At this year’s Grammy awards, Beyoncé Knowles became the winner of the most Grammys ever, but lost the Album of the Year category to Harry Styles. It was the fourth time she lost that prize to a white artist. As widespread incredulity gave way to outrage, a Variety article that had been published a couple of days before the awards ceremony began resurfacing on Twitter.
Under cover of anonymity, a handful of members of the Recording Academy, the professional association that bestows the awards, had spoken candidly about not just the who, but the why, of their Grammy votes. Beyoncé had been up for nine awards this year, including the coveted trinity: Album of the Year (for 2022’s Renaissance), Record of the Year, and Song of the Year (both for the single “Break My Soul”). She would go on to win four, none of them in the aforementioned major categories. And while the opacity of an awards process can be maddening, it doesn’t compare to learning that for some academy voters—according to Variety’s small, but nonetheless telling, sample—it’s got nothing to do with music.
“I love Beyoncé’s album,” one voter told Variety, but she didn’t choose the singer in “any of the top categories” because she has “already won a lot of Grammys.” Another also admitted voting against Beyoncé because she “always win[s].” (Both said the same of Adele.) A third voter, described as an industry “veteran in his 70s,” complained that “every time [Beyoncé] does something new, it’s a big event and everyone’s supposed to quake in their shoes—it’s a little too portentous.” That same speaker called himself a “bad voter” for not having listened to “a significant percentage” of the music in contention, blithely noting, “But that’s my right.”
This is not a piece arguing on behalf of Beyoncé’s music, which would be pointless considering it was immaterial to how three out of the five interviewed judges voted. Instead, it seems more useful to look at the counterintuitive idea on repeat here, which seems to be that Beyoncé is in danger of becoming too decorated. That she is too meticulously intentional and inventive with every album rollout; too perfectionistic in ensuring that every release feels pull-out-the-stops unprecedented. That her cultural impact has been too outsize, too disruptive. In short, that she should be penalized for taking up too much rarefied space. Once again, it’s misogynoir—the intertwined anti-Blackness and misogyny that pathologizes and stigmatizes Black women. Same refrain, different song.
This is bigger than the Grammys, obviously. Every time we get an unvarnished look-see at how the awards sausages get made, voters unwittingly confirm that racism and misogyny are key ingredients. In 2015, an anonymous Oscar voter declared her offense at the Selma cast wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts to the film premiere in remembrance of police murder victim Eric Garner. Another anonymous Oscar voter in 2018 sniffed that Get Out “played the race card.” I honestly cannot remember the last time (never) that an unnamed Academy Award voter complained about overblown marketing for the films of Steven Spielberg, or Meryl Streep’s unwillingness to just read her lines.
But you know what I do remember? Judges in the International Gymnastics Federation admitting to repeatedly downgrading the scores of 32-time Olympic and world championship medal winner Simone Biles for executing unprecedented moves, in order “to ensure the safety of” athletes who would fail at trying the same. (This was more than two decades after the French figure skater Surya Bonaly was criticized by judges for landing backflips and intimidating her less able competitors.) I think of Serena Williams, the best tennis player of all time, being constantly masculinized in the press for her physique and how Maria Sharapova, who consistently lost to Williams despite using performance-enhancing drugs, made money off a book in which she expressed alarm over Williams’s “thick arms and thick legs” and how “intimidating and strong” she was. I think of the accusations of being “too ambitious” that were hurled at then-shortlisted vice presidential contender Kamala Harris. Or the time when, even after 15 years at ABC as one of its most money-making showrunners, Shonda Rhimes tried to get her sister a $154 ticket to parent company Disney’s theme park, only to be asked by an angry unnamed male executive, “Don’t you have enough?”
It’s not just high-visibility Black women who get this reaction. I also think of Jasmine Shepard, the first Black class valedictorian in her Mississippi high school, who was inexplicably made to share the honor with a white student whose GPA was beneath hers. Four years later, the school’s class of 2021 valedictorian, Ikeria Washington, and that year’s salutatorian, Layla Temple, were forced to share their titles with two outraged white classmates after their families complained that the school’s handbook called for a different method for calculating GPA. In 2013, psychologist Kecia Thomas, now a dean at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, identified the “pet to threat” phenomenon, wherein women of color enter the workforce and are taken under the wing of a cheerleading mentor—usually a white man—only to have that support curdle into hostility once they prove their competency and look to advance. Relatedly, a 2018 study indicates that Black job seekers “are expected to negotiate less than their White counterparts” because their work is devalued. Because employers see them as less deserving, Black workers are punished with “lower salary outcomes” than equally qualified white candidates when they name a starting salary that exceeds the employers’ expectations. “Don’t you have enough?” indeed.
The hill I am currently gasping for air on isn’t about an awards ceremony (which I haven’t watched since I was a kid). It’s my breathless fatigue at once again seeing a Black woman score the highest, only to have everyone call an unexplained time-out to rewrite the rules. Meanwhile, in 65 years, the Recording Academy has rewarded only 11 Black artists with Album of the Year, only three of whom were Black women. The last was Lauryn Hill, in 1999. Despite that history, the consistent demand remains: that Black women be just a little… less.