There are many reasons people love to bash the Grammys, but one of the most frequent punching bags is the Best New Artist category.
Whether it goes to someone music fans have never heard of (2010’s Esperanza Spalding ), an act who’s been around forever (2001’s Shelby Lynne), or one that even at his or her peak seemed unworthy at best (notorious 1981 flash-in-the-pan Christopher Cross), Best New Artist is a perennial head-scratcher.
By Recording Academy rules, the award is for a musician or band who releases an album during the year of eligibility that establishes their “public identity” as an artist. That doesn’t mean it’s their first album or that they suddenly appeared on the scene just that year, because, really, no act just materializes out of thin air and makes their way to the Grammys without years of unseen road, club and studio work.
But a look at this year’s nominees is proof that in an age of mixtapes, YouTube, features and blog love such “new” acts as Bon Iver, Nicki Minaj, Skrillex and J. Cole are practically veterans by the time the Academy decides to shine its spotlight. In fact, of all this year’s nominees, only country trio the Band Perry are truly “new,” and they formed in 2005, then gigged around and dropped a few singles until their only full-length studio recording was released in late October of last year.
The Recording Academy has been dancing as fast as it can over the past few years to get younger and hipper, putting such buzz acts as Drake, MGMT, Feist and the Ting Tings up for the award. But no amount of hustle can really help keep up with a music business that has radically changed the game when it comes to introducing new acts.
A year after another mixtape veteran, Drake, landed in the Best New Artist mix, Minaj and Cole are perhaps this year’s best examples of everything old being new again.
Nicki released three mixtapes between 2007 and the time she signed with Young Money Entertainment in 2009. From that point on, she became the queen of features, showing up for guest verses on songs by Robin Thicke, Teairra Marie, Mariah Carey, Bobby Valentino, Usher, Mya, Ludacris, Jason DeRülo and many others prior to dropping her first album, Pink Friday, in November 2010.
On the same tip, Cole started posting his earliest rhymes online nearly a decade ago before being signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label. He, too, released a series of mixtapes, scored guest shots on songs by Jigga, Wale, B.o.B, Young Chris and Miguel, worked the road and seeded the Net with new music for more than three years before finally unleashing his major-label debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story, in May. Like Minaj, by the time his debut hit stores, Cole was practically a household name and had already been touted as one of the biggest young stars in the business.
Dubstep DJ Skrillex (a.k.a. former From First to Last guitarist Sonny Moore) spent several years on the road earlier in the 2000s playing emo-core before breaking off in 2007 to work on his own music. He transitioned from rock to producing and remixing as Skrillex, releasing his debut dance EP, My Name Is Skrillex, in June 2010. After getting signed to pal deadmau5’s label, he put out the Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites EP in October 2010, followed by his major-label debut, More Monsters and Sprites, in June of this year on Big Beat/Atlantic.
All that time, he was remixing songs by everyone from Lady Gaga and Snoop Dogg to the All-American Rejects, Black Eyed Peas and Robyn, while relentlessly touring. In fact, over the course of the past year, his audiences have grown to thousands and sometimes tens of thousands, as he’s become a Spin cover boy and one of the most sought-after EDM acts on the planet, lending credence to the idea that this truly was his breakthrough year.
Similarly, gentle Auto-Tune folkie Bon Iver (the stage name of Wisconsin’s Justin Vernon) gigged around in little-known bands for years and released an acclaimed indie-label debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, in 2008 before the Academy noticed his self-titled second Bon Iver album, which came out in June.
It probably didn’t hurt that he was also featured on leading Grammy nominee Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album on a number of tracks.
So are any of these nominees really “new”? Not really. Maybe to you, or the Academy, but for hard-core fans, the only thing new about them is that from now on they can add “Grammy-nominated” to their long list of accomplishments.
Who are you rooting for in the Best New Artist category? Let us know in the comments!