The Grammy for Best New Artist has been the subject of criticism many times. Some years the winner seems too shallow, based on popularity more than artistic merit, like when Macklemore and Ryan Lewis beat the likes of Kendrick Lamar, James Blake, and future general field winners Ed Sheeran and Kacey Musgraves. Other years it seems like the Grammys are oblivious to success and just go for the most “Grammy-friendly” act in the lineup, which usually means avoiding hip-hop and EDM like when Bon Iver beat J. Cole, Nicki Minaj, and Skrillex. Perhaps the biggest Best New Artist upset was shocking by many standards. Let’s talk about Esperanza Spalding.
Spalding won the coveted Best New Artist prize at the 53rd Grammy Awards exactly 10 years ago. She was no stranger to praise; she got a scholarship to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music and received praise from Barack Obama and Pat Metheny well before her historic win. So Spalding’s nomination wasn’t a huge shock, even though her name wasn’t familiar to everyone. But it definitely was a shock when Jewel and John Legend announced her name as the champ on Grammy night.
It’s especially surprising in hindsight since Spalding’s competitors were a who’s who of soon-to-be superstars. Global pop star Justin Bieber, back in his “Baby” days, seemed like the front-runner. Canadian rapper Drake was also nominated and was considered Bieber’s closest competitor. Both artists had had amazing years with multiple hits. The other two nominees weren’t passing fads either. Florence and the Machine are were repeatedly nominated in the years that followed, and Mumford and Sons were not only commercially successful, but ended up winning Album of the Year for “Babel” the following year. Either of the four would’ve been traditional Grammy choices, the first two being the typical commercial picks and the latter two being hip Bon Iver types.
That said, Spalding’s win was nothing short of great. It looked like front-runner Justin Bieber was slightly upset (who could blame him?). Drake seemed pleasantly surprised, while Florence and Mumford both cheered on the jazz prodigy’s unexpected win, while Spalding herself walked confidently to the stage (after mouthing an understandable “Oh my God!”) and gave a graceful speech, dedicating the award to the people who had helped her get where she was, as well as the “incredible” music community.
I think that last point reveals why Spalding managed to pull off such an odd victory. A lot of people forget that Grammy voters are musicians, songwriters, producers, and other industry insiders, the kinds likely to cherish a success story like Spalding’s and who love to see that kind of talent recognized. Being such a prodigious musician may have resonated with voters more than Bieber’s teen music or Mumford and Sons’ indie/folk rock tunes. Spalding represented the underdogs, the instrumentalists, composers, performers who may not have gotten the stardom, but had passion and dedication for their craft. Wins like Spalding’s show that, despite the still-prevalent criticisms of their voting process, the Grammys sometimes do acknowledge artistry over pure hype.
Spalding closed her speech by promising to make “a lot of great music,” and she kept her word, racking up three more Grammys since her BNA win and remaining a prestigious name. And needless to say, the other nominees seem to be doing fine for themselves too, with two quite literally ranking among the most successful artists of the past 50 years (Beiber and Drake) and three of them eventually becoming Grammy winners (Bieber, Drake, and Mumford and Sons), while Florence and the Machine are winners in this author’s heart.
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