Seriously though, how did that weird Taylor Swift Grammy win for ‘Folklore’ happen?

Taylor Swift’s Album of the Year win at the Grammys for “Folklore” was weird. Not because she wasn’t expected to — she led Gold Derby’s odds by a pretty good margin — but because Swift only won Album of the Year. And unlike the few other artists who have done this as well (Arcade Fire‘s “The Suburbs” and Mumford and Sons‘ “Babel” being the most recent examples), she lost her genre category to another Album of the Year nominee (Best Pop Album went to Dua Lipa‘s “Future Nostalgia”). This is the only time that has happened this century. So how did Swift pull off a win with relatively low support in her own genre?

Much like Swift’s last Album of the Year winner, “1989” (2016), “Folklore’s” whole narrative was built on her trying something different. This time though, instead of the country-to-pop transition she made for the ’80s-inspired “1989,” Swift took things in a more intimate direction for her eighth studio album, joined by Grammy winner Aaron Dessner from the alternative band The National and frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff as co-writers and producers. As a result, “Folklore” had a more indie-pop, Americana-inspired sound, which could’ve appealed to a broader range of voters and also given her more “serious artist” cred.

But the change of sound ended up being a little riskier than we expected. Swift left empty-handed in the pop categories, despite being the odds-on front-runner for Pop Duo/Group Performance and Pop Vocal Album and ranked second in Pop Solo Performance. Perhaps we were always overestimating her, though. Voters in the genre have always been a little skittish about Swift; in 2018 her hit song “Delicate” was completely snubbed including missing Pop Solo Performance in favor of less commercially successful songs. In fact, out of her 11 Grammy wins to date, only one of them was in a pop category: Pop Vocal Album for the aforementioned “1989.” So perhaps “Folklore” seemed a little too alternative and not hit-heavy enough for pop voters’ palates.

But the stylistic change-up wasn’t the only thing that helped Swift in the top category. With the last year being dominated by female artists both critically and commercially, a lot of voters were probably on board with giving Swift a place in Grammy history by making her the first woman to win the award three times. Academy members who ditched Swift for Lipa in Pop Vocal Album, for example, maybe didn’t think Lipa had made enough for an industry splash to win Album of the Year, or perhaps they went with Lipa as a passion pick in pop but ultimately went for Swift in the premier category to show support for both critically beloved projects.

Some good-old nomination review committee decisions definitely helped “Folklore” over the line. The committee took the top 20 vote-getters for Album of the Year and narrowed it down to the final eight, and their omissions were surprising to say the least. Fiona Apple’s “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” could’ve given Swift a run for her money had it been nominated, or it could’ve taken alternative and rock votes away from her and allowed for a Dua Lipa win in the top category. Harry Styles’s “Fine Line” also seemed to have support given his surprise win for Pop Solo Performance for “Watermelon Sugar,” so that also could’ve been a big contender had it not been blocked. And of course, one has to wonder what would’ve happened if early front-runner The Weeknd (“After Hours“) had not been shut out of the nominations altogether. Though there’s a chance The Weeknd missed the top 20 for Album of the Year anyways since he didn’t get any nominations in non-committee categories either.

Finally, this COVID year has brought a lot of people anxiety, so “Folklore” being a quintessential COVID record — made in isolation during the pandemic — could’ve struck a chord with voters. After all, making a whole album in quarantine is no easy feat, especially given all that’s going on in the world. So there was a sentimental factor to “Folklore” that the dance-heavy “Future Nostalgia,” HAIM‘s eclectic “Women in Music Pt. III” and Jacob Collier‘s “Djesse Vol. 3” simply don’t have, and one that Swift nailed perfectly. Our congratulations are in order to Swift, and who knows? Maybe she’ll be back again for another historic win this time next year since her second surprise COVID album, “Evermore,” is eligible in 2022.

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