After another year of preaching about the illegitimacy of music awards, last week I fought the Sunday scaries by watching the Grammys — an awards show music lovers love to hate.
From a viewership standpoint, the Grammys weren’t very good this year. According to Variety, ratings for the show dipped almost 53% from what they were in 2020. From a musical standpoint, the value of the awards show has been in question for years. A variety of popular artists, including Beyonce, the Weeknd and Zayn Malik, have criticized or even boycotted the awards for their lack of transparency and seemingly sporadic decisions.
Even so, music fans tuned in to see how the controversial show would play out. From a performance perspective alone, this year’s Grammys were entertaining. But the performances aren’t what the show claims to be about. Doing a deep dive into the ceremony doesn’t seem to bring us any more clarity, given the controversial nature of the selection process. But why do we care so much about the Grammys? What does it mean for an artist to win a Grammy award, and who decides the value of the award?
The question of what constitutes good music has been examined in depth throughout history, and continues to be asked with no universally agreed upon answer. Perhaps a more relevant question in the 21st century is who gets to decide what “good” art is.
Theoretically, awards shows have systems wherein art is evaluated, and the public accepts their evaluation. But upon further examination, this artistic evaluation seems disingenuous and invalid. A familiar refrain from music fans is that their favorite music is niche and underground — the “mainstream” wouldn’t understand it. But even traditionally underground work that finds mainstream popularity is being passed over for top hits at awards shows. So who is responsible for these decisions, and can any group of people have the monopoly on deciding what good music is?
The awards this year were shrouded in controversy due to snubs in nominations, but to understand this controversy, one must first examine the nomination process. The Grammys claim to award achievement in the record industry “without regard to album sales or position.”
According to Vox, in order to obtain a nomination, artists must submit their work to a board for consideration. Then, the Recording Academy’s voting members, the same group of peers who vote for the awards, vote on nominations. There are four different ways to gain a position in the Recording Academy: being credited with 12 digital or physical tracks available for purchase (one within the last five years), having six credits on commercially released tracks (one within the last five years), being a previous Grammy winner or being nominated for the position by a current voting member.
This results in a pool of voters who the Grammys can label “peers” of the musicians who have been considered for awards, but this also widens the group to include artists who don’t necessarily have a detailed understanding of the nominees’ work in each category. Given that board members have to vote on all nominees, this gives way to members voting solely based on their exposure to music in a certain genre, not necessarily a genuine artistic evaluation of each work.
Heading into 2021, the Grammys faced intense backlash over their nominations. The Weeknd’s After Hours, an album considered a frontrunner by many respected music reviewers, was completely absent from the list of nominees. The Weeknd accused the Academy of being “corrupt” on Twitter.
This year the scandal may have revolved around nominations, but there have been other intense disputes about winners in the past. In 2016, Taylor Swift’s 1989 triumphed over Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly for Album of the Year to the chagrin of hip hop fans everywhere. In the same category only a year later, Adele’s 25 was chosen over Beyoncé’s Lemonade. In her acceptance speech, Adele said, “… but I can’t possibly accept this award … the artist of my life is Beyoncé.” In 2019, Drake used his acceptance speech to emphasize that “you don’t need this (award) right here” to have the knowledge that you’ve “won” in the arts.
Black artists specifically have long emphasized that their work is overlooked by mainstream awards shows, even when it is nominated. When they air these grievances, they receive no answers from the Academy on the reasons behind the results, and no meaningful changes have been made to the board selection process.
The fact that even artists who won in the eyes of the Academy (like Adele) recognize the flaws in the system is telling regarding the actual meaning of the awards. At this year’s show, Beyonce refused to perform, despite being the most awarded artist of all time with 28 trophies. Despite having received the “prestigious” awards, artists still recognize the Academy’s lack of legitimacy.
The Grammy winners this year also don’t seem to follow any clear trends. The producers of the New York Times’s “Diary of a Song” series collaborated to predict who would win in the “Record of the Year” category, which claims to represent the most important cultural track within the last year, with little success. The video opens with music journalists expressing their distaste with the premise of the award — in their view, making a decision about something’s cultural importance is highly subjective.
Billie Eilish ended up winning in this category, and she spent most of her acceptance speech emphasizing how amazing Megan Thee Stallion was on “Savage” and saying that she deserved to win. Yet again, the winner of a major award spent her time recognizing the shocking decision made by the Academy, further damaging the Grammys’ reputation.
The Grammy Awards have thoroughly disproved their status as recognizers of the best music by having a clearly inequitable voting process and being criticized by the best in the industry. Even though I think their evaluations are illegitimate, I still tune in for the performances as an escape from the harsh realities of our world. However, I believe truly artistic music should be a mechanism for tuning into, not out of, the human experience. Entertainment has value, which is the only remaining purpose of the Grammys if their decisions about art are no longer meaningful.
Nothing confirms this more than the experience of watching the 2021 Grammys, where awards felt like an afterthought and were openly criticized by the winners. The only chance the Grammy Awards have of reviving their audience is to focus on performances, but this requires an admission of illegitimacy as decision-makers. So by all means, enjoy Harry Styles and his feather boas; just don’t think that the Grammys have some superior ability to recognize art.
Daily Arts Contributor Madeline Poupard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.