By Brian Ives
Complaining about the GRAMMYs and questioning their relevance has been as much as part of the show’s tradition as the insanely long red carpet and Clive Davis’s invite-only party the night before the award show. For years, talking about the GRAMMYs was like discussing the weather: everyone complains about it, but no one actually does anything about it.
That changed in 2011 when marketing guru, former music industry executive and author of The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy, Steve Stoute, took out a full-page ad in The New York Times to call out the GRAMMYs and the Recording Academy for losing touch with popular culture.
He cited three main examples to support his claim. In 2001, he noted, Steely Dan’s reunion album, Two Against Nature topped Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP for album of the year. In 2008, Kanye West’s Graduation lost the same award to Herbie Hancock, whose Joni Mitchell tribute, River: The Joni Letters, took home Album of the Year.
In both cases, the award read like an older voting base giving a veteran an ad hoc lifetime achievement honor instead of awarding a younger artist making a massive impact on pop culture. Of course, both Eminem and West’s personalities could have played into how people voted; although voters are encouraged to vote only on artistic merits, it’s surely possible that each of those artists was off-putting to voters. It’s probably fair to say that neither Steely Dan’s nor Herbie Hancock’s albums even made a huge impact on their own respective fan bases. Steely Dan didn’t just beat Eminem; they also topped highly acclaimed albums by Beck (Midnite Vultures) and Radiohead (Kid A). Hancock, meanwhile, beat out Amy Winehouse, who won an armful of other awards that night, including Song of the Year and Record of the Year.
Stoute’s other example was jazz bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding’s Best New Artist win in 2011 over Justin Bieber, who Stoute described as “an artist who defines what it means to be a modern artist,” noting that he was discovered “purely for his singing ability” — he also noted that Bieber plays guitar and piano, but neglected to mention his impressive abilities as a drummer — and cited his YouTube and Vevo numbers as proof of his cultural impact. This felt a bit more troubling: it insinuated that the GRAMMY Awards should be based on popularity. Spalding, like Bieber, was a musician from a young age, having taught herself to play violin from the age of five; she attended the Berklee College of Music on a full scholarship. She’s a talented musician, but not a pop star. And since the GRAMMYs include a number of genres — not just pop, country, R&B, urban and rock — artists from any genre should be considered for Best New Artist. The Billboard Awards, for example, honor artists based on sales.
Still, Stoute’s letter struck a chord with the Recording Academy. Almost immediately, the GRAMMYs cut about 30 categories, and also changed the voting and submission process. Stoute seemed nonplussed, saying in an interview that the changes were “a step in the right direction, but it’s still a Band-Aid on the problem.” Indeed, all this seemed to do was to make it seem like the GRAMMYs were reacting, but it really served to make the pre-telecast (where most of the awards are actually presented) shorter and to upset the artists in the categories that never make the televised broadcast.
“This is terrible, beyond my comprehension, an insult to our genre and many others,” said pianist Eddie Palmieri, who won Latin jazz Grammys in 2006 and 2007. “We fought for 17 years to get this recognition, and then they turn around and take it away without informing anybody what they were up to.” Four categories popular among the fast-growing Spanish-speaking music audience — banda, norteño, Tejano and regional Mexican — were merged into two categories, and the award for Latin jazz has been eliminated altogether. That’s just one example of categories being condensed. None of this, of course, would seem to affect how people vote in the Album of the Year category.
In the years since, the Album of the Year winners were mostly artists who were at the center of the pop culture zeitgeist in the years that they won (as opposed to decades earlier, like Steely Dan or Hancock): Adele, Mumford and Sons, Daft Punk and Taylor Swift. However, some of the nominees that didn’t win included Beyonce (for her earth shaking 2013 self-titled album), Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar, twice.
This year, Frank Ocean has said that he didn’t bother to submit his album for the GRAMMYs, saying, “That institution certainly has nostalgic importance. It just doesn’t seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from, and hold down what I hold down.” He mentioned that since he was born, just a few black artists have won Album of the Year, including Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock and Ray Charles. Others who he did not mention include OutKast, Lauryn Hill and Whitney Houston. “I’d rather this be my Colin Kaepernick moment for the Grammys than sit there in the audience,” he said.
And that’s fair enough: left-field artists, which Ocean certainly is, have a history of not caring about institutionalized awards.
But it’s worth noting as well that this year’s Album of the Year nominees, for the most part, are very much what has had pop culture buzzing over the last twelve months. Beyonce’s Lemonde was a stunning album that saw her, arguably the world’s biggest pop star, taking artistic risks while at the peak of her powers and popularity; the result was a classic that held up to anything in her catalog. Adele’s 25 created a pop culture event from the first few seconds of the album’s first single; she literally had us from “Hello.” Both Adele and Beyonce’s albums transcended genre and generation. Each of them created pop culture moments that rarely come from album releases anymore: it’s as if Thriller and Purple Rain came out in the same year.
For the more youth-centric music fans, Drake’s Views — which included one of the year’s biggest hits, “One Dance” — was included. And yes, Justin Bieber, who made one of the most dramatic comebacks in pop music history with Purpose, is also nominated in this prestigious category. The final nominee in the category is a rather left-field choice: country music outlaw Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. If his inclusion has upset or befuddled some, it’s worth keeping in mind — again — that the GRAMMYs aren’t just about sales and popularity.
Would Frank Ocean’s Blonde have gotten Simpson’s nomination if he’d bothered to submit it to the GRAMMYs? We’ll never know. Regardless, if you enjoy making fun of the GRAMMYs for being out of touch — as it often is — you should acquiesce that this year, at least, they got it right with their Album of the Year nominees.