When the 2021 Grammy Award nominations were announced in November, thousands of people were stunned to see that the Weeknd -- one of the most commercially and critically successful artists of the past year, whose single "Blinding Lights" just became the first song ever to spend a full year in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 -- was not nominated for any awards.
The inexplicable and/or suspicious snub, the biggest in Grammy history, could only be explained as the work of the "secret committees" of industry veterans, executives and artists who determine the nominees in certain, but not all, categories. The work of the committees was singled out for alleged insider dealing in a blockbuster legal complaint by Deborah Dugan, who was ousted as president/CEO of the Recording Academy last year after serving just eight months, as a symbol of longstanding corruption within the Grammy bureaucracy. While the Weeknd and his team had basically allowed the situation to die down in recent weeks, as he performed as the Super Bowl's headlining halftime performer last month, it flared up again on the Thursday before the Grammys when he said in a statement to the New York Times that he will boycott the awards, at least until change is instituted.
"Because of the secret committees," the Weeknd said, "I will no longer allow my label to submit my music to the Grammys."
It's certainly possible that the committees -- or the voters for the categories that don't have secret committees -- didn't give the Weekend enough votes, or that some computation-process oddity was responsible for the snub. But few really believe it, and multiple theories have been posited, most commonly that someone, and it's not clear who, simply didn't want the Weeknd to perform at both the Grammys and the Super Bowl, which were originally scheduled just a week apart (the Grammys were moved from Jan. 31 to this Sunday due to a coronavirus spike in Southern California). That theory is made even more confusing by the fact that the Weeknd's team, the NFL, CBS (which broadcasts both the Grammys and the Super Bowl) and Super Bowl halftime advisor Roc Nation held extensive meetings and worked out the situation so that he could do both -- only to have the issue become moot days later, when the Weeknd was excluded from the nominations and effectively out of the running to be a performer on the show.
Among multiple other claims, Dugan's complaint alleges that some board members on the "secret committees" represent or have relationships with nominated artists; that the Board uses these committees as an opportunity to push forward artists with whom they have relationships; and that the Board also manipulates the nominations process to ensure that certain songs or albums are nominated when the producer of the Grammys wants a particular song performed during the show. The legal situation between Dugan and the Recording Academy is ongoing, and both have declined requests by Variety for comment.
Asked about the snub by Variety on the day the nominations were announced, interim Grammy chief Harvey Mason jr., who replaced Dugan, declined to find fault with the Academy's process, saying, "it really just comes down to the voting body that decides. We have eight nomination slots to fill in [the "Big Four" categories: Best Album, Song, Record and New Artist], five in others, and the voters vote for their favorites."
Asked again about the situation earlier this week, Mason told Variety: "Some of it was [decided by] the [secret] nominating committees and some was the voting body, because some of the awards he was eligible for did not have nominating committees, so it was a combination of both. But again, it's unfortunate, we never like to see somebody as talented as the Weeknd get left out or feel left out. It's not something any of us are happy about."
However, the Weeknd's situation encompasses much more than angry fans or an artist's understandable confusion and hurt over one of the biggest albums of the past decade being inexplicably excluded from the music world's top awards: It seems to be evidence of deep dysfunction -- or worse -- in the nominating process of those awards.
Asked if the egregious snub means that the Academy will consider changing its rules at its forthcoming board meetings in May, Mason said, "The process is definitely something that we're going to continue to look at and continue to make sure that it's evolving as music continues to evolve," adding "I'll hopefully have more things to talk about in the future."
Mason, who is also chair of the Academy's Board of Trustees, is expected to step down for a new, permanent president/CEO in May, although the selection process is still underway.
Wassim Slaiby, the manager of the Weeknd, told the Times an email interview that it was still unclear why his client was not nominated. "We were many weeks and dozens of calls in with the Grammy team around Abel's performance right up to the day of nominations being announced," said Slaiby, who is known as Sal. "We were scratching our heads in confusion and wanted answers."
Reps for the Weeknd, his label, Republic Records, and the Recording Academy declined or did not immediately respond to Variety's requests for further comment.
Slaiby said he hopes the Weeknd's stand inspires other artists to speak out against the secret committees.
"The Grammys should handle their legacy and clean it up to raise the bar to a level where everyone could be proud to hold up that award," he said. "This is Harvey's chance to step up and have his legacy be the guy who got the Grammys finally right."