Another year, another round of ire and backlash over the Grammys. Hardly fertile ground, even for 2020. Last week, the official 2021 Grammy nominations were released, and instead of the usual communal “meh” or “huh?” that has typically followed the announcement in the last half decade or so, this year people are angry. Yet again, the Grammys have proven themselves to be run by a voting collective completely removed from the popular zeitgeist, selecting their nominations not based on any criteria of quality or cultural significance, but rather elitist principles of what makes “good music” or worse yet, who’s paying them.
The loudest voices of contention came from fans of The Weeknd, whose album After Hours was snubbed entirely. After fans expressed indignation on Twitter, The Weeknd himself sent a now-widely shared post on the platform:
The Grammys remain corrupt. You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency…
— The Weeknd (@theweeknd) November 25, 2020
The Grammy’s responded, saying that while they did “empathize” with the singer’s disappointment, there are “deserving acts” every year that miss out. That last part is certainly an understatement, as every year the noms are rife with snubs and surprises. But the thing is, that response might have carried some merit if The Weeknd were an indie darling or if After Hours was generally speaking “underrated.” But to put it bluntly, they aren’t. After Hours is to date the bestselling album of 2020, while its popular single “Blinding Lights” has maintained a spot in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 for longer than any other track in the chart’s history. Both the song and album’s omissions from the nominations are far more baffling and significant than the official Grammy communications would have us believe. There certainly are snubs every year (some contentiously so – let’s not even talk about Justin Bieber’s weak complaints for an R&B nom), but that doesn’t mean they have to be so egregious.
After Hours’ snub may have been the social media catalyst, but it wasn’t just the general public who were up in arms. Many celebrities, from the likes of Elton John to Kid Cudi and Drake, stood up for The Weeknd and addressed their own snubs, both past and present, as well as called out the ceremony for their long history of bribery and corruption. Stars like Nicki Minaj and Halsey sent barrages of tweets and Instagram posts, the former about her best new artist snub to Bon Iver and the latter regarding her current snub for album Manic. On Instagram Halsey specifically called out what goes on behind closed doors of the metaphorical voting booths:
“The Grammys are an elusive process. It can often be about behind the scenes private performances, knowing the right people, campaigning through the grapevine, with the right handshakes and ‘bribes’ that can be just ambiguous enough to pass as ‘not bribes.’ And if you get that far, it’s about committing to exclusive TV performances and making sure you help the Academy make their millions in advertising on the night of the show. Perhaps sometimes it is (!!!) but it’s not always about the music or quality or culture…”
But the thing is, for better or worse, this backlash is nothing new. For years now, we have increasingly noticed as music consumers how woefully out of touch the Grammys are as an organization, and every year we get angrier and angrier. This year specifically, exacerbated by all the global hardship and subsequent exasperation of the months gone by, that fire seems more pronounced than ever. That begs the question: if we know the Grammys struggle to maintain relevance, why do we still care?
Never forget the Grammys didn’t give me my best new artist award when I had 7 songs simultaneously charting on billboard & bigger first week than any female rapper in the last decade- went on to inspire a generation. They gave it to the white man Bon Iver. #PinkFriday
— Mrs. Petty (@NICKIMINAJ) November 24, 2020
A naive question perhaps; the answer being the same reason we still care about the Oscars despite its major issues. We want to see things we like and the people who created them rewarded. It is human nature to want those who are on the upswing to continue to succeed. We looked past the Academy’s corruption and rejoiced when Parasite became the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, just as we lauded Billie Eilish for becoming the first 21st century-born Grammy winner. When projects break boundaries we want to recognize them. As antiquated as the Grammys may be, they are still the highest and most widely understood honor we bestow upon those in the music industry, so it’s only natural to feel happy when our favorites are praised.
There is also the far more intangible element that awards like the Grammys are a cultural event. Regardless of how we individually view them, they are spectacles we all like to take part in because of the power of FOMO. The Grammys is an institution that has been around for over six decades, and for years we all tuned in to find out who to celebrate the hardest that year in music. Habits like that are hard to break cold turkey.
But there’s really no need to break the habit, just recontextualize it. If we take the Grammys with a grain of salt and acknowledge them for the elitist industry circle jerk they are, then maybe we could enjoy them as pure entertainment.
But once again this thinking is naive and harmful, because as it stands, many musician’s careers, of those both in and out of the mainstream, hinge on accolades like the Grammys. Because of their once respectable front and cultural status, the Grammys offer exponential opportunities to those it recognizes, often far more so than to those it doesn’t: contract renewals, increased album budgets, and most obviously huge visibility. Think of the aforementioned Bon Iver, whose 2011 Record of the Year nomination “Holocene” didn’t even crack the Billboard Hot 100, and whose name was still very much buried in obscurity outside of the indie folk scene. Now, the band is likely one of the few mainstream folk acts more pop-centric music consumers can name, their album and single sales skyrocketed, and both of the artist’s subsequent LP releases were nominated for more Grammy awards. This pattern certainly isn’t universal (hence the ever-present “Best New Artist” curse), but it does go to show that from a business perspective, the Grammys do matter to artists hoping to reach any semblance of higher cultural standing.
In a perfect world, there would be no need for the Grammys and people would be exposed to the music they wanted most, and any artist that they like would get the recognition they deserve from their chosen demographic. But there is too much music out there and not enough time in the day for people to hear everything, so more ideally then demoting their significance, the Grammys themselves need to update their practices to make themselves relevant again, rather than the collective laughing stock/ punching bag they are now.
If voters are the popular music authorities they claim to be, then they need to pay attention to not only what is “the best” in their minds (whatever that means), but also what makes the biggest impact. That is not only sales and charts, but phenomena. What struck a chord with the public, what provoked emotional response, and who worked their asses off the most to achieve cohesive and well-realized music projects. If the Grammys can stick to a rubric that takes into account what the people want rather than throwing darts at a wall, then just maybe they can inch their way back to relevance.