Following the awards whirlwind of last week’s Brits and recent Grammy ceremonies, the trending headline since seems to be predominantly focused around the winning artist’s acceptance speeches. Take Harry Styles’ contradicting takes on his privilege, or Wet Leg’s recreation of the Artic Monkeys 2014 winning speech. Everyone gets their rough minute on stage to make it their own – whether that’s showing gratitude, firing shots, cracking jokes or dabbling in life philosophy.
On a deep YouTube compilation dive of the good, the bad and the downright peculiar of acceptance speeches of music awards’ past, I can’t help but stroke my chin as to whether there’s a special formula to perfecting this craft.
There are, of course, the moments that lead up to the speech. Your name is called out as the winner, the camera zooms into your reaction face – the only emotion to show from here is either shock or excitement. Amy Winehouse’s touching 2008 Grammy win for ‘Rehab’ and Tyler the Creator’s 2020 Best Rap Album Grammy win reaction are both respectively textbook examples of how this should be done.
From there, it’s time for the walk. Many artists have taken different approaches to this: Lady Gaga knocking Leonardo Dicaprio on her way to pick up her Golden Globe; Jennifer Lawrence falling on the stage stairs at the Oscars; SZA hobbling to the podium on crutches as Doja Cat sprinted from the loos to catch up at last year’s Grammys, or all the way back to Kelly Clarkson being outright completely lost trying to make her way to stage at the 2005 VMAs. All iconic in their own right, but albeit overshadowing their subsequent speeches.
After the walk, eventful or not, you’re on stage, award in-hand, and it’s your chance to say something… anything. Some choose to delve into legacy-marking statements, whilst others choose to take the intensity of moment less seriously.
A natural avenue to go down is humility and gratitude, and bonus points if you jerk some tears. Kim Petras did a great job of this, accepting her Best Pop Duo Performance Grammy for ‘Unholy’ last week, marking her place as the “first transgender woman to win this award” and giving odes to the trans women that paved the way for her success, including her late friend, music producer and pioneer SOPHIE.
Harry Styles carried out this same humbleness as he commenced his Grammy acceptance speech for his polarising win of Album of the Year for Harry’s House, with “it’s obviously so important for us to remember that there is no such thing as best in music” followed by “this doesn’t happen to people like me very often, and this is so, so nice”, met by a room of winces at his ignorance. Sure, everyone loves a ‘Little Ol’ Me’ narrative but with an industry set up for a straight, white men, this one definitely missed the mark, especially after beating Beyonce’s Renaissance – arguably, the deserving winner of this award.
In fact, you could argue that one way of going about the speech is just making the moment about Beyoncé, as that already seems to be a pattern. Lizzo, Megan Thee Stallion and Adele are all pretty well-practiced at this, while Kanye West has infamously done a good job of making someone else’s speech about Beyonce, bursting on to stage and taking Taylor Swift’s mic at the 2009 VMAs. (I guess the acceptance speech isn’t confined to the winner themselves after all).
In the midst of Harry Styles’ redemption arc, the singer put straight any miscommunications from the Grammys, stating at the Brits “I’m very aware of my privilege up here tonight”, before shouting out his old One Direction bandmates and dedicating the award to “Rina, Charli, Florence, Mabel, and Becky” who were snubbed in this year’s all-male Artist of the Year list of nominees.
With an awards speech being one of few moments an artist is able to speak unfiltered, without their words being twisted, it’s rare you even get the opportunity to rewrite this within the same awards season. Fortunately for Styles, he’s hit the jackpot with his repeated wins at this year’s ceremonies.
Stepping away from modesty and appreciation, some artists choose to simply be assertive in their win. The pinnacle of this being Kanye’s “Everybody wanted to know what I would do if I didn’t win… I guess we’ll never know”, which has its own Genius page for being so iconic.
This moment of unfiltered speech can also be used to hash out beef. Nicki Minaj is one artist sure set to fire some shots in her acceptance speeches; whether that’s indirectly scorning Cardi B at the 2014 BET Awards with the iconic “when you hear Nicki Minaj spit, Nicki Minaj wrote it”, or the direct scorn to Miley Cyrus at the 2015 VMAs “Miley, what’s good?”. The award win is clearly in the back of her mind for most of these wins, using her moment at the 2018 People’s Choice Awards to chat up Michael B. Jordan: “Shoutout to Donatella Versace for custom-making this outfit, and shoutout to Michael B. Jordan ‘cause he’s gonna be taking it off of me tonight.” Nicki’s assured approaches to her acceptance speeches are arguably pretty avant-garde in their own right.
Also thinking outside the box were Artic Monkeys at the 2014 Brits, accepting British Album of the Year with an infamous poem of “That rock’n’roll, eh? That rock’n’roll, it just won’t go away”, after accepting the same award in a much more incoherent state at the 2008 ceremony. This speech resonated enough that Wet Leg took the opportunity to recite it whilst picking up Best New Artist this year.
Surprisingly, the least outlandish of speeches at this year’s award ceremonies came from The 1975. After a well-documented ‘At Their Very Best’ tour of outrageous on-stage behaviour in the name of irony, you would anticipate frontman Matty Healy to take grabbing the Brits microphone as his chance to incite more scandal, but the whole thing was kept very short and sweet, with a quick and mellow shoutout to their fans and their team. Maybe this in itself was avant-garde, a reminder to expect the unexpected.
One more factor to consider, as the speech nears its end is how you handle being cut off as the jarring music starts to play, inferring it’s time to wrap up. Truth be told, the only right way to handle this was exemplified by Adele giving the middle finger at “the suits, not the fans” for cutting off her Best Album Brits speech in 2012.
This early-onset outro music epitomises the way in which the awards want artists to stick to a quick and short speech, thanking the necessary people and getting off as soon as possible so they can move on with the night. When people are relishing in their achievement, a bit more respect should be shown for that moment. After all we’re only watching for them.
In the midst of the original words and gestures, it’s important to question why we even care about the awards in the first place. In the words of Harry Styles “there is no such thing as best in music”, and certainly my choice for album of 2022 would be very different to the next person, let alone make a spot in these industry-endorsed lists.
Drake made this point when accepting his Grammy for ‘God’s Plan’ in 2019, having boycotted the awards a couple years prior, citing the fans as the symbol of the achievement not the award. Addressing other artists, he said, “You don’t need this right here, you already won” before being prematurely cut off. Again, at this year’s Brits we saw censorship as Wet Leg shouted those memorable three words “Fuck the Tories”, which was muted for viewers at home. If you’re going to give these talents the platform to speak, then by all means, let them speak freely, anti-establishment and all.
Ultimately, with all corniness intended, the formula to this acceptance speech is just about that age-old concept of being yourself – thanking who you want, calling out who you want, making ignorant statements if you desire. All are welcome, it’s your award.