Year after year, I have dutifully watched the Grammy Awards. And the next morning, year after year, I have wondered why.
I’ll be watching on Sunday, when the Grammys air on CBS, but with thoroughly limited expectations. The Grammy show strives each year to keep up with what just happened in music and to ameliorate its past errors. But after a while, blundering along just isn’t funny anymore.
Awards shows are thankless at best; there are invariably complaints about omissions and honest disagreements over winners. Meanwhile, the demands of network television are by no means aligned with the dozens of Grammy Awards that recognize music’s less commercial genres along with the grunt work of making recordings. (The vast majority of the 84 Grammys are handed out in a live-streamed ceremony before the prime-time television spectacle, which only squeezes in about a dozen awards between live performances.)
This year, the Recording Academy is atoning for an unforced error by its outgoing president, Neil Portnow, who ends his term in July. In 2018, he responded to a question about the lack of women receiving televised awards on the show, in line with harsh statistics about the Grammys’ historical lack of recognition for women, by saying that women need to “step up” — apparently oblivious to systemic barriers for women’s careers, not to mention overt harassment. (He later said he regretted his choice of words.)
Sunday’s reparations include having the impeccable Alicia Keys as host and a performance by Diana Ross — who turns 75 on March 26 and who, in Grammy annals, was given a lifetime achievement award in 2012 after exactly zero wins either with the Supremes or in her solo career.
Women also dominate the lineup of the show’s other announced performers and are well represented among the nominees for major awards. However, several of those are collaborations with men, like the Bradley Cooper-Lady Gaga duet “Shallow,” Maren Morris’s lead vocal on “The Middle” with Zedd and Grey, and Cardi B with Bad Bunny and J Balvin in “I Like It.” The top categories — record (for the artist, producers and engineers), song (for songwriters) and album of the year, along with best new artist — have also been expanded from five nominees to eight, an easy way for the Grammys to claim more diversity. Selections like those should make the statistics look more equitable in, perhaps, a few decades.
Music is the most nimble of mass-audience art forms. Now it can be recorded alone on a computer and released immediately online, and it evolves fast, constantly pulling in ideas from the cultural margins, whether that’s beats from Caribbean sound systems or murky, disconsolate SoundCloud rap. The Grammys’ mandate is to sift through the welter of music released every year, rewarding merit and recognizing innovation (though not, strictly speaking, from the past year, but from the preceding Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, which can make some nominations seem ancient).
The Recording Academy, the organization behind the Grammys, was modeled after the Oscars’ Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences: tabulating votes from industry pros, both artists and technicians, presumably to add up to informed choices.
But history has not been kind to the Grammys’ winners for album of the year. In 1967, Frank Sinatra’s “A Man and His Music” beat the Beatles’ “Revolver.” In 1985, Lionel Richie’s “Can’t Slow Down” was chosen over Prince’s “Purple Rain,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” and Cyndi Lauper’s “She’s So Unusual.” And last year, Bruno Mars won the top prize over more adventurous albums by Kendrick Lamar, Lorde, Jay-Z and Childish Gambino.
Recording Academy voters have been reliably stodgy and ballad-loving, at best befuddled and at worst wrongheaded. It often seems that the Tin Pan Alley holdouts whose Grammy votes regularly pushed back against rock — as late as 1995, when Tony Bennett’s “MTV Unplugged” was album of the year (leading to ridicule and the creation of a “traditional pop” category) — have been replaced by rock holdouts who are still suspicious of hip-hop.
The Grammys have recognized undeniable blockbusters by black performers, like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” But they have snubbed paradigm-shifters like Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” (which lost album of the year in 2017 to a more conventional pop megahit, Adele’s “25”). In 2014, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis won best new artist and best rap album over the clearly superior Kendrick Lamar. (Besieged by criticism, the Grammys repented; Lamar has gotten multiple awards and nominations since then, including this year for the “Black Panther” soundtrack album, and he was the show’s incendiary live opening performer in 2018.)
The 61-year history of the Grammys is tied to the idea of network TV as a monoculture, and the show once presented a rare chance for millions of people to share a live musical performance. Assured of an audience, the Grammys of yesteryear often presented classical music and jazz — non-popular genres — that have disappeared from more current, metrics-driven iterations of the awards. The show is flashier now, and more determined to offer end-to-end pop-star power. But in the era of on-demand music video and proliferating cable channels, the Grammys have lost any clear role as America’s TV musical centerpiece.
And if the initial idea of a prime-time network Grammy show was that multiple generations could share the full spectrum of music, it hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, the Grammys come off as the older generation scolding the young, the entrenched trying to rein in the newcomers. I have long had a rule of thumb that the album that includes the oldest songs wins: Norah Jones’s debut album, Herbie Hancock’s “River: The Joni Letters,” Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable … With Love,” Eric Clapton’s “Unplugged,” the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. (This year, Cardi B could benefit from the oldest-song effect; “I Like It” is built on a 1967 Pete Rodriguez boogaloo, “I Like It Like That.”) In recent years, the show has touted unique collaborations, “Grammy Moments,” that try to suggest musical and historical continuity between eras; this year promises Post Malone with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Too often, though, Grammy Moments have meant fading elders performing alongside up-and-comers who learned their “influences” on the TelePrompTer.
The Grammys still have some redeeming features. In the non-prime-time, non-pop categories, a Grammy win can help sustain a career. The broadcast provides glimpses of music history in its lifetime-achievement tributes — its version of community service. And even in an era when musicians play on television from morning shows into late nights, Grammy slots hold a little drama; ask Adele, who was sabotaged by tech ineptitude in 2016. Music-business strategists have long understood that a memorable prime-time performance pays off while award snubs are soon forgotten, and this year’s Grammys should be a bonanza for H.E.R., a slow-burn R&B singer who’s an unexpected contender for top prizes and who will be performing.
So yes, I’ll be watching. I’ll even click onto the preshow awards, which will be punctuated by an international lineup of live music including Fatoumata Diawara and Natalia Lafourcade. Just don’t talk to me the morning after.
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