner throughout the pandemic-riddled season, picking up precursor after precursor. His win seemed inevitable. In theory, closing the Oscars with his spouse Simone Boseman accepting his presumed award would’ve made for a powerful television moment. (In a twist of macabre corporate synergy, the Academy produced an NFT featuring Boseman to give attendees.) Chadwick Boseman’s win would affirm the emotional power of the Oscars as a cultural television event. For a ceremony ravaged by attacks on its relevance, restructuring the running order was too good of an opportunity for producers to ignore.
Except Chadwick Boseman didn’t win. Anthony Hopkins won for his masterful performance in The Father, turning a pre-planned heartrending moment into an awkward farce. Joaquin Phoenix accepted the award on Hopkins’ behalf because Hopkins didn’t want to travel to either Los Angeles or London. (Hopkins offered to make a speech via Zoom but the Academy refused, according to The New York Times’ Kyle Buchanan. Hopkins released an acceptance speech the following day that paid tribute to Boseman.) Meanwhile, everyone else was left uncomfortable at this stunt gone awry, made worse that it was at the expense of two beloved actors, one the world was still grieving. (I can’t even fathom what Simone Boseman must’ve thought in the audience.)
Again, who deserved to win Best Actor in 2021 is irrelevant. The discomfort and outrage of Boseman’s loss came from the producers’ unabashed attempt to manufacture a moment. Even if you grant them pandemic-related grace, they still tossed out decades of precedent on the possibility that Boseman might win. If Best Picture closed the ceremony as intended, his loss to Hopkins might’ve stung, but it wouldn’t have felt like a cruel setup.
Entertainment awards shows are at a precarious point, with their viewership numbers crashing and critics debating their relevance. There is increasing pressure from their industries and surrounding ecosystems to make their ceremonies unmissable and culture-defining. Instead of letting memorable moments happen naturally, producers twist their shows into knots to make them happen. (Last year’s Oscars and its Fan Favorite “award” were a soul-crushing example.)
It’s all embarrassing fun and games until you start centering people in the debasement. What happened to Chadwick Boseman and Beyoncé accomplished little more than spotlighting their disappointment and setting them up for discourse bolstered by their respective ceremonies’ cravenness. It also put the winners in the painful position of defending themselves and apologizing for their accomplishments. Awards pundits may joke about it, but competitive awards aren’t set in stone. Reworking a ceremony around a perceived outcome yields more painful risk than reward, good television be damned. (We shouldn’t ignore that the two worst examples happened to Black artists.)
This year’s Grammys were one of its better recent iterations: a fun, vibrant, and harmlessly corny night of recognition. The producers marred the celebratory spirit by needlessly amplifying Beyoncé’s Album of the Year loss with its over-the-top praise. Whether they were demonstrating their shallow allegiance or putting her in her place, the Grammys made a spectacle of Beyoncé in a way that feels impossible to excuse and hard to forgive. Beyoncé will ultimately be okay. The Grammys, on the other hand, may not be.