Illustration by Andrea Nebhut
The Grammys, colloquially dubbed “Music’s Biggest Night,” celebrates each year’s most successful music. With big names performing, handing out and receiving big awards, the ceremony ought to have high viewership and cultural capital. With every successive year, however, the Grammys feel increasingly irrelevant as both a performance and a reflection of the most important music.
Sunday’s 61st annual Grammy show was no exception. Hosted by Alicia Keys in the Los Angeles Staples Center, the show was met with lukewarm enthusiasm. Broad disinterest comes specifically amid a seemingly perpetual cycle of blunder and amelioration by the Recording Academy. The Grammy’s fundamental conservatism and preference for establishment artists over insurgents has caused almost annual snubs. From Beck’s 2015 Album of the Year win over Beyonce’s Beyonce to Taylor Swift’s 1989 win in 2016 over Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, the Grammys have a reputation for voting against what seems to be an obviously superior choice. Apparently at odds with general consumer consensus, the Grammys lose their credibility to document culture and become a troubling institution with few merits. If the Recording Academy can’t recognize mainstream, palatable artists like Beyonce, how will it respond to artists that are more provocative?
On the other hand, the sheer volume of submitted music means the big four Grammy awards tend to go to pop hits. While I enjoy “Despacito” as much as anyone, it’s hard to justify its nomination for both Record and Song of the Year last year; it’s a generic track, catchy, but with no real depth. Basing nominations heavily on popularity relegates many great releases to smaller genre awards. It’s a phenomenon demonstrative of the Grammy’s systemic flaw at recognizing the best music.
The Grammys also often miss the boat or are late on general cultural trends in music. They didn’t recognize rap or metal as categories until 1989 and only allowed streaming-exclusive releases to be considered in 2016.
Hip hop is the standard-bearer of artists seeing the Grammys as increasingly irrelevant. The Recording Academy’s four decades of ignoring hip hop’s impact has, in particular, isolated the genre’s artists who turned to more democratized music platforms like Spotify, Pandora and YouTube to publicize their music after being passed over for Grammys time and time again. For hip hop especially, the Grammys are no longer the music industry’s dominant purveyor of culture. Three of the genre’s most impactful artists — Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino — all declined the invitation to perform at the show. Several no-shows were a nod to the Grammy’s broader obsolescence.
The Academy, aware that its musical hegemony is fading, made several desperate stabs for relevance in Sunday’s performances. Underwhelmingly attempting to mash genres in collaboration pieces to balance traditional and contemporary, Sunday’s show featured haphazard mixes of artists. Post Malone and Red Hot Chili Peppers performed “Rockstar” and “Dark Necessities.” Miley Cyrus and Shawn Mendes performed “In My Blood.”
In another brighter attempt at maintaining cultural relevance, Sunday’s Grammys was a night dominated by women. The show opened with a surprise appearance by Michelle Obama entering the stage with Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Alicia Keys and Jennifer Lopez.
The highlight on women was an overt attempt from the Recording Academy to distance itself from the #grammyssomale Twitter hashtag and the changing perception of its brand. Internet criticism has certainly played a part in decreasing viewership among the 18–49 year old age group with critics pointing out the Grammys’ lack of representation for women and artists of color.
Network TV is no longer a monoculture, and in the era of on-demand music streaming, viewers can simply opt out of watching the Grammys if they perceive them to be problematic. Will Twitter affect the Grammys’ role as America’s musical hegemony?
Are Grammys criticisms just a natural response to inevitably thankless award shows, or is the telecast something that should be left behind altogether?