I’ve Always Hated the Damn Grammys—and You Should, Too
As you may have gathered from the title of this piece, I hate the Grammys.
I’ve hated the Grammys since the late 1990s, at least. Prior to that, I only remember being indifferent to them. I’ve never loved that awards show, specifically; even as I acknowledge a certain affinity for the Oscars and the Emmys. The Grammys always felt so far removed from any music I cared about. It felt like an award that was prestigious just because we always said it was, not an award that reflected anything resembling credibility when it comes to honoring the greatest in recorded music.
1. The Grammys Were Never All That Cool
As a teenager, I watched the Soul Train Awards, mostly, and I was a fan of the MTV Video Music Awards because it was the one mainstream awards show celebrating the artists that I actually liked.
When I think of the most memorable music awards show moments of the 80s and 90s, most of them happened on MTV. A wedding dress-wearing Madonna’s bump ‘n grind-heavy rendition of “Like A Virgin,” the first time all six members of New Edition reunited onstage, Prince rocking his ass-less spandex, Snoop (then Doggy) Dogg’s funereal “I’m innocent” performance of “Murder Was the Case,” Puff Daddy paying tribute to the Notorious B.I.G. with Faith and 112—all of those indelible moments happened at the VMAs, not the Grammys.
When the late Ray Charles won Album of the Year in 2005 for Genius Loves Company, over Kanye West’s The College Dropout, Green Day’s American Idiot, and Usher’s Confessions—three albums that undoubtedly defined the mid-2000s, it confirmed what had always annoyed me about the Grammys: it’s an award that honors veterans at the expense of young innovators. After Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black and Kanye’s Graduation both lost the 2008 Grammy for Album of the Year to Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters, I looked up the Album of the Year’s history.
What I found was that this is who the Grammys have always been. In the 1960s, when Motown and the British Invasion and Aretha Franklin were revolutionizing music, the Grammys were giving AOTY to old favorites like Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Stan Getz. In the 1970s, the Grammys embraced more “of the times” acts–including Stevie Wonder, who famously won AOTY three times in four years. But even those tended to be artists that were fairly accessible to a middle-of-the-road voter base. Not only did artists like Curtis Mayfield, Diana Ross, Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin not win Album of the Year—they didn’t win Grammys at all in the 70s.
Throughout the 1980s, the big awards did go to more contemporary artists, but again, they were safe picks like Lionel Richie and, of course, Michael Jackson. Or they were blandly, laughably middling acts like Christopher Cross and Toto. Prince never won Album of the Year. He was nominated twice, but lost to Richie in 1985 and U2 in 1988. And as hip-hop emerged, the Grammys were initially totally oblivious and then completely tone-deaf, as pop rap artists like Young MC and Coolio took home trophies while the ceremony ignored seminal acts like 2Pac and A Tribe Called Quest in the 1990s. I don’t recall many hip-hop fans even knowing that LL Cool J won a Best Rap Performance Grammy in 1992 for “Mama Said Knock You Out.” Aside from MTV’s Grammy boycott party in 1989, hip-hop fans barely watched the Grammys.
Regrettably, the Album of the Year winners of the 1990s and early 2000s look more like the AOTY Grammy winners of the 1960s. During the 90s, when artists like Nirvana, Janet Jackson and the Notorious B.I.G. were releasing culture-shaping landmark albums, the Grammys were handing AOTY to works by aging stars like Eric Clapton, Natalie Cole, Tony Bennett and Quincy Jones. Legendary or no, these are not the artists or the albums that defined those years. It continued into the 2000s, with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Steely Dan and Santana taking the night’s biggest honor for albums that no one associates with “defining” anything in that era.
2. The Grammys Try to Pimp Black Stardom
But since those early 2000s, the Grammys have mattered to younger people in a way that they didn’t exactly matter before. And a big reason for that is the Grammys actively and deliberately pursuing popular acts to perform on their stage. And over the past decade, those acts have often been Black superstars like Kanye West, Rihanna and Beyonce. Having these superstars’ names to flash across the screen in anticipation of “Music’s Biggest Night” helped connect the Grammys to youth culture–but it hasn’t changed the Grammys fundamentally. Essentially, they’re still the awards show for the old and white–just with a hip, Black surface that ensures young folks tune in.
And that’s what has made the Grammys’ biases so egregious in recent years. Middle-of-the-road white artists like Taylor Swift and Adele rack up the major awards, but the Black artists like Rihanna and Kanye, who move the needle in terms of both ratings and pop culture influence, are relegated to specialty wins in “urban” categories. It was one thing when the Grammys were just old and out of touch; it’s another when they’re blatantly exploitative and racist.
Of course, the latest example of this was this past weekend’s 59th Annual Grammy Awards and the awarding of Album of the Year to Adele’s 25. For many, the AOTY seemed to obviously belong to Beyonce‘s Lemonade. That project was a visual masterwork that seemed to resonate far and wide. Its debut was a multimedia event, its release sparked widespread speculation and tributes, as well as spoofs. It was the pop culture moment of 2016. But it didn’t win, which sparked a swift reaction from fans and even Adele herself, who went so far as to break her Grammy in half and declare “What the fuck does she have to do to win Album of the Year?”
For the next several days, everyone was voicing an opinion on the matter, and predictably, for many people, the debate deteriorated into Adele vs. Beyonce. Some asserted that Adele was simply a better singer; others defended the fact that Beyonce is a supreme performer; some declared that Adele is more of a true artist because she writes her own songs. All of these points are completely, well…moot.
It shouldn’t matter if Beyonce wrote the songs. She wasn’t nominated for Songwriter of the Year. It shouldn’t matter if you think Lemonade wasn’t Beyonce’s best album. She wasn’t nominated for Best Beyonce Album of All Time. It shouldn’t matter if you don’t think Beyonce is a great singer. She wasn’t nominated for Singer of the Year. It shouldn’t matter what you think of Beyonce as a performer. She wasn’t nominated for Performer of the Year. And no–she wasn’t nominated for Artist of the Year, either.
Beyonce’s album Lemonade was nominated for Album of the Year. So the award should be discussed on those terms.
3. The Grammy commentary always assumes to know “the standard.”
The reverence for singer-songwriters is something that we’ve been conditioned to embrace since the 1960s, when singer-songwriters and self-contained bands emerged to dominate popular music. Rock critics spent decades convincing the general population that these artists were the epitome of artistry, and that pop records made by a team of collaborators were simply product. That’s obviously highly debatable, but the history of the Grammys suggests that it’s also a very skewed premise. Because Black singer-songwriters have been just as prevalent in popular music, and yet they don’t have many Album of the Year wins. Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes and Prince don’t have AOTY wins—nor does Earth Wind & Fire or Guy or Tony! Toni! Tone! These artists were all songwriters and/or self-contained bands. And throughout the 1960s, the Grammys ignored singer-songwriters for crooners like Sinatra. In more contemporary times, Tony Bennett has won Album of the Year despite not being a songwriter, and so many of these older acts won for cover albums. Is recording covers more “artistic” than putting together conceptual pop albums like Rhythm Nation?
And most of the Album of the Year winners by Black artists were works that were fairly unchallenging for mainstream white voters. Stevie Wonder’s 70s run was legendary and visionary, but it was palatable compared to the blatant topicality and sexuality in Marvin Gaye’s contemporaneous albums or the street-centered wisdom of Mayfield. Michael Jackson’s Thriller was a historical blockbuster that couldn’t be ignored, but it’s almost completely apolitical and mostly without introspection—it’s a triumph of craft and was designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Quincy Jones’s Back On the Block and Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable…With Love are similar to Hancock’s River…, well-made crowd-pleasers by venerated vets. But those albums are not groundbreaking or challenging. Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation… was a crossover smash that appealed as much to white soccer moms as it did Black college students, and it won because of the former more than the latter. And OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was marketed with an inanely catchy pop song from Andre 3000 that became the dance craze of the year—a song so big that most who voted for the album likely were enthralled by the quirkiness of Three Stacks’ portion of the double album and didn’t realize how much fiery rhetoric was hiding in plain sight on Big Boi’s more hip-hop-centric half.
But Lemonade was something else entirely. Beyonce’s influences and motivations were plain as day. In making a visual album, they had to be. You can’t miss the message when it’s literally staring you in the face. This wasn’t a trying-to-please-everybody blockbuster like Thriller, nor was it a sneaky statement hidden in catchy pop songs a la OutKast’s diamond-selling Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Beyonce’s album was Velvet Rope meets Sign O’ the Times—an album that felt uncomfortably personal at times, yet spoke to a larger pain and anger in its attempt to reach and address the culture surrounding it. This was not an album that sought to gain universal appeal by erasing specificity—it reveled in uniquely Black language, the experiences of Black women and Black visual aesthetics. In doing so, it actually did become resonant for people around the world. It did it without a goofy “Hey Ya” dominating the charts or a zombie-dancing video.
But the Grammys are still as old and as white as ever.
So when Adele tearfully accepted the award for Album of the Year, I watched with a sense of frustrated confirmation. Adele isn’t an old artist, but she is an artist who appeals to the old and white as much as anyone does. That middle-of-the-road set who seems to dominate the Academy’s voter base could probably relate to 25 more than Lemonade, and that’s exactly why the Grammys have a race problem. They’ve long been out of touch, but for an awards show to continually mine Black names for ratings, while their voters marginalize Black talent, is something that cannot stand. Black artists have always been best celebrated by Black platforms, but this kind of exploitation suggests that those artists would be best served by ignoring the Grammy invite next year.
And it wouldn’t bother me at all if no major Black artists performed at the Grammys. I hate the damn Grammys. The BET Awards puts on a better show anyway.