Annual Grammy Awards fails in representation

Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor

Each year, the Grammys spark heated debate. In recent years much of the discussion has been centered around diversity and for good reason. Only a handful of black artists have won the three most prestigious awards — Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Record of the Year — while many have been pigeonholed into categories like hip-hop, R&B, and “urban contemporary.” In fact, only one hip-hop artist has ever been awarded one of the three major awards: Outkast for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2004. Clearly, the representation of minorities is an issue that needs to be better addressed and solved.

However, another constant source of drama has been that the awards often end up being a popularity contest. Over the past few years, the main three awards have typically been given to the most popular artist of the year, as opposed to the artist who created the most artistically impressive or meaningful piece of work. For example, this year, Bruno Mars, who has produced some of the best pop songs since 2010, swept the board with singles “That’s What I Like” and “24K Magic” off his album 24K Magic.

However, his catchy party track and love song from 2017 managed to beat out all of the nominations from what has been nearly unanimously deemed the best album of the year by critics: Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. DAMN was Lamar's third powerful masterpiece in a row, featuring hard-hitting beats and angry but agile rapping, Lamar’s signature intricate storytelling style, and intense lyrics that delve into politics, fame, and faith. While Lamar handily won every rap category, he was unable to break through in any of the three mainstream divisions. In fact, despite already being considered among the greatest rappers of all time, Lamar has never triumphed in a major category, even having had all three of his studio albums nominated for Album of the Year.

One of the main reasons why artists like Lamar get snubbed is because their music isn’t considered “safe” enough. The Grammys would rather dish out the awards to party tracks like Mars’ “Uptown Funk” or mushy love songs like Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” than an angry hip-hop track that deals with touchy issues like institutional racism and police brutality. This is not to say that Mars and Sheeran aren’t extremely talented pop musicians — they certainly know how to write an addicting melody and lyrics that easily get stuck in your head — but their art isn’t nearly as impactful or complex as Lamar’s.

Such snubs can even happen within the genre-specific categories, with one of the most glaring examples being 2014’s award for Best Rap Album, where Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ The Heist managed to beat out Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city. The former album was incredibly popular that year, especially among non-hip-hop listeners and was best known for the pop anthem “Can’t Hold Us” and the silly “Thrift Shop.” good kid, m.A.A.d. city, on the other hand, was a gritty, plot-driven account of the dangers of growing up in Compton, California, the city where Lamar is from, and was deemed an instant rap classic. Here also, the Grammys chose to reward the safer, more mainstream artist.

While the way the Grammys hands out their awards is disappointing, it should not come as a surprise. They have consistently gotten it wrong for the past several years. Therefore, it might instead be helpful to investigate the causes and what they mean for the Grammys status as an awards show.

We have to remember that the Grammys are essentially a once-a-year television show. They, like any show, are trying to cater to an audience and convince as many people to tune in as they can, and the audience that will get them the highest ratings is mainstream America. This explains why The Recording Academy tends to reward the most popular songs; the more people know the winning songs, the more they will enjoy watching and the more they will want to watch again the following year.

Another part of attracting larger television audiences, especially as television ratings rapidly drop as more people switch to streaming, is to transition the awards show into more and more of a spectacle. This is just what the Grammys has done. Less of the actual handing out of the awards is being televised, with the only major categories and a few specific genre categories making the cut. Instead, much of the Grammys’ airtime is filled with radical performances and speeches from hosts and winners. This year, stand-out moments included Kesha’s moving response to sexual harassment with her song “Praying” and Camila Cabello’s support of the "Dreamers" protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama-era immigration policy that was rescinded by President Trump, in a poignant speech.

This results in many viewers simply watching for the performances and speeches, rather than being invested in the actual results. Additionally, many people are more interested in the glamor of the "Red Carpet" than the awards themselves, looking to see what extravagant dresses and otherworldly makeup their favorite celebrities don for the event. Even if their favorite artist does not win, people are entertained by the increasingly theatric performances and the allure of the "Red Carpet."

Essentially, the Grammys are shifting away from being an awards show and instead becoming a sort of year-in-review concert. Yes, they still do give out awards, but they tend to highlight the most popular music each year rather than the most critically acclaimed, and fewer of these decisions are shown on television each year. Instead, the Grammys have become a celebration of excess: a competition for who can wear the wildest dress, who can have the most elaborate, mind-blowing performance, and who can make the boldest statement in their speech. It’s time to stop expecting the Grammys to be an accurate measure of the most artistic music of the year and instead just sit back and enjoy the show.