Another year, another Grammys at the mercy of its own critical missteps.
Jay-Z, whose album “4:44” was a stunning late-career addition to a legendary rap oeuvre, was nominated for eight awards. He won none. SZA’s sophomore effort “Ctrl” earned her five nominations. She won none.
In the wake of Sunday night, indie musicians like Robin Pecknold (of Fleet Foxes) and Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) have taken to social media to air their general annoyance. In an Instagram story, Pecknold wrote that “to give it all to Toys R Us Gap Band is pretty ridic.” And for Vernon, “[the] Grammies are still something serious musicians should not take seriously!”
At this point, we’re used to being disappointed by wins in the major categories. And after last year’s “Lemonade” snub in favor of Adele, Bruno Mars’ Album of the Year victory over Kendrick Lamar was almost an inevitability. That the cultural impact and critical reception of “Damn.” didn’t earn the title of Album of the Year, over what is essentially an uninspired album-length recreation of “Uptown Funk,” is a testament to the Recording Academy’s persistent tone-deafness.
And this sense of tone-deafness extends clumsily and self-consciously into the Grammys’ political overtones. By channeling the Golden Globes’ “Time’s Up” movement with white roses as symbols of support, the Grammys had a chance to make a serious political statement and reclaim their fast-fading cultural relevance (this year’s show put ratings at an all-time low). But the roses and apparent solidarity from the music community stood in stark contrast to the statistics: only 17 percent of winners were women, and only one woman (Alessia Cara, snubbing SZA) accepted a televised solo award. Lorde, the only woman nominated for Album of the Year, was also the only nominee in that category not asked to perform. The Recording Academy drove the point home by awarding Ed Sheeran Best Pop Solo Performance, in a category for which he was the only man nominated.
How can we account for the failings of the 60th Annual Grammy Awards? In an entertainment culture so dominated by Harvey Weinsteins and Dr. Lukes, the Grammys represent an egregious misstep in our collective societal reckoning with abuse. To eschew actual support for femme artists in favor of spoken-word recordings of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” is both a ridiculously shallow mode of critique and an eminently safe move for the Grammys. The upsets and snubs surrounding the awards themselves are a secondary issue, but they nonetheless affirm the Recording Academy’s commitment to bolstering mediocre artistry in an attempt to attract viewers.
None of this is the fault of the artists, or of the music community as a whole. It’s not up to Bruno Mars to follow in Macklemore’s footsteps with a virtue-signaling apology text. No, in terms of who we should blame, the Grammys actually provided a wonderful scapegoat in the figure of Grammy President Neil Portnow. Variety reports that when asked about the glaring disparity in gender representation during the televised awards, Portnow responded that women “who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, producers, and want to be part of the industry on the executive level… (need) to step up.”
Year after year, the Grammys prove themselves hilariously tone-deaf to the desires of their audience and the needs of their community. They’ve embraced a politics that’s moderate enough so as not to appeal to its target audience (adults aged 18-49) but that involves just enough Trump-bashing to alienate Nikki Haley. Even Kanye, who at one point cared enough about the Grammys’ cultural influence to enter a self-imposed exile and record the best hip-hop album of the millennium, has lost interest.
It’s safe to say that Justin Vernon is right to claim serious musicians should stay away from the Grammys. But I would argue that at this point, the average music-lover and awards-show viewer should steer clear, as well.