Grammys explained: How did Jon Batiste pull off that huge Album of the Year upset?

The 2022 Grammys were quite star-packed, with winners ranging from pop sensations Olivia Rodrigo and Doja Cat to country music superstar Chris Stapleton. However, the final award of the night was a surprise to many when Lenny Kravitz announced that the winner of Album of the Year was none other than Jon Batiste for his eclectic album “We Are.” You might remember Batiste’s name as the top nominee this year, earning an impressive set of 11 nominations including Record and Album of the Year. So Batiste’s win might have come out of nowhere to many people, but if you dig deeper, it’s actually not too hard to explain.

The first thing that Batiste had as an advantage was his cross-genre appeal. His 11 nominations were spread across many different fields. From jazz to classical music to R&B and even American roots, Batiste was known and embraced by peers from multiple genres, which likely added up to a lot of support. This is especially important since most of those genres did not have much representation besides Batiste in the Album of the Year category. Classical music and Americana had no other nominees there, the closest to jazz was the Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett record “Love for Sale” (which the Recording Academy considered traditional pop and not jazz), and while R&B did have another nominee (H.E.R.), the Best R&B Album winner (“Heaux Tales” by Jazmine Sullivan) was not nominated for the top award, meaning that there was room for Batiste to sway some voters from there as well.

Another factor that likely helped “We Are” was Batiste’s visibility. While a lot of people might not have recognized him right away, he is the band leader for Stephen Colbert’s “The Late Show.” As such, during voting time, a lot of voters were probably exposed to him in one way or another. Batiste also has performed songs from “We Are” at multiple important campaigning spots over the last two years, including NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concert” series, “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” “The Today Show,” and, of course, “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” This kind of promotion often helps get your music out there to Grammy voters, and often offers a welcome alternative to people who are tired of only listening to what the radio or editorial playlists recommend. Batiste also had a big campaign run last year for his Oscar-winning score for the movie “Soul” (for which he also won a Grammy).

But perhaps the biggest factor in Batiste’s win was how divided the race was. The three front-runners in Gold Derby’s odds — Bennett and Gaga’s “Love For Sale,” Billie Eilish’s “Happier Than Ever,” and Rodrigo’s “Sour” — all had strong cases to win. As such, the pop vote was probably very split between these and the remaining pop albums nominated like Lil Nas X’s “Montero,” Doja Cat’s “Planet Her,” and Justin Bieber’s “Justice.” With 10 nominees, this kind of split between so many albums that would’ve appealed to a similar cross-section of voters can immensely help an underdog artist, especially in Batiste’s case where he had the most wide-ranging support.

“We Are’s” win was positive in a lot of ways for the music industry. It’s the first album by a Black artist to win the award since Herbie Hancock’s “River: The Joni Letters” in 2008. It also represents a rare win for less commercial albums; as of April 4, “We Are” only peaked at number-86 on the Billboard 200 chart, a stark contrast from most Album of the Year winners which typically reach the top 20 before their victories. The album also offers a collection of sounds and genres that are generally underrepresented in the big category, so a win for Batiste was also a way to acknowledge these less celebrated genres. Last but certainly not least, the album’s underlying message of unity, identity, and freedom is one that definitely connected with voters during these contentious times.

Jon Batiste’s win might have been a surprise, but hopefully it’s the start of more inspired picks from the Grammys going forward. Since this was the first year without nomination panels, one could hope that his win leads to a wider range of artists and genres having their moment in the spotlight.

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