Dance Music at the 2020 Grammys: A Billboard Dance Contributor Roundtable

Daft Punk
Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Daft Punk performs onstage during the 56th Grammy Awards at Staples Center on Jan. 26, 2014 in Los Angeles.

While the live Grammy telecast has never included any of the electronic music categories, nominees for best dance/electronic album, best dance recording and best remixed recording have gotten loads more recognition in the past decade as dance music culture has risen in the United States, with the dance categories first introduced to the Awards in the late '90s and mid-2000s. 

With the Grammys coming in hot this Sunday, January 26, a roundtable of frequent Billboard Dance contributors assembled to discuss the 2020 dance nominations and how the role of dance music has evolved at the Grammys through the years. 

Okay, before we talk about the nominees, let's talk about who isn't here. What were the biggest snubs in the dance categories this year?

Joshua Glazer: Robyn's newest album seemed to get a lot of attention when it came out, so I was a bit surprised it's nowhere to be found. Plus, Honey was the most beguiling dance music album to be released by anyone since, well, Robyn's last album, Body Talk. I kinda hope she becomes like Sade and only puts out one perfect album per decade.

Kat Bein: I agree that Robyn's album would have been a no-brainer. It's release was a pop cultural moment that spawned thinkpieces and viral videos alike. It's surprising, as the Grammys have always honored OGs in instances like this, and it would have been an easy get for the ongoing conversation about gender parity.

I also think G Jones was left out in the cold. His debut The Ineffable Truth was released within the nomination timeline, and it's an absolute masterpiece for the experimental beat game. It's abrasive and melodic, both texturally exciting and emotionally elevated. Obviously the Grammys are more comfortable with the ambient side of IDM, and G Jones' only crime is going hard.

Zel McCarthy: It’s a weird set of nominees, because while they ostensibly reflect the kind of genre diversity within electronic music, these are sets of nominees that musically have very little to do with each other. It’s nice that the Academy doesn’t want to pigeonhole dance music as only one thing, but I’m not sure if something like a mixtape by Flume and a pop-instrumental LP from Tycho are comparable in the first place. But most glaringly, there are no women here. The only person of color is Ty Dolla $ign, who features on “Midnight Hour.” I could be wrong, but all of these men are heterosexual. That lack of diversity alone doesn’t speak well to the selection.

Krystal Rodriguez: For best dance recording, Peggy Gou’s “Starry Night,” CamelPhat and Jake Bugg’s “Be Someone” and Four Tet’s “Only Human” are big and fairly accessible records worth mentioning, but so many strong singles come out each year that predicting this category's a crapshoot. As for albums, though Avicii’s final album Tim may not have been his best, a nomination would have been a meaningful, albeit bittersweet gesture. 

Katie Bain: I agree with Krystal. While Tim didn't have the mega-hits of peak-era Avicii, there were a lot of really solid tracks on it, it had two bonafide hits in "SOS" and "Heaven" and it went to No. 1 on the Dance/Electronic albums chart.  I was surprised that the Academy didn't honor the legacy of one of the EDM genre's real icons and pioneers of the 2010s, particularly given that they'll likely never have another chance to do so. 

Where do NARAS' tastes seem to lie this year, and how have those tastes evolved?

Joshua Glazer: The Academy has gotten very good at covering all their bases. There's something for EDM enthusiasts (Skrillex & Boys Noize), old school ravers (Chemical Brothers), nu-school Burners (Rüfüs Du Sol), Eurodance lovers (Meduza) and serious-producer-slash-heard-it-in-a-commercial music (Bonobo, even though in fairness, he doesn't do placements). The fact that everything falls into the "deep" and listenable category probably says more about where dance music is at rather than where the Academy is at.

Kat Bein: I think they're pretty on the pulse. You couldn't go five feet into a party without hearing Soulwax's remix of Marie Davidson this year, and as soon as I heard Chemical Brothers' No Geography, I wanted it to win. Last year was the first year I really thought “They nailed it.” It seems to me the decision makers have nestled squarely at the crossroads of popular and respectable. They're not handing Marshmello nominations for existing (given he's more pop than dance these days), and they're keeping their nods in the top shelf of taste-makers. They've certainly come a long way from nominating Al Walser.

Zel McCarthy: I’m hesitant to say any of these nominees reflect a particular taste as much as they do a sort of name recognition. The Academy loves Skrillex, so he’s always nominated, but he’s also great, so he deserves to be nominated (and usually win). The nominated albums weren’t on top of many critics’ best-of lists, so it seems like their inclusion is more to honor a body of work than what was specifically nominated.

Krystal Rodriguez: I agree with Josh; the bases, musically, are well covered from year to year. Sometimes, particularly for best dance/electronic Album, that approach ends up as formulaic: your tried-and-true vets (Chem Bros), the leftfield underdog (Apparat), the crossover artist (Flume), the Coachella/indie darling (Rüfüs du Sol), Tycho. All picks worthy in their own way, but altogether uninspired.

What do you think this year's nominations say about the state of dance music as a whole?

Joshua Glazer: Again, everything feels safe and pleasant. When Skrillex plus Boys Noize times Ty Dolla $ign equals a six on the ambient-to-rager scale, you know people are popping more Klonopin than Molly.

Kat Bein: No one is excited by big room anymore -- melody and groove is where it's at, and live performance continues to be celebrated.

Zel McCarthy: While the unbearable whiteness and overwhelming maleness of the nominees is sadly not surprising, it’s a mystery as to why the current guard within the Academy doesn’t do more to include work connected to dance music’s foundational genres, house and techno. Arguably, this year’s nominees are very pop-leaning, which is not an inclination the Academy shares for all of its genre awards. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing, but it feels a little limited.  

Krystal Rodriguez: It’s white, hetero, male: business as usual. Musically, there’s far less EDM and more of a focus on deeper, non-Top 40, artists and genres -- a lot of it feels very alternative and home-listenable, versus straightforward club and festival fare.

Katie Bain: The EDM moment is officially over, with none of the usual suspects of that realm -- Avicii, David Guetta, Kaskade, etc. -- receiving nominations, and artists who embody a more underground or alternative vibe getting a lot of traction at the Grammys and in the dance world alike. 

How badly would you like to see the electronic music categories as part of the live telecast? Why?

Joshua Glazer: Dance music is notoriously underwhelming when it comes to one-and-done television performances. I don't think it really does the music any favors to be presented under those constraints and the business of dance music seems to be doing just fine without it.

Kat Bein: So badly! Make the awkward kids talk on TV! I also think a live moment would add legitimacy to the genre. It's a badge of respect to be included, though it speaks to the faded fad of “EDM” that electronic music isn't considered popular enough to be worth precious air-time. Everyone is primed for the drama of Lizzo versus Billie Eilish, and neither Gen Z nor its parents actually care about nocturnal white dudes vying for best bleep bloop.

Zel McCarthy: I don’t know how to say this respectfully, but most DJs aren’t quite ready for prime time. 

Krystal Rodriguez: It’s been overdue for the last half-decade or so. Dance music is embedded in popular music and has been a driving force behind key moments and trends in popular culture. It makes no sense that their categories are continually set aside to the pre-show. I’d also like to see more electronic artist performances, à la “One Kiss,” but understand its limitations.

Katie Bain: I see the dillemma here, in that the telecast is already strapped for time and the producers understandably have to lean on super famous artists to make the show pop. That said, past winners like Skrillex, Diplo and Daft Punk are super famous and as well-known in the mainstream as many of the other nominated acts. Including these categories on live TV would be the ultimate nod that the Academy understands and appreciates the role and influence of dance music in pop culture, and the move would also of course help expand that role. 

In regards to the dance acts that have performed on the telecast -- from Deadmau5 to Daft Punk to Skrillex and Diplo -- which one stands out in your memory as the best or most groundbreaking?

Joshua Glazer: Like everything they do, Daft Punk had the most fully-realized performance. Set pieces, Stevie Wonder, white helmets, Nile Rodgers. No wonder Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and Yoko Ono were all caught dancing in the crowd (separately, sadly).

Kat Bein: I literally don't remember any of that other than Daft Punk. I just YouTube'd Skrillex and Diplo's Justin Bieber performance, and the fact that they had Diplo on non-kit drums and Skrillex on guitar further exemplifies how boring the Grammys think DJs or live electronic performance would be. They're not there because they're cool electronic musicians, they're there because they had a hit with Justin Bieber. It's pretty satisfying to see deadmau5 do his cube thing, but it's also like “hey, he presses play but he's cool to look at.”

Daft Punk's performance, on the other hand, was a star-studded demonstration of how the duo's soulful blend of disco and funk emerged from a lineage of legends -- and it also gave some kind of context pitting the producers inside an engineer room, as the live musicians played in the recording room. The robots also demonstrated Ableton's ability to cut-and-paste song snippets together into a mega-mix, whether it was manipulated live at all or not. I'm happy for any and all electronic people that hit the stage, but I think Daft Punk set the bar.

Zel McCarthy: The Jack ü one was weird because Skirllex and Diplo wanted to prove that they were “real musicians” by playing analog instruments instead of just, you know, DJing. But Diplo isn’t exactly an instrumentalist, which is hard to conceal on that stage in a room full of musicians. Also, for any kids who were hoping that TV performance would help their parents understand what dance music was really like, they were probably very confused.  

Krystal Rodriguez: Most definitely Daft Punk in 2014. Compared to the other acts listed, they had the allure of being rather private, even elusive. To see them not only live, but on an internationally televised platform, felt like witnessing history. Plus, they had Pharrell, Nile Rodgers and Stevie Wonder! What’s not to love about that?

Katie Bain: I agree with everyone that Daft Punk was excellent for everything that it was -- sophisticated, fun, original and actually danceable. More so though, I remember the Jack ü performance for everything that it wasn't. As the rare electronic act invited to perform on the live show, Diplo and Skrillex had a chance to show the world the size and excitement of dance music. I understand the limitations of making this genre pop in a broadcast format, but having two of the most relevant dance acts of the generation play analog instruments for a pared down version of their literally and metaphorically huge song felt like a missed opportunity. 

This year marks the first time that a woman has been nominated for best remix. (Tracy Young for her remix of Madonna's "I Rise.") Why do you think it's taken a female so long to break into this category?

Joshua Glazer: The subject of diversity in dance music has really reached a tipping point, with women especially at the forefront of what's new and cool. Still, it's going to take a lot longer for the industry as a whole to catch up, as is proven by the fact that a fairly rote remix of a fifth-wave Madonna song is even being considered for a Grammy, regardless of what genitals the remixer possesses.

Kat Bein: First and foremost, a big congratulations to Tracy Young. On the whole, I don't have a lot of answers on this issue. Alison Wonderland's remix of Dua Lipa in 2017 stood out to me. Tokimonsta remixed Maroon 5 and Cardi B's collab, among a ton of other reworks. Co-ed duo Sofi Tukker has remixed big stars. Rezz is out here doing her thing. Yaeji remixes are consistently dope, while bearing a total signature of originality. As someone who has helped create many year-end lists, I know how easy it can be for women, POC and queer producers to be overlooked without any kind of malicious intent. It works both ways, too. Artists, labels and management teams can hire more women and other minority groups to do their remixes. The more there are, the more the industry will be forced to notice.

Zel McCarthy: There’s really no mystery here: The overwhelming majority of official remixes commissioned by labels are produced by men. I was recently sent a set of remixes for a relatively big pop star, and all 12 of the remixers were men -- and this pop star is probably someone who would be seen as a feminist! Her label just didn’t extend her feminism to the choice of remixers. So if women aren’t doing the remix work, they won’t be nominated for it. This category isn’t technically a Dance genre award anyway, but it was the one Frankie Knuckles won, so spiritually, it’s Dance.

Krystal Rodriguez: First of all, that stat is so wild I had to fact-check it. It sounds outrageous… but is it, really? There’s already a significant gender imbalance in terms of male-identifying producers versus non-males. Though I know of many women producers, I can't think of any notable remixes they've done. Are artists not reaching out to women to remix their records? Are women instead concentrating on creating original music? Altogether, they’re questions I can’t answer, but am very curious to know.

Katie Bain: I agree that there are a lot of variables here, but ultimately what Zel said feels true: If more women were offered the opportunity to do official remixes, more women would be nominated in the remix category. 

Speaking of diversity, outside of Young, only men were nominated this year, almost all of them white. To what extent is this a reflection of dance music's ongoing issues with diversity? 

Joshua Glazer: It's gonna take a lot more LGBTQ+ artists getting booked at festivals run by Asian American promoters working at African-American-owned global event conglomerates and posted about by female editors (sup, Katie!) on Latino-owned social media platforms. In the meantime, the Grammy dance music nominations are pretty much proof that white men still run the (Western) World.

Kat Bein: Given the issues currently swirling at the Academy, it sounds like they've got big underlying issues. My last answer still applies. I think there is a ton of fabulous talent representing all genders, cultures and lifestyles. We as fans, journalists, promoters, managers, bookers, DJs, whatever have to support what's good from all over. It's on all of us.

Zel McCarthy: It would help to recognize more work within Dance. There’s no reason there can’t be separate categories for vocal tracks and instrumentals, or additional prizes for “traditional” dance music like classic house or disco. Ambient electronic music is having a moment; let’s make a Grammy for it. If we’re only going to consider the work of electronic music that fits a similar model of music, we’re only going to get similar kinds of nominees.

Krystal Rodriguez: When looking at the frontlines of dance music, most, if not all, of those faces are white and male, so it’s no surprise that the nominations reflect that. Beyond them, women, POC, LBGT and non-binary artists are making some of the most interesting and innovative underground music right now. Perhaps, at its roots, it’s up to us media people to ensure that these artists get on the collective radar, though that presents its own set of challenges.

Katie Bain: It's a massive reflection of how men still dominate the dance world, from getting the biggest gigs and biggest paychecks, to deciding who is getting those big gigs and paychecks. The industry is complicated and its easy to fingerpoint, but ultimately, like Kat said, there are so many women, POC, LBGT and non-binary artists out there making really tremendous dance music, so it's our job as journalists to spotlight on them. 

Best dance album: Who should win, and who will win?

Joshua Glazer: Apparat had the most interesting and adventurous album of the year, so he's out. Recent winners included a Justice remix compilation and live Kraftwerk career retrospective box set, so this category feels wide f--king open. Rüfüs has those memorable umlauts, so they'll probably get it. 

Kat Bein: I think Rüfüs had a really big moment in 2019. I know people who got that album title tattoo'd, so that groups seems to be a popular choice. I also think Flume's “mixtape” is a stand-out. As I said before, I heard Chemical Brothers' No Geography and immediately thought "Grammy winner." It's got a level of depth and dynamics that struck me at my core (and I'm a big longtime fan). They also won the category in 2005 and 2007, so there's precedent. All of the nominations are great, though.

Zel McCarthy: I guess the Chems should win, but this category is seriously underwhelming.

Krystal Rodriguez: I’d love to see it go to the Chemical Brothers’ No Geography, which was a solid album from a duo with a proven track record. This category is so hard to predict based on past winners, so hopefully that means they have a good chance. 

Katie Bain: The Rüfüs du Sol album feels reflective of how the Academy wants to be perceived in terms of being in touch with the dance underground -- even though Rüfüs is huge -- and on the pulse of dance trends in terms of them being a live electronic act playing super vibey music. Plus that album is really great, so my vote goes to them or the Chems. 

Best dance recording: Who should win, and who will win?

Joshua Glazer: I'd give it to the Chems, just for the "I Want Your Love"-esque chimes. But Skrillex is undefeated when it comes to electronic music Grammys, so who are we kidding here?

Kat Bein: Shout out Boys Noize for his first Grammy nomination. Dude has been doing the lord's work for more than a decade, but I don't think “Midnight Hour” is the winning song (nor is it the best Skrillex and Boys Noize song of the year, in my opinion). Meduza's “Piece Of Your Heart” was huge, but that duo appeared out of nowhere and there's almost nothing we know about them, so I would rather see someone with more years take it home. If Chem Bros are my pick for LP, I'd love for someone else to take this one. I think “Underwater” has a great shot, but we'll see!

Zel McCarthy: “Midnight Hour” should and will win. It’s almost boring how Skrillex always snatches up those trophies, but he deserves them.

Krystal Rodriguez: “Got to Keep On” was my favorite track from No Geography as well as one of my favorite tracks of 2019, so once again my pick goes to the Chem Bros. I think it’ll go to “Midnight Hour,” which strikes a fine balance between accessible and cool. I could also see "Piece of Your Heart" winning as the unexpected crossover hit, if my upstairs neighbor has anything to say about it.

Katie Bain: "Got to Keep On" is just an undeniable banger, so I'd be thrilled to see it win. That said, Skrillex is a longrunning Grammy favorite, and it'd be rad to see his "Midnight Hour" collaborator Boys Noize get the win given that he's such a dance world legend. 

Best remixed recording: Who should win, and who will win?

Joshua Glazer: The Madonna remix aside, this category makes for the most interesting playlist. The ford. remix of "Swim" tickles my personal taste, but Wuki made the only banger of the bunch, and with Miley no less.

Kat Bein: Marie Davidson's “Work It” is my kind of self-empowerment anthem, and Soulwax kicked that remix' ass. They should win, and I hope they do win – but big love to everyone else nominated.

Zel McCarthy: Tracy Young totally has a shot here, but I personally loved Marie Davidson’s 2018 album, so the Soulwax remix of her “Work It” is my personal fave.

Krystal Rodriguez: It’s gotta go to “Work It (Soulwax Remix)” -- right???

Katie Bain: Right. 

2020 Grammy Awards


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