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Grammy Burning Questions: Where Justin Bieber, BTS, Drake, Kacey Musgraves and Others Landed on First Ballot

·13-min read

Theoretically, the first Grammys ballot that comes out early in the voting process shouldn’t be so full of surprises. Nearly everything that gets submitted that meets basic eligibility requires makes it onto the initial ballot, as the huge number of contenders listed for record of the year (1,172 hopefuls, this time) and song of the year (1,163) would indicate.

But which categories the submissions will end up in can involve suspense and even shocks — hence the triplicate controversies over Kacey Musgraves, Bo Burnham and Brandi Carlile being shuffled into categories different from the ones they intended to compete in. And there are also surprises about which songs artists, labels and managers submit. Occasionally someone like the Weeknd will boycott the process altogether, as he has after protesting his nomination shutout last year. The subtler intrigue and strategizing that fans don’t hear as much about, though, has to do with which songs are submitted when a hit artist has multiple eligible choices that could stand a chance.

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The ballots, even at this undiscerning stage, are supposed to be secret, but with more than 11,000 voting members in the Recording Academy, they’re not that secret. (“For your consideration” ads, which sometimes appear, can also make it pretty clear who’s contending for what.) Variety scanned the preliminary ballot to find answers to some burning questions about what choices artists and labels made in their submissions this year.

Q: How many different songs did BTS’ team enter into submission?

A: Let’s start with an easy one, and jump to the only question the ARMY is here for. The answer is “Butter” — and that’s it. It makes sense that the group, which many feel has been underrepresented with nominations in the past, would roll the die for record and song of the year on the most obvious pick out of several eligible hits.

Still, it’s a surprise not to see any submissions for “My Universe,” their collaboration with Coldplay. The fact that it was released right at the outer edge of the eligibility period suggested that maybe both parties were looking to get it in under the wire for Grammy consideration, but that wasn’t the case. Coldplay, for its part, submitted “Coloratura” for the top prizes.

As a side note, if “Butter” does go on to get nominated, BTS will share the honor with its soon-to-be-former label head, Ron Perry, who co-wrote the tune. (Come November, BTS will make the label switch from Sony Music to Universal Music, which could make a reunion at the Grammy podium just slightly awkward.)

Q: Where’s Dua Lipa’s “Levitating,” the biggest pop song of the year?

A: Nowhere. It should have been eligible, even though it was off an album that was up for multiple awards last year — because the single had its major impact this year, and because it was a new remix, with DaBaby as an added featured artist. But Lipa presumably could only have submitted the DaBaby, and that would have been a lot to ask of voters, to pretend that the persona-non-grata rapper really wasn’t on it. Most likely Lipa was saving voters having to agonize over choosing between their love for her and their dread of giving the thumbs-up to a guy still considered toxic by much of the industry for his homophobic comments.

Lipa does have one song on the ballot for record of the year — but it’s “Demeanor,” the Pop Smoke song on which she is a featured artist.

Q: Is it true that Kacey Musgraves will be up for contention in both pop and country categories, as well as the general field?

A: Yes. As has already been established amid the controversy, Grammy screening committees moved her “Star-Crossed” from country album to pop album, to her chagrin. But her song “Camera Roll” was accepted in both the country song and country solo performance categories. It’s somewhat surprising that “Camera Roll” was also her submission in the general record and song of the year categories, as it wasn’t one of the album’s initial emphasis tracks, like “Justified” or the title song. But she and her handlers may have been smart in looking at which lesser-publicized song most came up in album reviews as a standout.

Q: Did Justin Bieber get his wish to have the Grammys consider him an R&B artist?

A: Yes, with an asterisk. Last November, you may recall, Bieber made a stink when all of his genre submissions were shifted to the pop field from his desired R&B. “I set out to make an R&B album. ‘Changes’ was and is an R&B album,” he wrote then. “It is not being acknowledged as an R&B album, which is very strange to me.”

Well, this year, Bieber may get the first R&B Grammy nomination of his career: His biggest smash single of the year, “Peaches” was not only submitted for but accepted into both R&B song and R&B performance consideration.

The rest of his genre nominations are in the pop division, but it’s likely he wanted to divide his chances into both genre categories. (Plus, he acknowledged from the outset that this year’s “Justice” album was more pop-oriented than “Changes.”). “Anyone” is the song submitted for best pop solo performance, and “Lonely,” his hit collab with Benny Blanco, was entered into contention for best pop/duo group performance. (Bieber will be competing against himself in that latter category thanks to two additional songs that he was a featured guest on, DJ Khaled’s “Let It Go” and Skrillex’s “Don’t Go.”)

Q: Which of the many hit songs he had this year did Drake submit for record and song of the year?

A: None, surprisingly. Drake has been estranged from the Grammys some years, but he’s been on better terms with the awards org lately, so you might have expected him to come in with hopes of a big sweep, especially in the first year in decades in which a popular vote will determine the final round of nominees, upping his chances. Yet Drake seems to have had mixed feelings about how many categories to be submitted in. Maybe it’s because he didn’t have one song that was a clear favorite that he decided to sit record and song out. But “Certified Lover Boy,” which looks to surpass Morgan Wallen’s effort to become the biggest long-player of the year, is in the mix for album of the year, so it’s not like he’s boycotting the proceedings.

Q: So what else, if anything, did Drake submit himself for, then?

Really, just a handful of things, as Drake or his people seem to have been highly selective, for whatever reason — although his field of contenders expands by virtue of submissions for songs on which he was only a featured artist or songwriter and not the primary artist.

As lead artist, he is not in any R&B categories, but is submitted for two songs in rap. “Way 2 Sexy” will contend for best rap performance, and “Girls Want Girls” is on the ballot for best melodic rap performance. For best rap song, he submitted “No Friends in the Industry,” perhaps hoping to prove that he was only joking with that title.

Q: So, then (not to harp on a thread), those four submissions are Drake’s only shot at getting nominations, right?

A: Hardly! Because Drake has been submitted as a potential nominee on a slew of songs he only appeared on as a guest artist and/or co-writer. “Outta Time” by Bryson Tiller featuring Drake is submitted for record of the year, song of the year, best R&B performance and best R&B song. His featured appearance on Brent Faiyaz’s “Wasting Time” is up for best R&B song. “You’re Munes Still,” by Yung Bleu with Drake as guest, is in for record and song of the year, best melodic rap and best rap song. Drake is also one of seven credited, eligible songwriters — but not a performer — on “Mr. Right Now” by 21 Savage and Metro Boomin, which was submitted for record and song of the year and also best rap song. Got all that?

Q: Which song did Grammy favorite H.E.R. end up favoring — “Damage” or “Fight for You”?

A: It’s a mix of both. “Fight for You,” the movie theme that already won her an Oscar for best song, is what she went with submitting for the record and song of the year general categories. She also went with it for best traditional R&B performance. But she submitted “Damage” for best R&B performance and best R&B song.

She was also submitted as a featured artist on a couple of other acts’ records: “Tired of You” by Yung Bleu featuring H.E.R. is competing for best R&B performance and best R&B song, and “I Can Have It All,” where she’s one of three features supporting DJ Khaled, is also up for best R&B song.

Q: Which song did embattled country superstar Morgan Wallen go with — “Sand in My Boots” or “7 Summers”?

Wallen, too, split his chances. “7 Summers” was submitted for record and song of the year. But when it came specifically to the country field, he went with something different. “Sand in My Boots” ended up being his pick for best country solo performance. (The song is also entered for best country song, though Wallen wouldn’t participate in a nom, since he’s not a co-writer on that.) Wallen is also entered for yet a third song — “Only Thing That’s Gone,” a collab with Chris Stapleton as his guest vocalist — for best country duo/group performance.

Q: Which song did Ariana Grande go with for top awards — “Positions” or “34+35”?

A: The former, not too surprisingly, was Grande’s pick for record and song of the year. Much of the votership would just not be prepared to go there with the more outrightly sexually provocative latter tune, however light-hearted or between consenting newlywed adults.

Q: Did Taylor Swift enter any genre categories besides pop, or submit any songs besides “Willow”?

A: That’s an easy answer — no — to both of those. There was speculation that Swift could at least take a stab at getting something like “Cowboy Like Me” from her “Evermore” album into a country song category, but that’s not the case. And she’d already announced she would not be submitting anything from the remake of one of her old country albums, “Fearless (Taylor’s Version),” for any awards consideration. So “Willow” it is.

Oh, except for the further appearances she makes on the ballot as a guest member of the group Big Red Machine alongside frequent collaborator Aaron Dessner. Their song “Renegade” is submitted for record and song of the year. Also, Haim submitted the remix version of “Gasoline” that was redone to give Swift a credited verse for song of the year contention, but Swift didn’t do additional writing for the tune, so she wouldn’t share in a song nomination. (The Haim tune wasn’t submitted for record of the year, which Swift would have shared in.)

Q: Did Olivia Rodrigo enter the rock category?

A: Apparently not. There was talk of Rodrigo being a rock contender for “Good 4 U,” but her only genre category and choice was “Drivers License” in pop.

Q: Did St. Vincent get entered in rock or alternative?

A: Both. This often happens, with someone’s album getting nominated in alternative and a song from it being up in rock categories. This begs the question, if rock and alternative are so closely aligned, of why they are in separate divisions, but ours is not to question (at least not at the moment). So “Daddy’s Home” is being fielded as best alternative music album, while “Pay Your Way in Pain” is a contender for best rock song and best rock performance.

Q: How about Halsey’s latest? Rock, alternative or both?

A: Just alternative. Their acclaimed album “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power” is submitted for best alternative music album. Songs from the Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross-produced album would seem to have been viable in the rock category as well, but apparently none were submitted. Halsey does have one entry in rock categories, though, as a featured artist — “Forget Me Too,” a Machine Gun Kelly track on which she was guest, is in the mix for rock performance and rock song. When it came time to pick a track to put in for the top record and song categories, Halsey and her team chose “I Am Not a Woman, I’m a God.”

Q: Is Kanye West submitted for gospel awards, again?

A: No. Even though West’s last album, “Jesus Is King,” won a gospel trophy this past March, he is not in the gospel division this time for any of the songs from the recent “Donda,” even though some seemed spiritually focused enough to have qualified.

Q: Are there a lot of live tracks or albums submitted in rock categories, as usual?

A: There sure are. And after an absence of a few years, they may have a better time of getting nominated, now that blue-ribbon committees are out of the picture in selecting the final nominees and classic rock types may finally once again find themselves in favor. Among the recordings submitted for best rock album: Steely Dan’s “Northeast Corridor, Steely Dan Live,” Eagles’ “Live From the Forum MMXVIII” and “Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival 2019 (Live).” Rock song submissions include Nick Cave’s “Galleon Ship, Live at Alexandra Palace, 2020,” Clapton’s “Purple Rain (Live),” Steely Dan’s “Aja (Live)” and — a surprise, maybe, that this one was allowed to stay in rock — Pink’s “River (Live).”

Also, Elvis Costello also ended up back in rock (for “Hey Clockface” and “Hetty O’Hara Confidential”) after landing in — and winning — the traditional pop category two years ago, where he’d faced off against Barbra Streisand. Michael Buble and Andrea Bocelli.

Q: Did the Weeknd make good on his vow not to submit anything this year, in his pique after last year’s supposed snub?

A: Yes, he did steer clear of the entire process. But he could stand a chance at a record of the year nod anyway, because a song from Kanye West’s album that feature West, “Hurricane,” was submitted. It’d be ironic if, after badly wanting a Grammy and being shut out, now he wanted no part of it but then got tagged for a Grammy against his will.

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