The Grammys get it wrong (again)
In keeping with tradition, this year’s 60th Annual Grammy Awards succeeded in elevating various artists to the international stage and failed in rewarding the safest of the bunch. For the second year in a row, an insulting winners pool was punctuated not a day later by infuriating comments from the top brass at the Recording Academy. Last year, after Adele’s forgettable 25 took the top honor of “Album of the Year” over the universally lauded Lemonade from Beyoncé, Recording Academy President Neil Portnow said, “I don’t think there’s a race problem at all.” Of course, there is a problem, as the last nine Album of the Year winners were all white.
This year, Bruno Mars broke the streak but did so in a fashion that was simultaneously frustrating and confusing. His album, 24K Magic, was a smashing success that took inspiration from the classic sound of artists like James Brown and infused it with modern pop. It’s a good pop album, and few contend this. However, the controversy here comes from the other nominees in the field: Lorde’s Melodrama, Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love!, JAY-Z’s 4:44, and perhaps most notably Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. Lamar, who has now been nominated and lost three times for the night’s top honor, had the most critically acclaimed album of the year, the most commercially successful album in the field, and the largest cultural impact of any album last year. By most accounts, Lamar deserved the award. I think he deserved the award. Especially given that his 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly devastatingly lost at the 58th Annual Grammy Awards for Album of the Year to Taylor Swift’s 1989. Lamar was at least due for a conciliatory win, even if DAMN. had not been the best album in the field. Moreover, his performance to open this year’s ceremony was explosive, expertly crafted, daring, and incredibly well-performed. He seemed perfectly set up to win "Album of the Year."
And then, Mars won “Best R&B Performance” over SZA. Then, he won “Song of the Year” and then “Record of the Year.” By the time the Album of the Year award was to be presented, it had become clear that Mars was going to win, and he did.
It is important to say here that Mars is the first person of color to win Album of the Year in nearly a decade, and as far as pop albums that have won the award in years past, 24K Magic is unquestionably better than most. It is the fact that Lamar has now lost in the category for three consecutive albums, with each one being completely different from the last. It is the Recording Academy’s ceaseless rejection of hip-hop as a legitimate art form. Two rap albums have won the top award in Grammys history, the last time being in 2004 with Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Lamar’s impact on hip-hop and music at large is undeniable, and he will go down as one of the best artists of this decade and likely the best rapper of his generation. Why then, do the Grammys refuse to reward the revolutionary artist graciously waiting for his chance to celebrate?
Another frustrating category was “Best Pop Solo Performance,” which went to Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” over four female nominees. Sheeran, who did not attend the ceremony, presented a song literally about the objectification of women’s bodies, while nominee Kesha attended and performed a show-stopping rendition of her song “Praying,” a powerful song about her survival of sexual assault and harassment at the hands of her former producer. Later, the only female Album of the Year nominee Lorde did not perform, as she was the only nominee for the night’s top honor that was not offered a solo performance slot. When asked if he thought the Grammys had a gender issue, Portnow replied that women should “step up” in order to receive more nominations and awards.
Of course, Portnow has been met with major backlash. He has since issued an apology and announced the formation of a gender task force to address the show’s continued issues. Now, given the long history of controversy under his tenure, female music executives are calling for Portnow to resign, and he should. The Recording Academy has continually failed to address the biases at the core of its process, and Portnow should be replaced by someone committed to equitable representation for artists of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and genres. Otherwise, ratings will continue to fall, and the Grammys will lose what little credibility it has left.