I didn’t watch last night’s Grammy Awards. I know that sounds like such a bad thing for me to say as someone who’s been looking back at past Album of the Year winners but it didn’t interest me much. I probably made the right decision as from what I heard, the Grammys weren’t all that interesting as a show this year. But when I saw that the big award went to Jon Batiste’s WE ARE, a part of me was surprised while another part of me also expected it. After lots of people enjoyed last year’s ceremony, for the most part, the Recording Academy this year seemed to revert to its reputation of rewarding technically good yet unexciting middlebrow music that falls outside the popular zeitgeist. With this theme, WE ARE winning seems like the perfect cap to that evening.
Jon Batiste is someone that even if you don’t know much of you probably have some vague awareness about or recognize from somewhere. Most notably, he and his band Stay Human have been the house band for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert since Colbert took over the show in 2015. Outside of The Late Show, Batiste has been active elsewhere for instance winning an Oscar last year for writing the score to Pixar’s Soul with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. He also performs wherever people want him: festivals, NBA All-Star Game, Kennedy Center Honors, and at the Grammys performing at a tribute he and Gary Clark Jr. did for Chuck Berry and Fats Domino after their deaths.
All through this, Batiste has released music on his own with WE ARE being released in March 2021. Despite Batiste’s public visibility, he’s hardly a relevant music act. WE ARE got little critical attention and debuted on the Billboard album charts at #86 before dropping off the next week though it may come back thanks to the attention from the win. I don’t know about exact sales or streams but it seems WE ARE falls along the lines of winners like Tony Bennett’s MTV Unplugged in being among the lowest selling ever. And in terms of songs, he hasn’t had a song on the Hot 100 in any way. But when the nominations were announced, Batiste was the big star with 11 nominations and winning 5, the most of any nominee.
In regards to its quality, WE ARE isn’t a terrible listen. Length-wise, it’s not that long with 11 tracks (minus a 20-second interlude with Mavis Staples and the minute closer “UNTIL”) totaling over a half-hour. You can tell Jon Batiste is a student of music most notably jazz which makes sense considering his upbringing around New Orleans which is evident by local guests like PJ Morton, Trombone Shorty, and the St. Augustine High School Marching 100 band. But there are also other genre elements from soul, R&B, gospel, and hip-hop. As a singer, Batiste manages to hit some impressive high notes in an almost feathery Al Green sense and when he raps on the track “WHATCHUTALKINABOUT” he’s got energy.
The way that I see it, Batiste won Album of the Year based on his music and his connections. WE ARE is an album that’s dedicated to the sounds of the past while still sounding modern. It has the kind of feel-good uplifting empowerment that the Grammys love. And Batiste, while not a huge mainstream star, is someone that people in the industry know and respect. His role as the Late Show bandleader doesn’t hurt either especially as the Grammys are held on its network CBS. You can already see the nepotism at play with CBS happy to see one of its own winning on an award show that’s held on their channel. When you consider the makeup of the Recording Academy voting body filled with industry execs and musicians across all genres, it’s easy to see why someone like Jon Batiste would appeal to them in a way that the more mainstream stars just don’t.
It’s not just Jon Batiste. The Grammys tendency for safe and tasteful music sprinkled through the rest of the major categories. For both Song of the Year and Record of the Year, “Leave The Door Open,” the Hot 100 #1 hit by Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s Silk Sonic duo won. Mars infamously swept the Grammys in 2018 so considering that it’s no surprise that the Recording Academy was more than happy to reward him again for his safe retro fare though as a fan I’m fine with the wins. In Best New Artist, Olivia Rodrigo unsurprisingly won though to me she seemed destined for the major category sweep that both Christopher Cross in 1981 and Billie Eilish in 2020 enjoyed considering how ubiquitous and acclaimed she was in 2021. If there’s another thing the Grammys love its young artists with lots of industry hype and critical success. But perhaps the Academy felt more comfortable in spreading out the awards rather than turning the Grammys into the Olivia Rodrigo Show.
Overall, WE ARE isn’t a bad album. Batiste is clearly a talented musician, someone who knows his music history, and someone who loves the art so on that level I can’t knock him. It’s just not an album that screams Album of the Year despite its precedents. Most notably, Batiste becomes the first Black artist to win the Album award in 14 years since Herbie Hancock won for River: The Joni Letters which also happens to be another perfectly fine yet forgettable and low selling album that managed to fit right into the Grammys sweet spot that year. (If you quizzed someone on the last two Black artists to win Album of the Year, Herbie Hancock and Jon Batiste most likely won’t come to mind easily.)
Yet despite these issues, a part of me is fine with WE ARE winning. It’s not the best but it’s not the worst either. I’m not going to care much about this album outside of the Grammy wins but for me, it’s nice to know that the Recording Academy is still the Recording Academy. The Grammys are the music industry’s yearly opportunity to present themselves to the public and how they want to be seen. If they want to be seen as an industry that rewards music that’s in no way exciting or relevant to the public conversation then so be it.