As each passing year fades so does my tolerance of the Grammy Awards. My displeasure is steadfast and deep rooted, and barring a complete restructuring I think any genuine fan of music should feel the same considering how poorly they represent the very medium they stand for. It's a shame that I care at all; sadder still, I've come to settle for one or two merely decent nominees, accepting that scenario as a "win;" it shouldn't be that way. I'm not asking to agree with everything, it's impossible with so many different sounds being pushed forward, but I am asking for them to act like they give a damn. There is too much wonderful, innovative, polarizing, and truly groundbreaking work being done in the name of music for the Grammys to cast a perpetual blind eye. The worst part of it all is that this lack of recognition is being done by an institution whose sole purpose is to reward the innovators that make it's very existence possible! This criticism will be small in scope, though if wealthy benefactor feels like commissioning my manifesto I'd be happy to accept the task of breaking it down in it's entirety. But for now here's my, believe it or not, tempered take on the awards show that consistently provides me with one of my least favorite nights of the year (yet I still watch, such is life).
This post is rather long, and while I'd like for you to listen to music while you read, unfortunately the music I talk about within the piece would be distracting and I'd love for your attention to be undivided. With that in mind I've chosen excerpts from composer Yann Tiersen's 2016 instrumental record EUSA to accompany you through. It's a dream, so enjoy!
I love music more than anything and started this site to share that love, so seeing one of the biggest platforms blatantly and knowingly waste their voice makes me upset *stomps feet, curses night sky.* Let's start with the tagline itself. The Grammys labeling themselves "music's biggest night" might be the most misleading mantra in the world considering no awards show is less in touch with their art form. "Music's most contradictory night" seems more apt, as they support and reward the steadily uninventive sounds brought to us by musics most popular names. Even in the last two years, when the ballot tidily gift wrapped a winner who was well deserving of the (once coveted?) trophy, they STILL found a way out of crowning the correct winner. For those unfamiliar I'm talking about Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly (2015) and Beyonce's Lemonade (2016), both rare combinations where the artist in question is both wildly famous AND the creator of a bonafide masterpiece. Easy decision right? Apparently not, as they chose to honor the, by comparison, extraordinarily undeserving Taylor Swift (1989) and then doubled down this year by doing the same thing, gifting the top prize to the not terribly undeserving but undeserving nonetheless, Adele (25). I guess the question that weighs so heavily on me is why?
A perfect example is the aforementioned 2015...situation. To put Taylor Swift's win into perspective as logically as I can (after all, art is subjective), on the site Metacritic, which is in my opinion the best site out there in gauging critical response, they do a year-end roundup by pulling album rankings from the country's top publications (newspapers, magazines, blogs, etc.). In that collection of just over 100 publications Kendrick's To Pimp A Butterfly received 51 album of the year votes. The second highest? Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell with eight. EIGHT, PEOPLE. The way they do the overall ranking is a simple point system: three points for a first place vote, two points for a second place vote, and one point for just being in the top 10. Kendrick received a total of 225 points. The album in second didn't even crack 100. Taylor Swift's record? 33 points. Now, keep in mind her album actually came out in 2014, not 2015, so technically her record wasn't directly compared to Kendrick's in critical circles. Though 2015 was much stronger than 2014 so I'd imagine her score would have dropped considerably had they actually gone head to head. Nevertheless, when you're honoring songs that are turning two years old, something is wrong. If that doesn't make sense to you, you're not alone.
The Grammys' eligibility period is structured like this. Albums taken into consideration are ones released from October of x-year to September of the following year for an award show in the year following that one....go ahead and wrap your head around that. Why no one within the committee has mentioned, or rather forced, pushing the show back a few months and making the qualifying period span a calendar year is beyond me. Which, if anyone from the Grammys is reading, a calendar year is January through December. Fingers crossed they just...didn't know? Except they do, those sneaks! Remember how I said it's all about the ratings? The reason they do this is so they can keep big stars in the spotlight for multiple years. How this works is, if an album's single comes out during 2014's eligibility period it can be placed into the running even if it doesn't have an album to accompany it. This way, when the album is released after that years' eligibility window has closed, the artist can be nominated again the following year, further limiting the number of artists outside of their favorites they have to acknowledge. If only they worked this hard to, I don't know, maybe do something like...the exact opposite of that?? What a world that would be!
Now, back to the nominees themselves. Obviously there are exceptions, as there are to every rule, and the Grammys seem to always work just hard enough to acknowledge a limited few who are genuinely deserving, though "just hard enough" loosely translates to not hard at all. They state that they receive over 20,000 entries every year. TWENTY THOUSAND. And with all those submissions they somehow end up with the same best album nominees that would be chosen by local high school students (no disrespect to well informed high schoolers). It blows my mind that Drake's Views and Justin Bieber's Purpose were even mentioned. Those albums aren't good enough to be nominated in their respective genres, let alone for the top award. If they so desperately wanted popular nominees for that category why not toss one to Rihanna (who in fairness did receive eight nominations); ANTI was far and away her best album ever and one deserving of a nod. In fact, the Best Urban Contemporary Album nominees would have made up a stronger Best Album of the Year field with: Beyonce - Lemonade, Gallant - Ology, KING - We Are KING, Anderson .Paak - Malibu, and Rihanna - ANTI. Which brings me to another conversation.
In an age when exposing the beauty of diversity is paramount, and the urgent necessity of that has jumped to the forefront of conscious minds, there is no easier task then the one the Grammys have had/ currently have/ and will continue to have before them. While many groups of people are putting out material worth a deeper look I'd like to focus on a specific one, as it seems to be most prevalent. I've read countless times that the Grammys don't understand black music, and while I'd go as far as to say they simply don't understand music, their relationship with black music is a crying shame, because in the industry right now no collective is doing more creative or original work. Culturally, black artists have been at the forefront of almost every genre that we know and love: blues, jazz, rock and roll, funk, hip hop, etc; and considering all the sub-genres that developed as a result of these, it would almost be easier to say they birthed popular music as we know it today. What we experienced this year, and honestly have been experiencing in some way or form as long as I've been alive is a progressive renaissance, a blending of classic sounds and genres made new. Whether it was loud or subtle, this movement is constant: Esperanza Spalding's Emily's D+ Evolution, Laura Mvula's The Dreaming Room, Amos Lee's Spirit are just a few of the great albums that went unnoticed. In 2016, 14 of my top 25 albums were from black artists, including seven of the top 10 (you can read that list HERE). So when the they refuse to acknowledge these artists who are creating something that's as expansive as it is important, it begs the question...what are they actually looking for?
As of now, that question can be answered with one word. Ratings. It's obvious. Music itself is the least of their concerns. They promote artists that everyone knows for that exact purpose, everyone knows them. It's guaranteed viewership and that's guaranteed money. It's business, nothing more. The unfortunate part of that is most people don't care enough to change it, I mean I'm writing this and I still tune in. I have to. Because here's the thing, I still like most of the artists being nominated. I like pop music, I like mainstream music, I'm a fan too! This year's show was the most fun that I can remember having during the program. The performances, from the grandiosity of Beyoncé to the simplicity of Gary Clarke Jr. and William Bell, were incredible; but wouldn't it be even better if the awards themselves were great too?? Just because something is fun doesn't mean it deserves to be glorified. It's the equivalent of nominating Captain America: Civil War for Best Picture at the Oscars. The movie is entertaining, but it's not art. There is a difference. Yes, artists worked on the film, but it's nothing more than fun. And that's not to say an action movie can't be both fun and art. Just last year Mad Max challenged the idea of what an action movie could be. It was an absolute spectacle, big and beautiful, an exercise in controlled chaos, and it was recognized justly. Music should be held to the same standard.
To make things a bit clearer, here is a chart I made based upon my research of the esteemed institution. It's extremely accurate.
A Study Showing The Time Period The Grammys Cared About Music
Unfortunately, not all winners fall into the Captain America category. Some are a little bit trickier. The trickiest of all? Adele. The Grammys PRAY for artists like Adele. She's someone that both casual and dedicated fans can generally agree on. While she isn't breaking any ground artistically, she does rise into the rarified stratosphere of being perfect at what she does. Her vocals, her emotion, her passion, all 10's. With all those accolades, a singular talent like her transcends generational tastes making her the perfect out. While we might believe someone was more deserving, no one truly dislikes Adele winning. I want to award her too. She's classic. And yes, that word is a compliment, but it's also where the problem lies. Classic is good, but it's not progressive, and with the Grammys so reluctant to evolve, artists like her provide them reason not to, at least for one more year. And when it's involving an industry that seems to be moving a mile a minute, remaining stagnant is the worst thing you can do, especially when you have the funds and connections available to be on the forefront.
Considering who the voter list comprises of (industry professionals on both the creative and technical side), it's equal parts surprising and unsurprising why the nominations end up like they do. It's easy to get lost within ones own work, so I understand why people employed within the industry aren't necessarily up to date on everything being released. Their focus is on the album, or albums, they're directly involved in, and I'm sure that for many the last thing they want to do when they get home is spend hours scouring through new records and singles. Obviously there's a percentage of artists that do keep up, but I'm speaking in a general sense. Then again, I would also imagine that those in the industry would be more willing to reward new sounds. Hearing the same thing over and over again would get tiresome, so when they come across people doing things differently you would think they'd be excited to cast the spotlight on them, the innovators, the risk takers. Because of this conundrum it's hard to decide where the fault lies, but I guess my concern is less where the fault lies and more why are we leaving it up to this group to decide in the first place?
I love speaking to musicians and getting their insight. As merely a fan of music, my perspective and reception of sound can be largely different from that of an artist, because of that I find their input and point of view fascinating. But if the artists aren't willing to, or simply can't take the time to explore the years sounds, then they shouldn't be the ones voting. On top of that, you have to recognize that there are conflicting emotions for voters if it's an album they worked on, or one from their label, or one from their friend, all of which could sway their decision. In addition to that, these compromised votes could also be associated with job security, a promotion, a pay raise, etc. With that in mind, an unbiased third party is the only option, but unfortunately there's just too much money at stake to leave the power in the hands of critics. It would be too unpredictable, and unpredictability doesn't make for good business. Case in point, even after all the votes are tallied, there is a group of unspecified individuals who look at the results and decide if they're what they want. I WISH I were kidding. And while I would love nothing more than to go off on that, that job has already been done, and done well. Read Vox's article on the voting process HERE.
Another thing I take issue with is the absurdity of the sheer number of categories (many of which are annoyingly repetitive). It currently sits at 84, and I'm sure your patience with me is growing thin so I'll save that conversation for another time, but of those 84 there is one that rises above all others as the biggest disappointment. Best New Artist. To look at the past list of winners is similar to seeing a who's who of music over the last five decades. To the casual reader this might give the idea that the Grammys know their stuff, handpicking artists from obscurity and propelling them into the public eye, and for many into the history books. This is not true. It's an illusion dear readers. What they do is simple, they nominate and reward acts who generally already have a solid fanbase, and my biggest complaint, artists who've already released an album, or even worse, multiple albums! The "best new artist" rarely recognizes genuinely NEW artists. The fact that they can have up to 30 singles/tracks or three albums and STILL be considered new is absurd. The definition of new in it's simplest form is "not existing before."
They use the word new in place of "new to me," which, by those standards, absolves them of actually doing the work of keeping themselves up to date with what's going on in the music world. It's an excuse to be lazy. They should be picking artists at the beginning of their careers who they feel will do great things in the future. Who, by giving them the push of even just a nomination, should ensure in some way or form that they have the means and connections to take that next step and really showcase what they're capable of, a chance to live up to the potential. Their concern shouldn't be a track record of success, the focus should be the future of music. The Best New Artist category should act as a grant, a "let's see what you can really do" challenge. This year was a little different, as Chance The Rapper (best new artist winner/ not new artist) being awarded truly anything is a win, considering he single handedly made them change the rule book in terms of eligibility. In short, the Grammys refused to recognize independent artists whose work is not for sale, only allowing ones who were associated with a label to be nominated. But alas, Chance fought and Chance won. Everybody thank Chance. This alteration was a massive deal, but there's also an unnoted underlying beauty to his accomplishment. It showed how quickly problems can be mended if there is enough support to do so. Whether we use this to our advantage remains entirely up to us.
There is a duty to showcase artists both big and small making waves in the industry. Challenging the format, doing something different, or even doing something we've all heard but doing it perfectly that we have no choice but to bow down. Instead, when I see these nominations it honestly feels like they just got together and said, "People like this right? This is a good one? Let's nominate it," or even worse, "People will watch if _______ performs, oh and we need _______ in the audience for reaction shots so let nominate their album to make sure they show up." It's embarrassing. And here's the thing, those artists can STILL PERFORM. There is a category in which they can be recognized, but how about this, and I know this sounds crazy but stay with me, what if....we make them earn it? *gasp!* I know, insane right?? Make them create something new. Make them prove their artistry. Because as it stands, even with all the resources major artists have available to them, many of these performers still make music that isn't unique, it's just easy. It will still be popular, it will still sell. These artists don't need the Grammys, but some do, and those are the ones that should be recognized. I think it's time for the Grammys to matter again, so the only question that remains now is, do they?