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7 storylines to watch at this year's Grammy Awards

Trevor Noah, Tony Bennett, Olivia Rodrigo and Jon Batiste are all people to keep your eye on Sunday night, all for different reasons.
Kevin Winter; Joseph Prezioso; Matt Winkelmeyer; Rich Fury
Getty Images
Trevor Noah, Tony Bennett, Olivia Rodrigo and Jon Batiste are all people to keep your eye on Sunday night, all for different reasons.

Each year's awards season typically ends with the Oscars, but the Grammys' postponement propelled them into headlining status — or pushed them to the back of the line, depending on your perspective. Fortunately, no one's still talking about the events of this past Sunday, right?

Given the sturm und drang that ensued in the wake of this year's Oscars, you'd be forgiven for losing track of what Sunday's Grammy telecast might have to offer. So here's a quick crib sheet with some storylines to watch. You can find a full list of this year's nominees here.

1. Don't rule out a sweep...

It's difficult to imagine a world in which anyone other than Olivia Rodrigo wins best new artist, even against a solid lineup that includes everyone from FINNEAS to Japanese Breakfast to Baby Keem. The question is whether Rodrigo's wire-to-wire commercial success in 2021 — she released her breakout single "drivers license" in early January and churned out subsequent smashes all year — extends to Grammy dominance.

Rodrigo is nominated in every category of what Grammy-watchers call "the big four" (the non-genre-specific general categories that are considered the most important of the night): album of the year (for Sour), song of the year (for "drivers license"), record of the year (also for "drivers license") and best new artist. Rodrigo is considered a heavy favorite in the last three, and it wouldn't be a huge surprise for Sour to complete the sweep.

The Grammys love a grand coronation for the industry's breakthrough A-listers: Norah Jones won best new artist, album of the year and record of the year in 2003, for example, while Billie Eilish swept the major categories as a newcomer in 2020. It's easy to imagine Rodrigo following in Eilish's footsteps. (That said, the only artist besides Eilish to ever sweep the big four was Christopher Cross back in 1981.)

2. ...but watch for curveballs

The Grammys have a funny way of adhering to one kind of logic in the genre-specific categories, only to jump the tracks to another kind of logic when the big four roll around. The general categories are voted on by a much wider swath of the music industry — meaning typically older, whiter and more conservative — which is one reason that major hip-hop and R&B artists often have gotten short shrift when the biggest trophies roll around. (This year, the number of nominees in each of the big four categories increased from eight to 10. How that might affect the outcomes remains to be seen.)

Just last year, Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé's "Savage" seemed poised to win record of the year after taking home Grammys for best rap song and best rap performance; Meg also had won best new artist, while Beyoncé had won best R&B performance (for "Black Parade") and best music video (for "Brown Skin Girl"). Instead, Eilish notched an improbable win for "everything i wanted" — a song that seemed like an afterthought right up until the moment the envelope was opened.

Whether those curveballs end up knocking a Rodrigo sweep off course remains to be seen, but if you're looking for a major surprise, it seems likeliest to come with album of the year. Rodrigo may be seen as more of a singles artist than an album artist at this point in her career, clearing room for a usurper. The two likeliest candidates to edge her out differ wildly: Eilish herself, who just won an Oscar last weekend and is up for Happier Than Ever, and Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga's Love for Sale.

3. Wait, I'm sorry, hold up: Tony Bennett?

The Grammys love Tony Bennett. His MTV Unplugged album won album of the year in 1995; he's notched 18 Grammy wins in 41 nominations dating back to 1963 (when he won record of the year for "I Left My Heart in San Francisco"); and he picked up a lifetime achievement award from the Grammys in 2001. At 95, he's bound to be a colossal sentimental favorite among Grammy voters, especially after announcing his retirement from performing last year due to Alzheimer's disease. There's absolutely a plausible outcome in which Rodrigo, Eilish and Taylor Swift (nominated for evermore) all split votes, leaving a lane open for Bennett to win album of the year.

In Love for Sale, Bennett tackles the Cole Porter songbook with the aid of Lady Gaga — an industry standard-bearer and 12-time Grammy winner in her own right. Fresh off an enormously endearing moment when she handed out best picture with Liza Minnelli at the Oscars, Gaga lends a veneer of youthfulness to what's otherwise the most old-school recording imaginable. The Grammys have a long history of throwing their weight behind traditional sounds, sometimes at the expense of their own reputation. (That AOTY field in 1995 was roundly mocked, as Bennett triumphed over a field rounded out by Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Seal and The Three Tenors.) Giving album of the year to a nonagenarian would amplify those criticisms, but Grammy voters might still find Bennett's legacy hard to resist.

4. What about Jon Batiste? Is he a frontrunner?

This year, no one has more Grammy nominations than the bandleader, pianist and composer. Jon Batiste picked up an astounding 11 nods — including record of the year (for "Freedom") and album of the year (for We Are). Batiste quickly has become an awards favorite (he picked up an Oscar last year for his work on Soul's score) so he certainly could pick up a plurality of votes in one of the major categories. If nothing else, he's bound to loom large over the night — as both a winner and a dynamic live performer.

5. Anticipating tomorrow's controversies today

Last year controversy swirled around an inexplicable shutout — The Weeknd didn't receive a single nomination despite presiding over one of the biggest hits in years — and a long-running sense that Black artists too often are given short shrift in the Grammys' major categories. This year could exacerbate that frustration, especially given the likelihood that many of the night's biggest prizes will be split among Olivia Rodrigo, Billie Eilish and/or Tony Bennett.

Individual categories could present the occasional social-media firestorm, too. BTS has never won a Grammy and is up against heavy hitters for the one category in which it's nominated, best pop duo/group performance. Jazmine Sullivan, who had one of 2021's best albums with Heaux Tales, could extend her Grammy losing streak to 0-for-15 — a travesty. Louis C.K. could very well win best comedy album.

But sometimes the biggest controversies are the ones you'd never see coming. Speaking of which...

6. How soon is too soon?

We're less than a week removed from the incident in which Will Smith slapped Chris Rock onstage at the Oscars, mere minutes before winning best actor. We're extremely unlikely to experience a similar moment, but the slap is bound to come up, whether in host Trevor Noah's monologue or in jokes told by awards presenters. Given that the Smith/Rock incident was precipitated by a joke told in poor taste, will the joke-tellers vet their words more carefully? It's bound to be in the back of producers' minds.

It's worth noting here that Kanye West — whose Donda is nominated for album of the year — won't attend this year's ceremony, reportedly due in part to statements or threats he's made involving Trevor Noah, ex-wife Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson. West's absence could loom large: Though he's unlikely to win album of the year, he's got a better-than-decent shot at best rap album, especially after Drake withdrew Certified Lover Boy from consideration. Ye's name is sure to come up over the course of the night.

7. Previewing the performances

Last year's Grammys may have been controversial, but the telecast itself was a triumph of COVID-era production. Gliding seamlessly from stage to stage, the show served as an extremely effective infomercial for a huge and diverse cross-section of music, with no train wrecks to speak of. It will be fascinating, as awards shows revert to pre-COVID formats, to see whether the Grammys stick to what worked so well in 2021.

The announced lineup of performers portends a splashy night: Lil Nas X —always a head-turner on awards-show stages — will perform, as will Billie Eilish, H.E.R., BTS, Olivia Rodrigo, J Balvin, Brandi Carlile, John Legend (who will receive the Recording Academy's Global Impact Award this weekend), Chris Stapleton, Jon Batiste, Silk Sonic (who will open the show after making their TV debut during last year's telecast), Nas, Brothers Osborne, Carrie Underwood and more.

The Grammy telecast also will include a tribute to the late Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim. Sadly, Foo Fighters' scheduled performance has been canceled due to the March 25 death of drummer Taylor Hawkins. Expect his name to be invoked at least once Sunday night.

The Grammy Awards will air Sunday, April 3 at 8 p.m. ET via CBS and Paramount+.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)