An album's success tells us more about genres and expectations than it says about musical quality

Controversy followed the 65th Annual Grammy Awards this past weekend. Entertainment award shows like the Grammys have a history of attention-grabbing and gossip-stirring events. From mistaken award announcements (for Miss Universe in 2015 and Best Picture in 2017) to an on-camera slap in 2022, incidents like these emphasize that reward shows are just that: shows. Audiences come to expect noteworthy performances, whether planned or otherwise. Expectations like that are important because they shape audience anticipation and show-producer planning alike. Contests work carefully to avoid repeat gaffes, while audience members may wait breathlessly to witness the next one. This week’s Grammy awards didn’t include any major technical mistakes, but lots of folks think one of the award decisions shows a judging mistake. This year’s show shocked a number of music fans because Beyoncé, despite becoming the most-awarded performer in Grammy history, lost out on the Best Album award. Again. This time, to Harry Styles. How is that possible?

Let’s try and use rhetoric to solve this puzzle. I assert that applying rhetorical genre theory can help us understand how award-show controversies happen. Rhetorical genre theory can also explain why Harry’s House won Best Album over Renaissance. Both situations deal with with what we call “discursive expectations” and the way we define the constituents of “discourse communities”. Asserting that controversies arise due to differences in expectations isn’t groundbreaking. What does matter, though, is where these expectations come from and whose needs are served at each point of tension. To see how this worked in this week’s Grammy awards, we first need to map out a few concepts. These concepts basically boil down to one core principle: People use texts to address specific situations. As situations change, so do our texts. As our texts change, our understanding of their situations change, too.

How Genres Work

First, I need to clarify: I use the word “genre” in the rhetoric and composition sense, not in the literary/traditional sense. The traditional sense—the one I don’t use here—says that a genre is a category (like Hip Hop, R&B, Country, etc.) and serves as a convenient box in which to place creative works. But in writing studies, we say categorizing texts like that glosses over the important details of how, why, and by whom a text was created. Rhetoric scholars say it’s more important to pay attention to the conditions that led someone to create a text. From this perspective, a genre is a specialized text that’s created by a group of people to address a familiar, routine situation.

As a quick example, think of a sales receipt. You can easily imagine one right now because we all have so much experience with them. You know the normal shape, size, and contents of them. In other words, you have a concept of the generic (as in, from a genre) receipt. But importantly, there is no such thing as a generic receipt—every receipt you encounter is specific (as in, non-generic). They include specific store names, specific transaction types, specific itemizations, etc. Each of the details on a sales receipt exists because over time, stores have seen the benefit. For instance, big-box retailers now put barcodes at the bottom of their receipts to facilitate lookup in the case of returns. Those barcodes are a rather recent development responding to the needs of how the genre is typically used.

Speaking of which, let’s look at what, exactly, genres can do.

Genres Define Expectations

When situations recur often enough for the people involved to create a standardized written response, writing scholars talk about that standardized response as a genre. In my example above, a sales receipt is a genre because every time we buy something, both the customer and the store benefit from documentation that the transaction took place. In a very real sense, we believe a sale did not happen if there is no receipt. (Don’t believe me? Try returning something without one. The store can deny you bought the item from them and deny the return.) In effect, the receipt’s creation is what makes the sale real.

Because of this power to bring situations into existence and to define things that happened, genres set expectations. We expect to be able to verify pricing or initiate a return or look up what we used to pay, all thanks to the affordances of sales receipts. We expect receipts to do things when they’re used. As Kevin Roozen explains, “the meaning writers and readers work to make of a given text at hand, then, is a function of the interplay of texts from their near and distant pasts as well as their anticipated futures.” A receipt means something because of our shared pasts, and we expect it to continue to mean things into the future, like if we want to return something or take a tax deduction or whatnot.

Genres Demonstrate Habituation

When we grow accustomed to using a particular genre, our behaviors change to accommodate. For instance, we learn to wait for a cashier to hand us a receipt before leaving a checkout line. The receipt hand-off is the final step in any modern sales transaction, indicating everything’s finished. That’s how a sale works, every single time. It’s become habit.

Habituation is a two-way street. We create genres when we respond to the same situation over and over again. But once we start using the genre we create, that genre shapes our behavior with that recurring situation. As Bill Hart-Davidson puts it, genres are “the visible effects of humans routinized to the point of habit in specific cultural conditions.” It’s almost like all genres are receipts for the human actions that bring them into being in the first place.

Genres Dictate Norms

Habits, rituals, and routines don’t form in a vacuum. Instead, they develop through repeated interactions and recurring situations. The process of re-using genres by a group of people develops certain norms in the way people use the genres. We develop a “right way” and a “wrong way” to use them. For example, if your workplace has any kind of form for people to fill out, you can probably tell when someone is new by how they manage the form. You might also judge people for not understanding how to use the form correctly. Both situations come from your familiarity with the genre norms. Those norms develop through your ongoing experience as a member of your particular workplace.

If you want a more academic example of how this principle plays out, ask your English or writing teacher to explain why their preferred citation system works the way it does. As Neil Lerner explains, “citations tell us something about the discipline’s values and practices while also recreating them by enacting them.” For example, I mostly use APA style. In the world of education (and most social sciences), the year when someone published a specific idea is important because our ideas socially might change and develop over time. We frequently borrow individual words or phrases from others. When we do, it’s with the understanding that we bring with those words or phrases the full complex value of that author’s specific use of the term. These citation practices show what my discipline values, differentiating us from MLA-centric fields.

But let’s get back to that whole Grammy kerfuffle.

2022’s “Best” Albums

So now let’s look at what happened on Sunday evening. A panel of judges had to determine which of all the albums released last year should be considered the “best” album of 2022. That decision is broad and applies to an entire culture (music production), nation (the Grammys are very much a United-States-centric award), and/or world (the notoriety of the Grammy awards means folks around the globe recognize the award). How, then, can judges determine what counts as the “best” music when that many opinions are involved? What standards define what’s “best” in this case?

The answer, frankly, is that the Grammy award defines it. Musical culture uses the Grammys to, as I said above, define expectations and dictate norms. Listeners and musicians alike calibrate their idea of what a “good” album is by what wins these awards. The judges can’t choose based on personal taste or a specific set of categorical norms. For instance, what makes a good country song would make a horrid rap album, and vice-versa. Instead, think about the Westminster dog show. That system looks for the dog that best exemplifies the best of that dog’s particular breed. The Grammys, then, need to find the album that does the best job of being the best example of its kind of music—its category.

What Harry’s House Does

First, let’s see how Harry’s House stands up to that assessment. At the risk of sounding overly critical, on my first listen to the album this morning, I kept thinking it sounded saccharine and predictable. But let’s be real here: Fun pop music often is just that—saccharine and predictable. We don’t expect pop music to be thought-provoking or complex. We expect it to seem familiar and to make us feel good. Nostalgia, comfort, and joy are generally the expected products of successful pop music. The time Styles spent in One Direction taught him how to crank out catchy, fun, fluffy songs. He’s good at it, so it’s his schtick. (For some contrast, Adele’s schtick leans more heavily on nostalgia through crooner songs, playing into her distinctive vocal range.)

Was Harry’s House a remarkable album? I’ve only listened to it once, so I might revise this later, but no. I didn’t find a single tune catchy or exciting. In fact, I disliked how unenthusiastic Styles’ voice seemed in many tracks. The whole album seemed common and dull, yet safe and mildly familiar. Again, that’s sort of what pop music is supposed to do, so…good for him? I guess?

What Renaissance Does

Remember how I said we don’t expect pop music to be thought-provoking or complex? Well, Beyoncé seems to have missed (or more likely just ignored) that memo. But also, her music isn’t really pop music. But then what category is it? Hip-hop? Sort of but not entirely? Hell, three of the tracks on Renaissance started off sounding like one type of song but then switched halfway through in a way that surprised me and made me think. What category of music should do that? Or is the album a dance album? Beyoncé said she hoped Renaissance would “release the wiggle”. That sounds like a dance goal to me. But then we have loud-and-clear political statements thrown in the mix. We don’t expect dance albums to make political statements.

And herein lies the problem—actually, I should put scare quotes around that: the “problem”—with Renaissance. The album is a smart, complex blend of a number of categories of music, deriving its power from a combination of styles, artists, and approaches. It defies listeners (and, importantly, judges) to put it in a box. Beyoncé has created her own genre (text type, not category). Her albums respond to a socio-musical situation and challenge listeners to engage that situation through music that respects traditions while re-using or breaking them as appropriate. Renaissance breaks ground in the exact way Beyoncé fans have come to expect, which means the Grammy judging response should also be just as her fans have come to expect.

What the Award Decision Means

The Grammy judges did their jobs. They gave the award to the album they thought best demonstrated its category. Their selection of Harry’s House shows they value category consistency over challenging novelty. (Hell, I say the drum track of Renaissance alone was more technically skillful than all of Harry’s House put together, so the result sure wasn’t an indication of proficiency.)

The Grammys judges have been habituated to select an album that itself represents the best example of an artist/performer who has been habituated to exemplifying the conventions of their selected musical category. Harry Styles has solved that particular puzzle and demonstrated that he can give the industry what the industry expects, as defined by the Grammy awards. In the same way, Beyoncé has solved her own puzzle and demonstrated that she can consistently give her fans what they expect, in defiance of the Grammy awards. The system performs exactly as designed.

The Verdict, According to Genres

So overall, did the Best Album award decision create a controversy? Absolutely. Folks went nuts and have been talking about the decision all week. That’s the kind of buzz any industry—especially the entertainment industry—thrives on. But was the Best Album award decision controversial? Not at all. It happened according to rules and norms of the system in which it took place.

In the meantime, Beyoncé needs to keep doing what she does best. She needs to keep making intelligent, socially relevant, cutting-edge music that moves people both physically and spiritually. She needs to keep pushing the boundaries of the music only she can create, defining her own genre that defies categorization. And maybe, just maybe, one day the Grammys will change enough to catch up.