2020 Grammy nominations try to clarify the blurred line between rock, pop — but aren’t successful

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It’s difficult to classify rock and pop as two completely distinct genres — they undoubtedly blur together at some level of sonic scrutiny. Music award shows, such as the Grammy Awards, often adhere to stereotypical perceptions of both rock and pop. The two genres, however, are persistently evolving and straying from characteristics previously used to distinguish them from other categories — and each other.

Rock is typically characterized by guitar and drum-driven sounds, often focusing more on instrumental riffs than vocals. Pop is inherently more melody-based, repeatedly involving synth beats and placing more emphasis on vocals and harmonies. But it isn’t uncommon for rock songs with heavy guitars to have a clear melody and pop-like hooks. On the other hand, pop songs with stronger drum beats and commanding instrumentals can cross the line toward having significant rock qualities.

The Grammys have historically done a good job of keeping up with traditional notions of pop and rock. Take the nominees for best pop vocal album, for example. Ed Sheeran, Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, Beyoncé and Ariana Grande are all well known for churning out pop hits. The only possible outlier would be Taylor Swift, who used to release country-tinged albums, but this is no longer the case. Eilish’s album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? screams pop, with its repeating electronic beats intended only to supplement Eilish’s voice without much other purpose. While “bad guy” has a bumping bass beat, it’s Eilish’s breathy voice that clearly commands the attention.

For the Grammys’ rock categories, nominations have changed over the years, shifting from an abundance of 1990s alternative rock to today’s more garage-influenced arena rock. This can most clearly be seen in the Black Keys’ nomination and win in 2013 and the presence of Tool in this year’s nominations. The key rock aspect of these albums is a specific tone of guitar that’s usually more distorted than the cleaner guitars found in pop music, if found at all. With these rock albums, listeners focus equally on the mastery of backing instrumentals as well as the vocals. 

There are exceptions, of course. One of the nominees for best rock song, “Harmony Hall” by Vampire Weekend, could easily be considered a pop song based on its experimental characteristics and pop hooks in the chorus. To put it simply, it’s a bright song and easy to sing along to. Lyrics such as “I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die” and the following “oohs” are naturally blurted from listeners’ mouths. 

While it does primarily hold characteristics most akin to alternative rock, the case for “Harmony Hall” being a rock song isn’t helped by Vampire Weekend’s status as an indie band. Vampire Weekend often includes aspects of rock mixed with baroque pop in its music, further transcending its sound past just one or two genres. Because of this, “Harmony Hall” isn’t a stereotypical pop song like the music released by Ariana Grande. It holds facets of both pop and rock, often classified under the umbrella term of indie, making the distinction between rock and pop that much more difficult.

The melding of pop and rock harkens back to the Billboard Music Awards and the MTV Video Music Awards giving Lorde the awards for top rock song and best rock video for “Royals,” a song that was clearly regarded as part of the popular music genre, and as not rock. Lorde herself seemingly expressed confusion upon receiving the award, but the decision at the BMAs and VMAs could be the foreshadowing of a future trend. Even if the Grammys didn’t make the same judgment as these other two award shows, it could just as easily make similar calls in the future. At some point, only mass backlash and outrage from the public can truly help distinguish what music should be nominated for rock or pop awards.

But now, sometimes even the public cannot tell whether a song should be considered one genre or the other. Pop now uses more intentionally generated beats that draw attention away from the singing and are able to stand alone in a song, rather than just being background noise. Rock sometimes uses string elements, catchy vocals and mundane beats, and it can still be considered rock. Soon, the worry may not be just between rock and pop, but also jazz, electronic music, classical music and more. Music is ever-changing and under constant experimentation with new combinations of styles to create unique pieces. What we need to anticipate is whether the Grammy Awards and listeners alike can keep up with classifications, or if music is best enjoyed without labels.

Pooja Bale covers music. Contact her at [email protected].