Did Billie Eilish Finally End the Grammys’ Best New Artist Curse?
After logging two massive No. 1 hits last year, Megan Thee Stallion seems poised to have a bright career ahead… even if she does win the 2021 Grammy for best new artist.
Old superstitions die hard, though. Ever since Starland Vocal Band won the category in 1977 on the strength of their No. 1 single “Afternoon Delight,” then promptly disappeared from view forever — with a similar fate awaiting a good number of others who followed in that group’s wake — the myth of the “best new artist curse” has been a part of popular Grammy lore.
The frontrunners among the crop of eight contenders in this year’s race — including Megan, Doja Cat and Phoebe Bridgers — probably aren’t shaking in their boots at the thought of winning, though. It’d be hard to after Billie Eilish walked away exactly one year ago with best new artist among the portfolio of eight awards she won that night. Both she and Dua Lipa, the 2018 winner, are back and up for multiple awards this year, while other recent winners like Adele and Sam Smith are still flourishing, which bodes well for the trophy as a current indicator of future success.
Whether the category remains cursed or not, a scroll through the list of best new artist winners over the years does lend some credence to the theory that taking that particular gong has not always been the best career move. As different as their careers otherwise may have been, one thing Starland Vocal Band had in common with the next four winners that followed — Debby Boone, A Taste of Honey, Rickie Lee Jones and Christopher Cross — was extremely abbreviated runs as chart-toppers. The biggest of them all, Cross, the toast of 1980, accomplished the unprecedented feat of sweeping all four of the top categories at the 1981 ceremony. And, although he enjoyed a few more years of chart success and a best original song Oscar for “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” in 1982, by mid-decade, he was pretty much history.
“Flash in the pan” was a recurring best new artist theme in the two decades that followed, with a large percentage of the freshmen Grammy winners failing to fulfill the promise of the title. Famously and scandalously, the 1990 pick, Milli Vanilli, later had theirs rescinded after it was revealed that the duo hadn’t actually sung a single note on their debut album, “Girl You Know It’s True.”
In the years since, the category has worked hard to win back its credibility, and it does seem to be working. Three of the last four best new artists — Chance the Rapper, Lipa and Eilish — have gone on to build impressively on their initial Grammy-winning success. This year, Lupa’s second album, “Future Nostalgia,” has scored nods in album, record and song of the year, while Eilish is up for record and song of the year for “Everything I Wanted” in her sophomore Grammy session. It’s the continuation of a trend this century, in which the best new artist has produced far more winning winners than clunkers.
That isn’t to say there haven’t been one or two egregious missteps in relatively recent times. It’s almost unfathomable now that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, the Academy’s choice as best new artist of 2013, beat Kendrick Lamar, Kacey Musgraves and Ed Sheeran, all of whom have enjoyed exponentially more spectacular careers and major Grammy hardware (23 between them).
In 2011, Esperanza Spalding’s shock win was a rare triumph of artistic merit over chart clout. Although the jazz newcomer hasn’t gone on to approach the level of commercial success achieved by the four acts she defeated — Justin Bieber, Drake, Florence and the Machine and Mumford & Sons — her post-best new artist career has been solid. She’s since padded her Grammy tally by three, and like one-hit-wonder winner Rickie Lee Jones, she’s continued to be a critical darling with a loyal following.
While the red-hot careers of several champs this century — Norah Jones, Evanescence and Meghan Trainor — cooled after they nabbed best new artist, they all still felt like more valid choices a few years later than either Starland Vocal Band or Boone did. And the Recording Academy has otherwise made a number of impeccable choices since 2000: Christina Aguilera, Alicia Keys, Maroon 5, John Legend, Carrie Underwood, Sam Smith and, of course, Adele. Amy Winehouse died three years after winning in 2008, but even with an abbreviated career is still regarded as a titan of 21st century pop.
So is the curse as good as finally over? Some might argue that the category was never all that cursed in the first place. Before Starland Vocal Band, the circle of best new artist winners included such legends-to-be as Bobby Darin, Bob Newhart, the Beatles, Tom Jones, the Carpenters, Carly Simon, Bette Midler and Natalie Cole.
Even in the ‘80s and ‘90s, for every pick that peaked the moment they won the award, like Men At Work, Marc Cohn, Arrested Development and Paula Cole, there was a Sade, Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton and Sheryl Crow.
The category’s most WTF moment this century may have been the anointing of Shelby Lynne over Brad Paisley in 2001 — not because she didn’t go on to become a multi-platinum superstar, but because she was already a decade into her career as a modestly successful country act when she won. The critically acclaimed album that earned Lynne her coronation, “I Am Shelby Lynne,” was a sort of reinvention — but it was still actually her sixth release. Since her collection of torchy roots-pop hardly set the charts ablaze before or after the Grammys that year, the singer-songwriter’s middling career since feels less like cursed luck than business as usual.
(Lynne wasn’t the first vet to be named best new artist: Jody Watley and Lauryn Hill won after enjoying major success in Shalamar and Fugees, respectively, and each member of Crosby, Still & Nash had been in a legendary band that’s now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before forming the trio that won in 1970.)
Although the ghosts of Starland Vocal Band and A Taste of Honey continue to loom large over the category for historically minded Grammy watchers, part of being a “new” artist is not having all that institutional memory to stoke worries. As the March 14 telecast approaches — who knows — they might even be thinking of a best new artist win as a blessing. Sometimes, it’s just a sense of institutional memory that’s a curse. The recent hot streak in the category can reassure Megan, Doja, Phoebe and the other five nominees that when the next best new artist is announced at the Grammys on March 14, the show, for them, will most likely go on — even after the telecast’s end credits.
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