Grammy Awards Grammys

Burn the Grammys down and start over

“When the Grammys have been so corrupt and contemptuously resistant to change, getting rid of it and starting a new awards show to provide the music world’s highest honours — while rectifying many of the Recording Academy’s mistakes — is the only proper solution.”

*Trigger warning: SA and SH*

The Grammys need to die a quick and painful death.

There, I said it. 

Ever since the first Grammy Awards ceremony in 1957, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences — known as the Recording Academy for short — have been ridiculously out of step with musical trends. Despite the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll as a legitimate and popular art form, the Academy steadfastly refused to acknowledge its importance.

Instead, they considered the benchmark for music to be crooners like Frank Sinatra, and tried being a conservative gatekeeper of the music industry at large. There was a clear and obvious cultural sea change in the late ‘50s, and the Grammys were on the wrong side of it from literally day one.

Frank Sinatra (centre) and Paul Anka (stink eye, left), who wrote “My Way”

To this day, they still have a hard time adapting to what’s current, vital and groundbreaking, rather than what’s safe, inoffensive and/or friendly to those who still buy CDs at Walmart and listen to adult contemporary radio. Unfortunately, the latter is most often the side they err on.

The Grammys continue to overemphasize nostalgia (artists often get “mea culpa” awards long after their creative apex), pop superstars and generally milquetoast music amidst a backdrop of organizational corruption and self-importance. No, the Grammys isn’t the only performing arts institution that needs to go away forever, but they’re unquestionably a smug and outdated one — and also deeply rotten. The Simpsons were right all along.

In fact, Drake — who has been refusing to submit his music for consideration — last year called for a new awards show to replace the Grammys outright, “something new that we can build up over time and pass on to the generations to come,” as he says.

While the Grammys try to present themselves as something every artist should strive towards, it comes across as such a stuffy, self-congratulatory event that it’s flirted with irrelevance for years now. There are so many layers to how corrupt and out of touch the Grammys are that it’s only fitting for a new, vastly improved music award ceremony to be built from the ground up and usurp it as music’s highest honour.

Why? For starters, the Grammys have a long, infamous history of making bad calls. What other award show would pick a late-career Jethro Tull album over Metallica as the first-ever Best Metal Album winner? Or, similarly, a late-career Steely Dan album for Album of the Year over Radiohead and Eminem at both artists’ peaks? How about Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange losing that award to fucking Mumford and Sons? Or giving that award to a Herbie Hancock album of Joni Mitchell covers?

Actually, what about giving Best Rock Song in 1993 to outspoken COVID truther/known racist Eric Clapton’s unplugged version of “Layla” over Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? Or, most maddeningly, Kendrick Lamar losing multiple awards to Macklemore in 2014, while also losing Album of the Year three times to Daft Punk, Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars? Shit, even Adele knows she shouldn’t have beaten Beyoncé in 2017.

The Weeknd, supposedly snubbed by the Grammys for playing the Super Bowl.

Last year, the Grammys shocked literally everyone by completely snubbing the Weeknd, despite “Blinding Lights” being the most inescapable song of that time — shattering streaming records, to boot— and After Hours being one of the definitive albums of 2020. This, of course, led to the Canadian megastar tweeting his grievances and accusing the Grammys of corruption.

Such allegations are widely believed to be because they didn’t want him also performing at the Super Bowl that weekend, so the Recording Academy forced him to choose. The Weeknd has since vowed to never submit his music for Grammy consideration again. How did the Academy respond? “Sorry you feel that way,” basically.

Last night’s ceremony had some puzzling choices for nominees and winners, too. Album of the Year went to Jon Batiste, who — though we should congratulate him for being the first Black artist to win that award in 14 years — is known by many for being Stephen Colbert’s bandleader, rather than for his musical output. Record of the Year also saw Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga get nominated for a cover of the pop standard “I Get a Kick Out of You”. 

Of course, some major Grammy winners have been absolutely spot-on — Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs perhaps being the best call for Album of the Year in recent memory (and that’s not just Montreal bias, either). Otherwise, the Recording Academy has been content to maintain the status quo as far as both decision-making and their overall image. Essentially, the Grammys are the “How do you do, fellow kids?” meme in awards show form.

There are much bigger issues surrounding the Grammys and Recording Academy, too. Their nomination process is one of their bigger historical controversies, and plenty of ink has been spilled on how strange the whole process is. Current Academy CEO Harvey Mason, Jr. is also a producer and songwriter, and has admitted to voting for himself in Grammy award categories (he’s also been nominated five times). 

Academy members can also vote in categories they aren’t familiar with, which is likely a big reason bad calls are made (though voters can now only vote for up to 10 categories, down from 15). Though the Grammys’ National Review Committees (NRCs) for many awards have been disbanded, those committees had rules lenient enough so their voters could make nominations based on personal biases.

1989 Grammys boycott rap categories
Rap artists including Flava Flav, Salt N Pepa, Kid ‘n Play and DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince (aka Will Smith) unite in a Grammys boycott, 1989.

It’s also impossible to discuss the Grammys’ nomination habits without also pointing out their history of systemic racism. The Academy has always been reluctant to fully recognize many genres of Black origin, such as them not initially televising the rap categories — leading to boycotts by many of the genre’s heavy hitters of that time. Fast forward to now and OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below remains the last rap album to win Album of the Year. Artists also continue to rail against the Grammys’ lack of diversity.

The criteria for “Best New Artist” is also incredibly weird. Yes, Montreal’s own Kaytranada was nominated in that category last year, and he deservingly won two other awards. But he was not by any stretch a “new” artist — his breakthrough album was 2016’s 99.9%. This should have gotten him a Best New Artist nod in 2017 (won that year by Chance the Rapper), but the Academy instead nominated the goddamn Chainsmokers in that category.

Even this year, Japanese Breakfast — who should’ve been nominated in 2017 for her debut LP Psychopomp — got a Best New Artist nomination, as did Glass Animals (whose breakthrough album was 2014’s Zaba), Saweetie (whose first Billboard Top 40 single was 2019’s “My Type”) and FINNEAS (who has won multiple Grammys working with his sister, Billie Eilish). Make it make sense!

There’s also the grotesque and toxic culture within the Recording Academy itself. The rot starts at the very top, and you need only to read about what former CEO Deborah Dugan had to go through. After her sudden and mysterious firing after only five months on the job, she dropped a 46-page bomb alleging:

  • a toxic and pervasive boy’s club culture
  • rigged and corrupt voting processes
  • misuse of charity funds
  • lack of diversity
  • allegations of sexual misconduct, including one where she was a victim and one where her predecessor, Neil Portnow, sexually assaulted an Academy member
  • artists getting nomination priority based on personal ties with members
  • Dugan being paid far less than Portnow in the same role
  • her even being asked to hire him as a consultant while he took home a massive payday

Deborah Dugan Grammys
Deborah Dugan

You’d think the Academy would take allegations like these to heart and make the necessary changes, particularly with abuse. But then you’ll notice them still nominating Dr. Luke and Marilyn Manson for things, letting Nas perform, letting Jared Leto present an award and giving Comedy Album of the Year to Louis CK. Worse yet, the Grammys will rationalize these decisions by saying “we won’t look at people’s history.” Truly nauseating stuff.

Whenever the Academy tries to make any positive structural change, they most often come across as lackadaisical, performative and largely unsubstantial. The Grammys also have a veneer of prestige to maintain, so they’ll claim to have an “ongoing commitment to evolve with the musical landscape and to ensure that the GRAMMY Awards rules and guidelines are transparent and equitable.” Even then, it still feels like too little, too late.

To his credit, Mason Jr. stated on Thursday that the Grammys will see a bevy of changes, chief among them being the diversification of the Academy’s membership. But every patch-up job the Grammys do to make themselves look good and present a façade of progressiveness, they do things that cancel this out and continue to expose their seedy underbelly.

Regardless of anyone’s complaints that the Grammys don’t matter anymore (or maybe never really did), people still watch the ceremony every year. With that comes a LOT of takes online about who should and shouldn’t have won. Even if the Grammys are seemingly of minimal importance, our Twitterfingers still go into overdrive whenever someone like Macklemore beats Kendrick Lamar for a major award. Many music writers (myself included, obviously) still bang out thinkpieces in droves after the ceremony. It’s hard, because whenever albums like The Suburbs do win Grammys, us Montrealers STILL view that as a monumental achievement.

Either way, it seems fairly obvious that people want there to be an awards show that honours the best music had to offer over the past year. With the Grammys, though, the fault is in the execution on virtually every conceivable level. As important as they still try to be, the show nonetheless remains an annual punching bag for criticism.

Jared Leto was one of several dubious celebrities on hand last night.

Yes, music is incredibly subjective, so there will always be some testy disagreements over who should be honoured. Rarely does the public come to a universal consensus on these things, no matter who ends up winning. But there are so many problems with the Grammys on a systemic and musical level that one can’t help but feel as if it’s frayed beyond repair.

When the Grammys have been so corrupt and contemptuously resistant to change, getting rid of it and starting a new awards show to provide the music world’s highest honours — while rectifying many of the Recording Academy’s mistakes — is the only proper solution.

Any replacement music awards show has some important housekeeping items on deck. For one, they’d do well to change their bizarre eligibility window (currently Sept. 1 to Aug. 31 of every year). They also must ensure that people who actually know their shit about certain genres are only going to vote in their categories of expertise. Making diversity on every level must also be a priority, and ditto for cultivating a healthy work environment. It’s also critical to close any loopholes that could lead to elitism, corruption and conflicts of interest spoiling the nomination process. 

Having an expansive, diverse jury — music critics (especially those who specialize in certain genres), musicians, producers and industry figures alike — is another top priority, and with that must come rules that ensure impartiality when deciding nominees and winners. Openness to new trends and voices in the music world is also a must. Leave as many seats at the table as you can, and don’t let people with deep pockets purchase Grammys by sucking up to industry types and buying them gifts.

This show’s voting memberships and nominees must reflect the diaspora of views, genres, and experiences that are easy to discover in today’s mega-saturated, streaming-focused music culture. Perhaps the Weeknd, Drake, and Deborah Dugan could all sit on the board of directors for this hypothetical new awards ceremony, and help build it into something that’s actually a proper representation of today’s musical climate.

A prestigious music awards ceremony based primarily on artistic merit that awards the best music of the past year — and one that acts as music’s highest possible achievement — DOES deserve to exist. Just not the Grammys. ■

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