The best new artist from four years ago

So we’re all in our post-Grammy hangover stage after days of being drunk with information overload. We’ve gone over who wore what 3,421 times now, and we’ve praised and bashed the various performances multiple times with all of our friends and some of our acquaintances (and this is within good reason… I’m still not sure what the hell Nicki Minaj did while she was on stage. Still. Was it a song? Was it a play? Was it painful?). And so now it’s just about time to move on, to get ready for the Oscars, and then wait with baited breath for that next big awards show… the MTV Video Music Awards.

(Who am I kidding?)

But in the meantime, there is one topic that needs addressed because everyone feels they can bitch about it without understanding it.

Bon Iver won Best New Artist at the Grammys (and I’d like to throw an I-told-you-so in here, so here it is). Justin Vernon stomped on Nicki Minaj, Skrillex and the Band Perry. He defeated some of the biggest names in music, and arguably some of the most successful at this point in time. And he did it graciously, with a beautifully confusing acceptance speech that knocked the awards. I know, it’s confusing, but it happened.

Justin Vernon of Bon Iver takes home the Grammy for Best New Artist.

However, everyone seems to be upset with Vernon’s win. Their argument?

“He’s not new.”

Okay, valid point. Bon Iver released their second album, Bon Iver, last year, and this was the album that was nominated and that got them the attention from the Recording Academy. Their first album, 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago, went by without much notice from Grammy voters. So, yes, Bon Iver’s been hanging around in the music scene for about four years, going on five. They aren’t the newest of the bands that were in the category or those that were excluded from it. But here’s the thing.

Here’s the thing.


This is how the Recording Academy determines eligibility for the category:

“A new artist is defined as any performing artist who releases, during the eligibility year, the recording that first establishes the public identity of that artist as a performer.”

Now, I’ll be among the first to admit that this is a strange rule, and I agree that it lets some random faces into a category that often ends up being an upset (see Esperanza Spalding last year, the exclusion of Lady Gaga from any year, the exclusion of Nirvana, so on, so on).

But in a way, it kind of makes sense. Just hear me out on this, as I know I’m the minority in this opinion.

I’m a music junkie, and I’m addicted to both Pitchfork and Spin Magazine, so I heard of Bon Iver back in 2007. However, while For Emma was critically acclaimed and amassed a following, it wasn’t some huge phenomenal success (and Justin Vernon didn’t really want it to be – he’s in it for the music, man). It did, however, lead to him working with Kanye West on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and that work in turn definitely helped him build a stronger following for his second album. Bon Iver was released June 21, 2011, and it peaked at number two on the Billboard 200 (not to mention hitting number one on the Alternative Albums, Independent Albums and Rock Albums charts). Meanwhile, For Emma, Forever Ago only peaked at 64 on the Billboard 200 (although it did have the number one spot on Billboard’s Heatseakers chart).

Think about it. In 2011, Bon Iver was new to a huge number of people. I’m not saying that this makes the Grammys’ twisted system acceptable, but it at least makes some kind of sense (that verges on acceptable). Bon Iver was brand new in 2007. But in the public conscience, Bon Iver was new in 2011. And, let me add, I think working with Kanye on one of his greatest (if not his absolute greatest) albums certainly goes with the “establishing an artist’s public identity as a performer” clause. That, bolstered by a solid chart performance with a well-reviewed album (9.5 out of 10 from Pitchfork, 8 out of 10 from Spin), would make 2011 Bon Iver’s year – and not 2007.

And I know some of you are still irritated by this. You wanted Skrillex to win, or maybe, just maybe, you really thought Nicki Minaj deserved the award.

I hate to break it to you, but they aren’t “new,” either.

And neither are J. Cole or the Band Perry.

Don’t believe me?

  • Let’s start with Skrillex, whose real name is Sonny Moore. Let’s have some conversations about Sonny
    Skrillex, aka Sonny Moore, performs.

    Moore. He might be Mr. Dubstep himself right now, and he won four awards this past Sunday night. But before becoming king of all that is wubwubwub, Moore was the lead singer of From First to Last – a gig that he got involved with in 2004 at the age of 16. From First to Last bounced around between Warner Brothers Records and Capitol Records, not exactly low-key labels, and they performed on the Black Clouds and Underdogs Tour in 2006 with Fall Out Boy and the All-American Rejects. Then, if this doesn’t reinforce the idea enough, Moore left From First to Last in 2007 to start work on his electronic project Skrillex. In 2007. 2007. Well now. Sorry guys, Skrillex is just as old as Bon Iver. The My Name is Skrillex EP came out in 2010, but Skrillex has been alive and well in some form since 2007, and Moore’s been on the music scene even longer (going on eight years).

  • Oh, but Pink Friday is Nicki’s only release, so she’s still good, right? If only that were the case. Between 2007 and 2009, Minaj released three mixtapes and hooked up with the Young Money crew. (Are you noticing a 2007 trend?) She was one of the featured rappers on 2009’s Young Money release “BedRock,” which peaked at number two on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Yes, Nicki was at the top of the charts well before the release of Pink Friday. Not only did she have the “BedRock” gig, but Mariah Carey tapped her to be a guest in the “Up Out My Face” song in 2009. Yes, girlfriend was chosen by Mariah Carey before ever releasing an album – just three mixtapes. So please, tell me how brand new Nicki Minaj is to the music business.
  • And then we have J. Cole, who everyone just kind of forgot about in this mess. Well, here’s the thing: He released his first mixtape, The Come Up, in 2007 (!), and Jay-Z signed him to the Roc Nation label in 2009. He was featured on Jay’s 2009 release, The Blueprint III, on “A Star is Born.” But it gets better. In 2010, he won the UMA Male Artist of the Year Award. I’m not even going to list all of J. Cole’s other appearances and tours and such, mostly because dude has been working nonstop since 2007 to make this happen. The only way he’s new, especially compared to the competition, is that his actual debut album wasn’t released until September 2011, and it did debut at number one on the Billboard 200. But you know why it debuted so high? Because J. Cole has been releasing material since 2007! Get it?
  • Finally, we have the Band Perry. Now, I am admittedly not a country fan. I can’t get into the twang and the sorrow and all of that. It’s not my cup of tea. However, at this point, it sounds like the Band Perry is the newest of all of these groups and therefore most deserving. And of course, I’m going to tell you why that’s just not the case. The Band Perry could also be called the Perry Siblings, as Kimberly, Reid and Neil Perry are, well, siblings. They decided to form a band in 2005, and subsequently joined the New Faces of Country Tour – in 2005. This makes them the oldest on the list. “Well,” you might be thinking, “they didn’t release a single in 2005. So they’re still new!” Until I tell you that their first single was 2009’s “Hip to My Heart.” I know, I know, “If I Die Young” was not their first single. Your mind is blown. My mind was, too.

So, what are we to make of this? How could no one truly “new” be nominated in a category that supposedly embraces “newness”? What is this world coming to?

Well, let’s reread that Grammy definition of the Best New Artist category (we don’t want you hurting fingers scrolling back to the top!):

“A new artist is defined as any performing artist who releases, during the eligibility year, the recording that first establishes the public identity of that artist as a performer.”

After a first read, and even a second read, it might sound stupid. Just plain stupid. But the Best New Artist category has also been something of a joke and even a curse in past years. As in, once you win Best New Artist, you’ll probably never record another song again. That kind of curse. Milli Vanilli? Starland Vocal Band? Debby Boone?

It’s easy to point out the mistakes.

However, the list of past winners does include a number of notables: Maroon 5. Christina Aguilera. Alicia Keys. Adele. Amy Winehouse. Mariah Carey. Carrie Underwood. John Legend. Hell, even Culture Club won the category.

It’s easy to point to the examples that make the category sound like a joke. It’s easy to get all up in arms over what appears to be a flaw.

Nicki Minaj performs over the summer.

But the category has also awarded some very deserving acts, musicians who are still recording and flourishing to this day. And, if you think about it, the category does something else: It awards some of the hardest working people in the business. After reading about this year’s nominees, it’s evident that they didn’t just stumble into their fame. All five of them worked, and worked, and worked – and then they collectively broke into a public conscience that is functioning in an attention deficit age, dominated by LCD screens and notifications and a general sense of instant gratification.

So I get that it seems dumb Bon Iver won Best New Artist. But really, no one who wins that award is going to be brand new. It takes mountains of effort for anyone to do anything in any industry, and the music industry happens to be an incredibly competitive environment. Why not award those who have worked that much harder to really interrupt us and grab our attention?

Besides, just think: If they only went with artists who formed, recorded and came out right away, who would we be nominating?





Photo credits:

Skrillex courtesy WeeklyDig
Nicki Minaj courtesy nikotransmission
Bon Iver at the Grammys courtesy GrammysVEVO.


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