Would You Thank Your Mom or God First?
I looked through 100s of Grammy speeches to find out what musicians are thankful for.
Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. This year Can’t Get Much Higher is thankful for our editor, who also happens to be my father. Last weekend, my dad was on a trip, so I put out a rare newsletter without him reading it. There was not only a typo, but there was as typo in the title. Editors are important. Thank them. In the spirit of the holiday, I decided to watch hundreds of Grammy speeches to find out what musicians are thankful for.
I’d Like to Thank the Academy
Well, I'm very happy to win this. I want to thank Phil Ramone, who co-produced this with me. And Phoebe Snow who sang along with me on the album. And Art Garfunkel who sang with me on "My Little Town." And most of all I'd like to thank Stevie Wonder, who didn't make an album this year.
Paul Simon was right to thank Stevie Wonder for not releasing any music that year. Wonder won Album of the Year in 1974 for Innervisions. He then won again in 1975 for Fulfillingness' First Finale. As noted, Wonder did not release an album the year of Simon’s victory. He did the year after, though. That album was Wonder’s magnum opus, Songs in the Key of Life. He won Album of the Year for it.
The rest of Paul Simon’s speech is fairly standard. He just thanks his collaborators. I wanted to see how common that was. Do people thank their collaborators more often than their mothers? To answer this question, I watched 172 Grammy acceptance speeches that were uploaded to the Recording Academy’s YouTube channel. Though there were more speeches from recent years, I was able to find at least ten from each decade since 1970.
I quickly realized that identifying each person thanked in 172 acceptance speeches would be extremely difficult. Artists sometimes thank scores of people, many of whom aren’t particularly notable. Instead, I decided to focus on the first person or entity that an artist thanked upon their win. Basically, I wanted to know who was at the front of their mind when they took home their little gilded gramophone.
The most common first entity thanked in our sample of acceptance speeches was collaborators. This includes thanking duet partners, like Rihanna did when she thanked Jay-Z after “Umbrella” won Best Rap/Sung Collaboration in 2007. It includes thanking songwriters, like Captain & Tennille did when they shouted out Howard Greenfield and Neil Sedaka for writing their 1976 Record of the Year “Love Will Keep Us Together”. It also includes thanking producers, like Green Day did when they tipped their cap to producer Rob Cavallo after American Idiot won Best Rock Album in 2005.
Along with collaborators, nearly 70% of the first entities thanked in a Grammy acceptance speech are either God, a family member, or the Recording Academy. This isn’t terribly shocking. Frankly, it’s not that interesting either. But while I was watching all 172 of these speeches, I noticed some things that I did think were interesting.
Grammy acceptance speeches are boring
Grammy speeches are so boring that they often only become interesting when something goes wrong, like when Edgar Winter started giving his speech for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2023 standing way too far away from the microphone or when The Strokes accepted the 2021 award for Best Rock Album via an extremely laggy video.
Sometimes There’s No One to Thank
The non-thanks occurred in 6% of the speeches in our sample. This usually happens when an artist has already won a bunch of awards - like Billie Eilish in 2020 - when the artist has nothing left to prove - like Paul McCartney on behalf of the post-break-up Beatles in 1971 - or when the artist rambles somewhat aimlessly, like Harry Styles in 2023.
Not Many People Are There Before the Telecast
When I watched the 2023 acceptance speech for Best Engineered Album, Classical, I was shocked how empty the room was. It doesn’t seem fill up until the television cameras are rolling and the big awards are being doled out. That doesn’t mean the honorees are unhappy, though. The winners of Best Engineered Album, Classical were so thrilled that they were trying to take out their phones to get a picture on the stage.
Songs Used to Be Performed Live When an Artist Won
If you’ve watched The Grammys recently, you’ll notice that when an artist wins, a recording of one of their songs is played as they approach the stage. Take this clip of Bruno Mars winning Song of the Year for “That’s What I Like” as an example. As he makes his way to the stage, a recording of his song is playing.
But that wasn’t always the case. Previously, when an artist approached the stage, they had a live orchestra or band performing a snippet of a relevant song. Aretha Franklin accepting the award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance is a good example of this now-dead tradition. As she approaches the stage, an orchestra plays “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, the song she had just won for. Give musicians some work and bring the orchestra back to The Grammys.
Artists Love to Thank Prince
Usually, when artists are thanking fellow musicians, those musicians are their collaborators. Sometimes artists thank non-collaborator musicians, though. In our sample, the only non-collaborator artist who got the first thanks more than once was Prince. He was thanked by Macy Gray when she won Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “I Try” in 2001. He was thanked by Gotye when he won Record of the Year for “Somebody That I Used to Know” in 2013. And he was thanked by Lizzo when she won Record of the Year for “About Damn Time” in 2023.
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The Audience Used to Be Rowdier
Maybe they used to invite more fans, but the energy at some of the earlier ceremonies was wild. When Tina Turner won Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 27th Grammys, you can hear people hooting and hollering while the presenters are preparing to announce her name.
Record Labels are Rarely the First Entity Thanked These Days
Before the year 2000, the artist’s label was the first entity thanked 17% of the time in our sample. After the year 2000, that shrinks to 2%. I think Weird Al Yankovic’s humorous acceptance speech for Best Comedy Album in 2004 explains this shift:
Wow. This is great. It’s just an honor to be in the same category as Margret [Cho] and David [Cross] and George [Lopez] and Garrison [Keillor]. But this is even better, I have to tell you. I want to thank all the folks at Way Mobi-Volcano-Zomba-Jive-BMG Record, Tapes, and Compact Discs …
In short, the corporate structure of record labels has become so convoluted that knowing which entity to thank is probably even confusing to the artist. The label just seems like an intangible financial entity. That wasn’t the case decades ago when the Bee Gees won Album of the Year for Saturday Night Fever and thanked their label RSO before anybody else.
Should I have the chance to win a Grammy, I’m not sure whose name would be the first to come out of my mouth. All I can hope is that my speech is as entertaining as when U2 accepted their first Grammy in 1988. Bassist Adam Clayton was in the bathroom and had to run on stage to meet the other three members of the quartet. Bono and The Edge wore ridiculous hats covering their even more ridiculous hair. Then after thanking their lawyer - a very unexpected first shout out - they thank a fascinating list of characters. Here’s a sample.
Martin Luther King
Bob Dylan (for “Tangled Up in Blue”)
John the Baptist
Lucky the Dog
Pee Wee Herman
Sumo wrestlers (throughout the world)
I don’t even know who all the people on the list are, but it at least holds my attention more than the average speech. Thanks, U2! And happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate.
A New One
"Heaven" by Niall Horan
2023 - Indie Rock
In 2023, the Recording Academy established a new Grammy award: Songwriter of the Year, Non-Classical. They gave that inaugural award to Tobias Jesso Jr. When Jesso Jr. came on the scene in 2015 with his plaintive debut album Goon, I never thought he’d become one of the most sought-after pop songwriters. That’s not because he lacked talent. It’s because you never expect anyone to reach those heights. But there are few as deserving.
Though he’s collaborated with Adele, Dua Lipa, and some of the other biggest names in pop, my favorite song of his from this year is “Heaven”, the slow-burning opener from Niall Horan’s most recent album, The Show.
An Old One
"That Black Bat Licorice" by Jack White
2014 - Blues Rock
In 2014, I got a copy of Jack White’s sophomore album Lazaretto on vinyl. My dad noticed that in the liner notes, Mr. White thanked an absurd number of entities. The first was God, followed by family and those that played on the record, but as you go on the list gets crazy.
He thanks Conan O’Brien, multiple Detroit Tigers, 70s films, 80s films, front porch swings, unforeseen enemies, manufactured enemies, oil-based paint, the Library of Congress, dust, and so many more. When you listen to “That Black Bat Licorice” - the off-kilter, hip-hop-influenced ninth song on the record - you get a sense that all of those things thanked might actually have played a role.
Want to see the Grammy speech data? Take a look at it here.
Want to hear the music that I make? Check out my latest EP, You Know I Can Be Dramatic.