Sunday 12 Feb 2017, the 59th edition of the Grammys aired, presenting the ‘shocking’ news that Adele’s 25 won album of the year over Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Adele’s reaction offered one of Grammy history’s most fascinating TV moments and since then, the blogosphere and social media have waxed lyrical about the perceived unfairness of Beyoncé’s snub, debated the sincerity, propriety and merits of Adele’s acceptance speech and the role race may have played in Adele’s win.
But no one’s really talking about the larger problem brewing right below the surface of this melee.
Let’s examine a few facts.
A quick Google search of the best album year-end lists for 2016 reveal a set of albums and artists that is, quite frankly, poorly reflected in the Grammy nominations, not to talk of the winners. Where they are reflected, they are often tucked away in ‘niche’ non-televised categories. In fact, to get a Lemonade win televised, the Best Urban Contemporary Album category was awkwardly bumped up to the televised show. The category is usually un-televised but was home for the nominations of a number of 2016’s most lauded works from Gallant, KING and Anderson .Paak.
In the run up to the award ceremony, a number of music’s heavyweights made it publicly known that they had chosen to boycott the 2017 ceremony, most notably Frank Ocean, Drake and Kanye West. They noted the academy’s failure to recognise the work of artists of colour and Ocean, in particular, released a scathing critique of the award show on his Tumblr site. The Grammys’ have long been accused of a bias against black music, particularly hip hop and urban R&B, due to its antiquated voting rules and the traditional music tastes of its (mainly older) delegates. Recent flash points have included, Kendrick Lamar’s losses to Macklemore in 2013 and Taylor Swift in 2016, in spite of outstanding critical acclaim and commercial success. And now there’s also Beyoncé’s Lemonade loss to Adele’s 25, an album that received very mixed reviews and is notable for failing to push any boundaries or offer any fresh musical direction. More generally, year-on-year the gap between the show’s best and most exciting performances and the winners of the night’s biggest awards is often really quite stark.
— BEYONCÉ CAPITAL (@BeyonceCapital) February 14, 2017
But all of these are simply a symptom of a larger failing of the Recording Academy’s flagship award show. The Grammys’ big-but-little-spoken-of wrangling is that it is not the award show it claims to be (if it ever was). The Recording Academy created the awards in 1959 to recognise ‘outstanding achievement’ in music and has since been considered the music industry’s highest honour. But if the Grammys ever lived up to that reputation, it simply doesn’t today. The Grammys, like most other long-standing music industry institutions (we’re looking at you, MTV), have struggled to maintain relevance in the digital age. And in trying to retain viewership, it has increasingly become biased towards the mainstream, commercial success and traditional forms of music (due largely to its failure to modernise its selection and voting processes). Beyond the Best New Artist category, itself weighted in favour of the aforementioned biases, it does very little to recognise the work of emerging and independent artists. In 2011, Esperanza Spalding won Best New Artist over the more mainstream favourites, Justin Beiber and Drake. The Recording Academy’s reaction? Changes to categorisations and voting procedures several believed were specifically designed to make it difficult for independent and lesser known acts to win. Whatever the Academy’s intent, the result is that Spalding had no nominations at this year’s Grammy awards, in spite of widespread agreement amongst critics and jazz music heads that her sophomore LP, Emily’s D+Evolution, was a bolder, more impressive album.
“2016 was one of music’s best years,
yet the 2017 Grammys are one of the
Academy’s most criticised award shows.
That speaks volumes.”
Why does all this matter?
Because award shows write history. They decide who is marked down as moving culture forward and, more importantly, what contributions have had the most impact. History is how we remember our most valuable assets in society. And history shapes the future. Lets take the course of rock music as a study here. The aversion of most young black kids to rock music is largely due to a feeling that it is almost intrinsically not theirs and never was. In many ways, this is because the most recognised rock acts of the past century are pretty much exclusively white. Black people no longer see themselves reflected in the music. Why? Because the history of Rock & Roll was for all intents and purposes, rewritten. And rewritten to the exclusion of the originators of the art form.
In the same way, by failing to recognise the right people, the Grammys are re-writing the history of contemporary music. In 50 years, it may well appear that all of the greatest singers (and rappers) of the current generation were white and relatively traditional in their approach. The artists that have made the strongest contributions to moving contemporary music forward may largely be forgotten simply for the failure of music’s biggest award show to acknowledge their work. With forgetting them, we risk losing the essence of their contributions to the sound of music.
We need to stop giving the Recording Academy and the Grammy Awards honour they aren’t due to save music. We have to stop pretending it is music’s greatest honour when all it is today is a dying relic, struggling against plummeting ratings and declining relevance in a world bursting at the seams with more exciting content. Between favouring commercial success over artistic merit and its inability to effectively modernise its selection mechanism to eradicate long-standing voter biases, it is a far cry from its so-called ambition to recognise music’s most outstanding works. And we should treat it as such. Or at the very least, demand it makes the structural changes it needs to actually live up to the standards to which it is held. Otherwise, music will continue to suffer for it. 2016 was one of music’s best years, yet the 2017 Grammys are one of the Academy’s most criticised award shows. That speaks volumes. We cannot continue to expect our best artists, established and emerging, to continually give their best when the reward and recognition structures they have to aspire to are terribly broken. We need change and we need it fast. For the love of music.