The 2017 Grammy Awards surprised many viewers on Sunday, February 12, when the Recording Academy presented Adele‘s 25 with Album of the Year over Beyoncé‘s Lemonade. Even the British singer, whose song “Hello” took home the top prizes for Song and Record of the Year, couldn’t believe it, asking reporters, “What the f–k does [Beyoncé] have to do to win Album of the Year?”
Adele wasn’t the only one thrown off. The snub instantly made music lovers and members of the Beyhive buzz with bewilderment as they tried to theorize exactly what happened behind the scenes.
The members of the Recording Academy, who decide which musicians receive Grammys, aren’t necessarily the most diverse group of individuals, critics often claim. One Grammy voter told Billboard earlier this month that many of the voters are older white males, while others are out of touch with some of the newer genres, therefore limiting the artists awarded.
“The vast majority of the nominations are chosen by people who have little real expertise in a given field,” a second Grammy voter, Rob Kenner, echoed in a Complex article in January 2014. “I refrained from voting in heavy metal and classical because I know very little about those genres. But I could have if I wanted to, and that strikes me as a problem.”
Ahead of Sunday night’s ceremony, a third Grammy voter told Rolling Stone, “Beyoncé should win because her song was more culturally significant and more innovative. Adele — we feel like we’ve seen that show before. But I would not underestimate the average age of Grammy voters, and the chance that the sort of ‘elder median age’ could put Adele in.”
The Grammys have historically overlooked black artists through the years, which led Frank Ocean to skip Sunday’s show. The last black artist to win Album of the Year was Herbie Hancock in 2008. The last black woman? Lauryn Hill in 1999. Fader music journalist Aimee Cliff once noted that fewer than 20 percent of Album of the Year awards have gone to black artists and only three have been presented to hip-hop LPs, the most recent being OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2004. Rihanna, who was nominated for eight awards this year, went home empty handed.
It’s also possible that voters simply appreciated the old-school release of Adele’s 25. The album was originally sold only as a physical CD and on digital retailers, such as iTunes, rather than streaming platforms like Spotify and Tidal. The strategy worked as Adele sold nearly 7.5 million units by the end of 2015, a near-impossible feat in today’s streaming age. Beyoncé’s Lemonade, meanwhile, was initially released as a Tidal exclusive, blocking Spotify and Apple Music users, as well as physical CD consumers. Both albums have since been released on all platforms.
“Could label types, who vote in the Grammys, have punished Beyoncé for this business move, or at least favored Adele?” Rolling Stone journalist Steve Knopper wondered. “Probably not explicitly, but it’s certainly plausible.”