Who’ll Win Olivia Rodrigo/Tony Bennett Smackdown? « CmaTrends

Olivia Rodrigo would appear to be close to a shoo-in for several Grammys, but when it comes to what’s generally considered the most prestigious prize, album of the year, there’s a serious competitor packing heat, and he’s old enough to be her grandfather’s grandfather.

Rodrigo has a decent shot at winning the Grammys’ quadruple crown, for album, record, song and new artist of the year, just as another teen, Billie Eilish, did two years ago. Tony Bennett is the likeliest spoiler, however, of the 19-year-old’s shot at grabbing all the Grammy glory her first time out of the gate. It’s the 95-year-old legend’s last time in contention (and that’s not being pessimistic about his odds of making it to the centenarian mark; it was announced last year that he’s retired, due to cognitive problems). His last recorded hurrah, a collaboration with Lady Gaga, wouldn’t exactly go down as the most au courant album winner ever, but it would prompt a lot of “awwwws” if it gives him one last hurrah on the world’s front pages.

Really, though, album of the year is still at least a four-contender field, out of the 10 releases that are up for it, With the eternal caveat that the Grammys are much, much harder to forecast than the Oscars, here’s our best attempt at soothsaying what’ll go down Sunday in Las Vegas. (The main telecast begins at 8 p.m./5 PT on CBS, but most of the awards are given out in a pre-telecast that can be seen on the Recording Academy’s YouTube channel.)



The field:
“We Are,” Jon Batiste
“Love for Sale,” Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga
“Justice (Triple Chucks Deluxe),” Justin Bieber
“Planet Her (Deluxe),” Doja Cat
“Happier Than Ever,” Billie Eilish
“Back of My Mind,” H.E.R.
“Montero,” Lil Nas X
“Sour,” Olivia Rodrigo
“Evermore,” Taylor Swift
“Donda,” Kanye West

The most likely contenders:
Batiste, Bennett & Gaga, Eilish, Rodrigo

And the winner looks like…
Bennett & Gaga

It’s easy to make an argument for a good pathway for Rodrigo, Batiste, Eilish and the intergenerational Bennett/Gaga team. And it’s also easy to argue that any of them face a roadblock in that pathway: vote-splitting.  That is: Rodrigo and Eilish may both be vying for the part of the Recording Academy membership that is likely to favor a highly talented teenager (or recent teenager). Meanwhile, Batiste and the pairing of Bennett and Gaga may have a big overlap in appealing to older or more musically conservative voters.

Nevertheless, we’re going to predict it comes down to a photo finish between the youngest and eldest in the crop, Rodrigo and Bennett (leaving the Lady out of it, age-wise). And tough as it is to guess which way that’ll go, hunches tell us it’ll be age before beauty, and sentiment before debutante.

Yes, if Bennett and Gaga prevail, there will be massive grumbling in the twittersphere that this is proof that the Academy is stuck in its ways and irrelevant, and that the membership is old and out of touch, much as there was in the ’90s when the “un-” albums prevailed — Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable” and Bennett’s own “MTV Unplugged.” But there will be a gig part of the Academy that just doesn’t care about the problem of optics and is going to vote with its heart, only part of which got left in San Francisco.

In favor of a Rodrigo win: the fact that the Academy proved it does love insanely precocious young women when Eilish swept the field two years ago. But there’s a difference that could work against Rodrigo: she’s never even gone out on tour. Granted, this award is for a recording, not live performance. But there will be some voters who pulled the lever for Eilish, who was already kind of a semi-veteran, who may hesitate at giving what feels like the most substantial prize to someone with so minuscule a track record, however wonderful the record is. All that said, I wouldn’t bet more than $5 against Rodrigo.

So why is it so easy to count most of the others out? Let’s go through a process of elimination. There’s a data-driven reason to believe that nemeses Swift and West are collectively the least likely to prevail. And that’s because we know they came in ninth and tenth in the nominee voting. In any other year historically, only top Academy brass and the accountants have known the ranked order of nominees, but there was a notable exception this year because Harvey Mason Jr. led a last-second charge to expand the top four categories from eight to 10 nominees each. And because a ballot leaked when it was still going to be just eight, and Swift and West weren’t on it, we know they came in behind the others. That doesn’t mean they’ll rank that far back in the final vote, and it’s weird to think that Swift’s “Evermore” wouldn’t be a strong contender when her “Folklore” actually won the prize last year. But the Academy has a weirdly on-again, off-again relationship with the superstar (note: she has no other nominations this year!). And “Evermore” — which is probably the most truly brilliant album here — may be seen as too much of a sequel for Swift to have a good shot. The chances for “Donda” may not be as bad as you think, just because voting closed in early January, before West really struck the populace as going off the deep end… plus, it’s not bad. But those toxic DaBaby and Marilyn Manson features didn’t help.

Doja Cat and Bieber made terrific pop albums, but neither defined the year or has a strong sentimental pull. H.E.R. is simply Grammy catnip through and through, but the album never took off like a rocket. Lil Nas X can’t be ruled out, but in popular culture it was more about the singles and videos than the album, which may actually be underrated as a collection.

The love the Academy has for Eilish means she should by no means be ruled out. Remember, last year, in what was a bit of a shocker, she won record of the year — again — in what was essentially considered an off cycle for her. And Batiste, of course, had his own shocker moment when he was announced for a leading, and staggering, 11 nominations this year. If everyone who ever met him and liked him in his role on the Colbert show alone voted for him, this would be an easy win for Batiste, who’s as multiply talented as he is loved. Also, though it still hasn’t been widely recognized within the industry, “We Are” is an album that normal people actually know and love, so it’s not the underdog that some imagine.

But our $5 is going on Bennett for the win. Even in his absence from the ceremony, tears will be shed, right? And there’ll be just a single one from us if we’re all wet about this.



The field:
“I Still Have Faith in You,” ABBA
“Freedom,” Jon Batiste
“I Get a Kick Out of You,” Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga
“Peaches,” Justin Bieber featuring Daniel Caesar and Giveon
“Right on Time,” Brandi Carlile
“Kiss Me More,” Doja Cat featuring SZA
“Happier Than Ever,” Billie Eilish
“Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” Lil Nas X
“Drivers License,” Olivia Rodrigo
“Leave the Door Open,” Silk Sonic

The most likely contenders:
Eilish, Lil Nas X, Rodrigo, Silk Sonic

And the winner looks like…

Do the same arguments apply in this category as they do for album of the year, among artists who overlap? Hardly at all. Because while it’s easy to imagine Bennett and Gaga getting through on sentiment there, it’s almost incalculable to imagine that that many people are going to think that an 88-year-old Cole Porter song should be seen as the standard-bearer of 2021.

So Rodrigo seems likely to prevail here. Even voters who don’t count it as their favorite single of the year surely recognize its cultural ubiquity. Some may even think back on that “Saturday Night Live” sketch, set in a bar where middle-aged men are enthusiastically discussing “Drivers License,” as a sign of just how deeply it penetrated the consciousness of even older generations that may be closer to having their licenses taken away than getting their first one.

But Rodrigo’s real competition here probably isn’t Bennett and Gaga. It’s Lil Nas X, whose “Montero (Call Me By My Name)” will be remembered for generations as a key moment in LGBTQ+ pop history. It’s Silk Sonic, whose “Leave the Door Open” honestly probably had a more broad generational appeal than Rodrigo’s song, even if it merely marked a supergroup-is-born moment instead of a star-is-born one. And Eilish? Having a three-peat in this category seems like a long shot but is far from out of the question, given that she’s practically become a symbol of the Grammys.

Looking at the good will all these acts engender, though, nothing is completely out of the question except for an ABBA win, because that nomination is still the lone head-scratcher of this bunch, no matter how slavishly we adore that catalog.



The field:
“Bad Habits,” Ed Sheeran
“A Beautiful Noise,” Alicia Keys featuring Brandi Carlile
“Drivers License,” Olivia Rodrigo
“Fight for You,” H.E.R.
“Happier Than Ever,” Billie Eilish
“Kiss Me More,” Doja Cat
“Leave the Door Open,” Silk Sonic
“Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” Lil Nas X
“Peaches,” Justin Bieber featuring Daniel Caesar and Giveon
“Right on Time,” Brandi Carlile

The most likely contenders:
Rodrigo, Silk Sonic, Lil Nas X, Carlile

And the winner looks like…

As much as the record and song of the year categories tend to overlap, this is a place where the craft of songwriting is at least nominally supposed to trump banger-ness. So the diva-style balladry of Carlile’s song definitely moves up a notch in its chances — and although she is twice-nominated here, “A Beautiful Noise” is still little-known enough that it’s not likely to split off that many votes from “Right on Time.” If she doesn’t make it through here, though, Carlile will be back again next year, as that’s when he rest of her new album falls into eligibility. Another perennial young Grammy favorite, H.E.R., would seem to have a shot here, because after all, “Fight for You” did win an Oscar.

Sheeran tends to be so neglected by the Grammys — remember when he didn’t even get a single nomination for “Shape of You”? — that it’s impossible to imagine him moving to the front of the pack here. Doja Cat’s and Bieber’s songs are, like Ed’s, enjoyable but feel awfully modest for a marquee category. Silk Sonic certainly stands a shot, but the song is more notable for its vibe than its compositional brilliance (not that every voter is looking for that).

If voters often tend to look for something with a little more weight in this category, though — and if “Fight for You” feels too old and too already-rewarded — it may come down to Nas X and Rodrigo. And Rodrigo just has the wind at her back across categories, generally, even if rewarding someone for coming out in such a provocative and individualistic way would make the kind of statements the Grammys are proud of.



The field:
Arooj Aftab
Jimmie Allen
Baby Keem
Glass Animals
Japanese Breakfast
The Kid Laroi
Arlo Parks
Olivia Rodrigo

The most likely contenders:
Finneas, Japanese Breakfast, Rodrigo, Saweetie

And the winner looks like…

Well, everyone in the betting pool is going to get at least one right.

Allen will pick up some support from the Nashville chapter, with only one country pick in contention this year, but it’s highly unlikely he’ll come close in the voting. Baby Keem isn’t quite as fortunate in having a field all to himself here, although he and Saweetie may not really overlap that much. But Saweetie feels like she’s between moments more than right in the midst of one. The Kid Laroi, the most commercially successful of this lot after Rodrigo, is just going to seem snot-nosed to most Academy members. Japanese Breakfast and Parks could split a vote for critically acclaimed singer-songwriter types, but the former definitely has the lead over her Brits-beloved counterpart.

Glass Animals, who’ve had the No. 1 hit in the country for three weeks running, would seem to have a decent shot until you remember that voting closed three months ago, before they were making chart headlines — but it’s not as if they’re really a typical “Grammy artist” anyway. Finneas stands a chance, but ironically, with this much success behind him already as a collaborator with others, voters might be awarding him best new artist as a kind of career achievement recognition.

So.. do we even have to say her name? For the debut artist of 2021 by any real measure, it’s not going to be brutal up there.


And some other hit-and-run predictions…

Pop Vocal Album: Olivia Rodrigo, “Sour”
Traditional Pop Vocal Album: Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, “Love for Sale”

Regardless of which of these two loses out in the general album of the year category (assuming that both won’t), both albums will get a chance to shine when separated into these divisions. (Not that Eilish doesn’t still stand a chance to upset Rodrigo, here or elsewhere.)

Rock Album: Foo Fighters, “Medicine at Midnight”

Needless to say, balloting closed well before this had the chance to turn sentimental. But you can bet one of the rock categories will be televised in anticipation of a teary moment. And the Foos just don’t have much competition here, not even from Paul McCartney’s latest.

Rock Song: Foo Fighters, “Waiting on a War”

See above.

Alternative Music Album: Halsey, “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power”

It could be Japanese Breakfast, or past winner St. Vincent, both of whom also stand formidable chances in this category. But there’s definitely some sentiment out there that Halsey got cheated out of a best album nomination and could make it up here. It’s a chance to also reward the perennially popular Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, beyond the win they’ll surely be picking up for the “Soul” soundtrack.

R&B Album: Jazmine Sullivan, “Heaux Tales”

Conventional wisdom would be that the Grammys-beloved H.E.R. will get a consolation prize for not getting al album or song of the year in general categories by picking up a win for “Back of My Mind” in a genre category. But let’s be unconventional and say that Sullivan’s concept album, which was much more a topic of cultural conversation, will break through here. If everyone in the Academy were voting on all categories, surely it would be H.E.R., but if it’s mostly the R&B community choosing to make this one of the handful of places where they cast their votes, it’s got to be Sullivan. Doesn’t it?

Rap Album: Kanye West, “Donda”

Remember, voting closed before things got really nutty this year. And while it does seem like the DaBaby and Manson factors make Ye a hard sell in a general category, the hip-hop-centric voters that will choose to make this one of their categories may not be so focused on disqualifying factors — and West is far from being really canceled when it comes to home base. That said, if it is true, diehard hip-hop fans making their stand here, Tyler, the Creator would seem like a repeat winner in this category, with “Call Me If You Get Lost.” It feels close to a toss-up.

Rap Song: Baby Keem – “Family Ties” [ft. Kendrick Lamar]

There doesn’t seem to be as much of a chance for West to win here as in rap album, just because his nominated song is “Jail,” and even though it’s the version that includes Jay-Z, just enough voters will be thinking of the alternate version with DaBaby and Manson to handicap it. Anyway, hip-hop fans love Baby Keem — his relative babyhood in the genre won’t count against him, especially with family member Lamar cosigning.

Country Album: Chris Stapleton, “Starting Over”

Stapleton often can seem indomitable whenever he has something in contention. There could be a groundswell of support for Mickey Guyton finally having put out a very good debut album after 10 years of touting, but maybe the likeliest bet — or at least the most pleasing possibility — is that voters will give one of these awards where they’re both up to him and the other to her.

Country Song: Mickey Guyton, “Remember Her Name”

See above. With Guyton surprisingly not even having gotten nominated for the recent Academy of Country Music Awards, this could be a chance for Nashville-based or -friendly voters to say: Yes, we see you… and you did it.

Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media: “Respect”

This may feel like a chance to give Jennifer Hudson a consolation prize, not for missing out on another Grammy, but for being shut out among Oscar nominations, after she was highly touted for both actress and original song prizes. Plus, what she pulled off is just deserving — not a negligible factor, politics aside.

Producer of the Year (non-classical): Jack Antonoff

How is it Antonoff has never won this before? It’s hard not to imagine this being a kind of career achievement award, even though what he did pull off in 2021 — including part of Swift’s “Evermore” and all of St. Vincent’s “Daddy’s Home,” masterful albums both — was no slouch.

Music Film: “Summer of Soul”

Let’s just keep known pugilists out of the area before Questlove steps up to accept.

Score Soundtrack for Visual Media: “Soul,” Jon Batiste, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

The weird eligibility period always makes score and soundtrack categories overlap two different years of Oscar contenders. So the Grammy will go either to last year’s Oscar score winner, “Soul,” or this year’s just anointed one, “Dune.” Hans Zimmer definitely stands a chance, but with Batiste being up for 11 awards, he clearly has Recording Academy momentum in his favor — and the fact that it gives voters a chance to salute another beloved set of composers, too, doesn’t hurt.

Music Video: Lil Nas X, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”

Few would dispute this was the most talked-about video of 2021, and even setting topicality and representation aside, it’s hard to imagine how many voters wouldn’t just be bowled over by the production design alone.

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