We asked an anonymous Grammy Awards voter: WTF do these confusing categories even mean?

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Okay, so we know the Grammys are the most official of the music awards shows because they’ve been around for approximately 1000 years (well, actually, 56, since 1959) and they’re voted on by industry professionals.


Over time, categories get added or renamed to reflect changing times — like “best dance/electronic album,” which got renamed last year to drop the outdated term “electronica.” So why do some of them remain so inscrutable and confusing? Why do old categories linger without ever getting really cleared out, overlapping with ones that actually make sense? Why is there both a “record of the year” category and an “song of the year?”

Well, we peeled back the secret Grammy illuminati curtain and asked an actual member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the members of which vote for Grammy awards. Our member chose to remain anonymous because NARAS frowns upon members revealing themselves — they don’t want them exposed to undue influence.


Luckily, our Grammy voter was ready to spill a little. So here are five Grammy category mysteries, more or less explained.

1. Let’s get the most confusing one out of the way – what’s deal with “record of the year” versus “song of the year?”

At first glance, the nominations for “record of the year” is a list of songs. So is, uh, “song of the year.” They don’t necessarily overlap. Hozier’s “Take Me to the Church” is in the “song” list, but not the one for “record”; Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” finds itself in the reverse situation.

“Think of it this way,” explains our Grammy voter on the inside. “The ‘song’ awards the actual composition, whereas the ‘record’ is for the overall impact of the recording: how the production, performance and tune all combine.” In other words, “Fancy,” for one, isn’t necessarily the greatest song as written, but its production and everything else is pretty bangin’.

2. What makes an album a “pop vocal album,” specifically, rather than just a “pop album,” a category which does not exist?

This one’s easy to explain—it’s just a case of the Grammys cleaning out now-defunct categories and not changing the names of the remaining ones


“The ‘pop vocal album’ category is a carryover from when there used to be separate categories for ‘pop vocal album’ and ‘pop instrumental album,’” says our Grammy voter. “The latter has been phased out — there aren't many pop instrumental albums made any more, or at least not enough to warrant attention — but the nomenclature remains.

3. Why is a band like Coldplay nominated in the “pop vocal album” category rather than a rock category?

This goes back to how a song, album, or group starts out in the Grammy award pipeline. First, their people must make an official submission to NARAS for evaluation to see if they’re even good enough to put up for vote.


From there, experts in different genre-specific categories basically decide if an album/song/group fits into their category. This is where things can get subjective and weird.

“Whoever comprises the pop committee decided Coldplay was a good fit there, while the rock committee chose other nominees,” says our person on the inside. “If Coldplay had a song that rocked harder on ‘Ghost Stories’ — and they don't — it's conceivable that they could've shown up in both pop and rock.”


4. Speaking of rock, what’s up with the difference between “best rock performance” and “best rock song,” and the same difference between “performance” and “song” in other genre categories?

“Think of the ‘performance’/’song’ distinction as an extension of the ‘record of the year/’song of the year’ distinction,” says our expert. “The ‘performance’ awards just that — the performance (though ‘recording; might be a better way to say it — where the song awards the composition.”


In other words, an artist could have a totally great song but totally tank the performance and recording of it—but maybe, just maybe, the song could still get a nod. Let’s say, oh, someone else had bought “Let it Be” from the Beatles and then sang it off-key in a damp room. It’s unlikely, but that helps to understand the difference between the categories.

5. Finally, what’s up with the “urban contemporary” category? It seems to be made up mostly of artists who were also nominated in R&B categories, with maybe one exception.

This one is a big ol’ question mark at first—the “urban contemporary” nominees include Jhené Aiko, Beyoncé, Chris Brown, Pharrell Williams, and Mali Music. The first four boast nominations in R&B and/or pop categories, and Mali Music’s already got a nod in a gospel category.


So what makes them then, all, “urban contemporary?” Even our Grammy voter is a little stumped by this one.

“Again, that'd be down to the individual committees to decide what artists fall where, while the overall board responsible for the overall categories chooses the categories and their names,” says our expert. “In this specific case, urban covers more modern soul while R&B seems slightly more traditional — but don't hold me to that.”


Well, luckily, the Fader explained it in more detail a few days ago. As it turns out, it’s basically the creation of one producer, Ivan Barias, who wants a different term for new strains of genre-inclusive black pop.

And that’s part of the fun of the awards – watching them change as the musical landscape does.


The Grammys will air this Sunday, Feb. 8 at 8 p.m. on CBS. Check back here on Fusion.net over the weekend to keep up with our Grammy coverage, and tweet the awards show along with us on @FusionIsPop during the broadcast.

Arielle Castillo is Fusion's culture editor, reporting on arts, music, culture, and subcultures from the streets on up. She's also a connoisseur of weird Florida, weightlifting, and cats.

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