The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
For many people, Kendrick Lamar losing out on Best Rap Album to Macklemore at the 2014 Grammys felt like an insult. There was always a nagging sense that crusty Grammy voters prioritized Caucasian acts and didn’t really see beyond chart hits. Watching good kid, m.A.A.d City, a generation-defining album that took storytelling rap to another level, lose out to The Heist, an instantly forgettable pop-rap hybrid built around sanctimonious corniness, all but confirmed it.
Likewise, few albums have shifted pop culture quite like Beyoncé’s surprise self-titled visual album. Unexpectedly released in December 2013, it destroyed the idea of sticking to a conventional release date, freeing artists to drop records completely out of the blue, while creating a blueprint for pioneering visual albums such as Tierra Whack’s Whack World. When it was nominated for Album of the Year at the 2015 Grammys, its victory felt inevitable. Yet here we were, just a year on from watching Macklemore held up as the best in his craft, shaking our heads as yet another pivotal black artist lost out to a white counterpart with an average album – Beck’s well-crafted but painfully bland Morning Phase. By the time Kendrick’s magnum opus To Pimp a Butterfly lost out on the Album of the Year gong to Taylor Swift at the 2016 Grammys, it no longer felt like a surprise.
It was obvious the Recording Academy had made a conscious effort to try to avoid a whitewash at the 2018 Grammys, with the likes of JAY-Z and Kendrick Lamar sweeping up nominations. But seeing Bruno Mars win in every major category made their nominations feel pointless. It felt like these so-called diverse nominations were just a smokescreen and it was business as usual, with a pop star who played well with white audiences winning the plaudits over albums – 4:44 and DAMN., respectively – that actually dared to say something about race and an America teetering on the edge.
The social media backlash that came with these snubs has forced the Grammys into completely revamping their voting procedures for 2019, even bringing in a ‘Task Force on Diversity & Inclusion’ to shake things up. Last June, the Recording Academy announced it would be expanding the record, song, album of the year and best new artist categories from five to eight nominees in order to “create more opportunities for a wider range of artists and give more flexibility to our voters.” And in October, it invited 900 new music creators to become voting members, many of whom are women or people of color. For the 2018 Grammys, only 28% of voters were female and 37% people of color. However, for this year’s ceremony, there will be 51% female voters and 48% people of color. But is this action a case of too little, too late? Are the Grammys still even fit for this purpose?
For many recording artists, the Grammys have already lost their credibility. When I interviewed soul legend Raphael Saadiq for The Quietus back in 2017 about his producer win after Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky” took home a Grammy, his response was telling: “Meh, I didn’t go to the Grammys; I just had some dinner and watched Netflix instead! The Grammys have 100% lost their way and are out of touch. If you have a day job and work in a corporate building then that’s who that show is for.”
His solution? “There’s no point sitting down and talking about it. All awards shows need to just get off TV and die. Music would be much better if people didn’t make it for an award.” And you can bet if Saadiq, one of the most influential producers of the last 20 years, is over the Grammys, then plenty of other pivotal artists are too. Sure, the creation of a task force is good to see, but for many it has come far too late and is merely good PR to try to reposition the Grammys as a beacon of wokeness.
One such pivotal artist is, of course, Frank Ocean, who refused to submit Blonde for consideration at the 2017 Grammys. In a Tumblr post, he explained: “1989 getting album of the year over To Pimp a Butterfly was hands down one of the most ‘faulty’ TV moments I’ve seen. Believe the people. Believe the ones who’d rather watch select performances from your program on YouTube the day after because your show puts them to sleep.”
While it’s possible Ocean’s comments were in part driven by anger after Grammy producers Ken Ehrlich and writer David Wild criticized his 2013 performance, they do highlight a need to potentially look beyond the conventional set-up of the Grammys when it comes to recognizing artists. Viewership of the 60th annual Grammy Awards was down significantly from the 2017 show. The three and a half hour awards show averaged a 5.9 rating in adults 18-49 and 19.8 million viewers, according to Variety. In comparison, 2017’s show drew a 7.8 and 26.1 million, meaning the 2018 Grammys were down approximately 24% in both measures.
This shows, as Frank alludes to, that the Grammys are not respected among viewers like they once were. In the social media age, people rank artists instantaneously on Twitter and YouTube, which makes an overly traditional awards show feel out of step with a world where opinions are shared in a flash. If the public no longer trusts the Grammys to get it right then surely there’s space for an alternative? If not, the Grammys will need to at least become more social media-savvy and go direct to the people to canvas for opinion.
If the Grammys wants to show the public it’s on its way to changing in 2019, then Post Malone won’t win in every category that he’s nominated for; in other words, wins will not be based purely on pop chart success, and a rap album like Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy might just nab Album of the Year for the first time since OutKast’s Speakerboxxx / The Love Below back in 2004. But even if the Grammys do all of those things, it still might not be enough. As Frank Ocean said, the Grammys just don’t feel like a useful way of rewarding musicians or recognizing talent anymore. In the streaming age, the idea of waiting a year after an album is released for it to be recognized by the industry elite just doesn’t sync with how the public consumes music. If 2019 is another year full of notable snubs for black artists than many will have stopped bothering by 2020. But even if black art is recognized more substantially, it still won’t change the feeling that the Grammys are a relic of the past that needs replacing.