Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” is not one of the best songs released in the past year. It’s a good song — frantic and mournful and rattling — but it’s not one of the best songs of the year. Yet there it is, nominated for both a Song of the Year and Record of the Year Grammy. This isn’t a problem in and of itself — the Grammys are often comically wrong in what they choose or not choose to nominate — but “This Is America” is most notable for its music video, easily one of the best of the year, not its recorded version, and the Grammys are not the VMAs.
You’ve seen the clip. Seemingly everyone has, including Grammy voters. By dropping that video on the night of a performance on Saturday Night Live, Donald Glover (and team) mesmerized viewers with the vicious, choreographed piece of artistry. Overnight, the internet erupted into enthusiastic close reads, thinkpieces and straightforward cheerleading. In a year just one step further down the long road of internet-abetted fragmentation, “This Is America” was a unique gather-round-the-screen moment; the rare piece of entertainment you had to watch simply to keep up with the conversation. The attention propelled the song to Number One on the Billboard Hot 100, wresting the top spot away, briefly, from Drake. In creating a music moment that had less to do with the song than its stunning visual, Glover resumed his continued dominance at the annual award show.
Similarly, Drake’s success in the general interest category can be attributed to his eye (and heart) for the music video as an art form. This year, the sprawling Scorpion netted Drake three massive singles. He spent months at the top of the charts, trading out “God’s Plan,” “Nice For What,” and “In My Feelings” at Number One. For much of the year, it felt like Drake’s only competition for commercial dominance was himself. Of those songs, “In My Feelings” is the easy bet for a Song of the Year nomination. It’s the least straightforward rap song of the bunch and the least likely to have its genre get in the way of it winning any hardware. It’s the catchiest song of the year and the only single of Drake’s to begin to get play outside of urban radio, jamming itself into playlists on pop radio around the country.
But it’s “God’s Plan,” the simplest of the trio and the one that’s squarely a rap song, that is up for Song of the Year. It’s tough to say why that is, exactly, but part of it could have to do with Drake giving away $1 million. While the superstar clearly spent a lot of time and energy (and was aided by the directorial talents of Karena Evans) on his videos this year, it was “God’s Plan” that became the breakout for the video itself. In it, Drake travels around Miami, giving away the video’s ostensible $1 million budget to increasingly grateful people. It’s touching and, like “This Is America,” it struck a chord.
For artists that are looking to win the Grammy for the Song of the Year, the straightest path to success is rarely to simply write and record the best song of the year. Instead, there are a constantly shifting host of criteria, most of them impenetrable (likely even to Grammy voters themselves), to consider. This year, there’s another path to success in this category: Make a music video that literally everyone in America watches at least once and talks about for the rest of the year, and the awards will sort themselves out.