The Grammys: Good and Bad
The 53rd annual Grammy Awards are set to take place on February 13, and the nomination list is pretty disappointing - at least given that you're not Katy Perry, and most of us are not. Unlike the Oscars, which are still revered as the gold standard film industry awards, the Grammys have largely ceased to be relevant or even interesting to the more-than-casual music fan. Has it always been this way, or did the Grammys start with the right intentions but gradually fall into a sinkhole? Let’s start with a look back at 1958, the year the Grammy Awards made their debut, and you can see for yourself if the gift-givers of those little gramophone statuettes haven’t always been clueless.
But first, some background. How does a person win a Grammy in the first place? Well, they send their recording to an organization called the The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, Inc. (or the NARAS). Sound like big-shots, don’t they? Keep in mind that the organization’s main job is to hand out Grammys, and you should save your applause until we reach the end.
Who is the NARAS?
If you’ve seen the excellent movie This Film is Not Yet Rated, you were probably shocked and appalled to learn that the MPAA, who gives films their ratings, uses a secret panel to determine whether your favorite art film gets a NC-17 or R rating (hint: the gayer, the worse a rating). Unlike the MPAA, the NARAS is not as secretive , probably because they’re handing out awards and not ratings, which is ostensibly a good thing.
So a piece of music is submitted to NARAS, where 150 “experts” (their word) “make sure that each entry is eligible and placed in its proper category.” And then this happens: “First-round ballots are sent to voting members in good dues standing. To help ensure the quality of the voting, members are directed to vote only in their fields of expertise; they may nominate in the four general categories (Record Of The Year, Album Of The Year, Song Of The Year and Best New Artist) and in no more than nine (9) out of the 29 fields. Ballots are tabulated by the independent accounting firm of Deloitte.” Eventually we get five albums out of the morass, which become the “nominees.” We also need to distinguish, for clarity’s sake, between “Record of the Year," “Album of the Year” and “Song of the Year.” The “Record” award goes to “the performer and the production team of a single song,” the “Album” award goes to “the performer and the production team of a full album,” and the “Song” award goes to “the writer(s)/composer(s) of a single song.”
You might assume that Grammys are based on something like radio play and sales figures since the music that typically wins said awards almost always have a direct correlation with media exposure and popularity. The NARAS begs to differ. “[The Grammy] is truly a peer honor, awarded by and to artists and technical professionals for artistic or technical achievement, not sales or chart positions...” Huh. It seems odd that 150 “experts” would realistically prefer Katy Perry to Janelle Monáe, but that's not taking into account "spouting boobs" as a criteria.
Back in the Day
First debuting in 1958, the Grammys started off on strong footing. Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Henry Mancini, the guys who did “Tequila” - the award winners were respected and beloved by musicians and fans alike. We might take exception to “The Chipmunk Song” winning “Best Comedy Performance,” but at the time listeners hadn’t been inundated with a film franchise, so those squeaky bastards get a pass.
Some Old B******t
Moving on. The majority of nominations in the sixties are also pretty strong. Why argue with Astrud Gilberto, Mahalia Jackson, or Frank Sinatra? An in-depth look might reveal that the NARAS at the time were not as adventurous as they could have been, but it’s hard to rock the boat by committee. When we hit the big social changes at the end of that decade, the NARAS unsurprisingly clings to the safety of what they knew and loved - Sinatra’s A Man and His Music won Best Album in 1965, beating out The Beatles’ Rubber Soul - though the latter won “Song of the Year” with “Michelle.” Winners get cornier and folksier in the ‘70s, but then again so did the entire country. The Carpenters, James Taylor, and Carole King’s Tapestry were all lauded, and understandably so.
In the mid-seventies Olivia Newton John begins making multiple appearances, which obviously does not bode well. In 1975, sappiness - and in particular commercial sappiness - hits its peak. "Love Will Keep Us Together" by Captain and Tennille wins “Record of the Year,” and the corny “Send in the Clowns,” “At Seventeen” and the fine but still syrupy Still Crazy After All These Years won big. And yet, this stuff isn’t necessarily bad (save for Captain and Tennille), but it sets a precedence for fluffy stuff to sweep award after award while more prescient and urgent music gets left in the dust. And that leads us to...
Yacht Rock might make for easy listening and fun watching, but the emergence of Kenny Loggins and Christopher Cross as multiple Grammy award winners as is an ominous sign that the NARAS was running off the rails. The 1981 awards lauded Cross’s “Sailing” and Anne Murray, as well as Pat Benetar and Billy Joel. It isn’t until 1983’s ceremony (for the recording year of 1982) that it appears the NARAS has finally allowed the soft-pop, airwave-friendly strains of Adult Contemporary to obscure any semblance of good taste - Toto’s album Toto IV won Album of the Year, and the song “Rosanna” won Record of the Year.
After that crucial misstep, the NARAS seemed intent on heaping awards on old favorites (B.B. King, Al Green) while keeping their picks for contemporary winners safe and predictable. Even with the assurance that record sales had nothing to do with the selection of Grammy award winners, it’s nearly impossible to argue for No Jacket Required without taking into account its massive commercial success. 1985’s best album? Did Patrick Bateman get multiple votes?
By 1995, it only made sense to throw accolades all over Tony Bennett and Sheryl Crow when most of the critical world was ensconced in heavier, more hearty stuff. Let’s be absolutely clear on one point - Crow and Bennett are talented artists whose work should not be overlooked, and the same holds true for a majority of Grammy nominees. Of course, the nominees for “Best Record” or “Album” or “Song” are typically already commercially successful enough that there’s really no chance that their music could be overlooked. Santana’s Supernatural had three hit singles and went platinum fifteen times. Would the album have done much worse had it not received nine(!) Grammys?
As we mentioned, this year’s biggest nominees are also the artists with the biggest production budgets and amount of star-making professional producers and songwriters - Perry, Lady Gaga, Eminem, Adam Lambert, etc. Exceptions abound, of course. Esperanza Spalding (nominated for Best New Artist) is an artist we’re looking forward to hearing in the future, and any category where Laurie Anderson gets nominated (Best Pop Instrumental Performance) can’t be that bad - despite the fact that she might lose out to Jeff Beck.
Still, the blind spots are legion. Looking at the nominees for both “Best Metal Performance” and “Best Hard Rock Performance” - whatever the difference is, we don’t know - is a flashback to 1997. Who else but the NARAS is still listening to the Stone Temple Pilots and Korn?
So, after all this shit-talking about the Grammys, do we have anything nice to say at all? Yes. Instead of neglecting the worlds of jazz and classical after they fell out of mainstream favor, the Grammys have actually increased the amount of attention they lavish on both musical worlds. The Grammys also have a nice, expansive list of awards for “American Roots” performers that includes an award for “Best Bluegrass Album,” “Best Hawaiian Album,” and “Best Native American Music Album.” Latin and Gospel are also given adequate notice. In fact, these categories represent a subsection of music that often isn’t considered outside of the Grammy nominations. So three cheers for Hawaiian and Native American music, and thank you, NARAS, for caring when so many other people don’t. We may not watch the telecast, or care whether or not Cee-Lo beats out Perry, but inherent in the fundamental mediocrity of the Grammy awards are clues that point toward something much more promising than auto-tune and lactating bras.