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The real problem with the Grammys (Music Insight)

Even Album of the Year winner Adele thought the Academy got it wrong. Picture: Simon Emmett

It seems award ceremony controversies are the flavour of the month, with the Grammys only barely in the past and the Oscars getting in on the act. But while music’s night of nights was a long fortnight ago, we haven’t forgotten.

This ain’t water under the bridge, writes Nicholas Wasiliev.


We need to talk about the Grammys.

It’s been two weeks since the biggest event on the music industry calendar, and this year’s award ceremony has been the subject of heavy criticism and controversy. Fans and fellow artists have vented their frustrations at the artists who won and the artists who didn’t. The media savaged the selection panel once again for some controversial choices, with some even complaining of potentially racist selections.

However, there was one clearly obvious problem with the Grammys this year that may have served as the catalyst to all these other issues: that the Recording Academy seems to base their selections based on the commercial popularity of an artist, rather than the quality of the music produced.

In a way, it’s easy to understand why the selection panel has started to do this. Obviously, the artist that sells the most is therefore the most popular, and therefore, the most deserving. But in the past, the Grammys have (until the start of this decade) struck a reasonable balance between awarding musicians who had pushed the envelope in creating well-crafted innovative music with artists who had achieved the most substantial commercial success.

However, in the last few years there has been a shift away from that towards an emphasis on commercial success, and not just by the selection panel. The media coverage especially of the awards ceremony has further accelerated this, focusing on particular artists and performances (such as Kendrick Lamar’s politically charged performance of The Blacker The Berry in 2016) and more especially on specific genres that attract the most commercial success (namely, pop music, electronic and dance music, RnB and occasionally varying genres of rock).

This emphasis on the commercial over critical success by the media and selection panel has a negative impact on some sectors of the music industry. It further distances many genres outside the commercial mainstream from a potentially wider audience, and even more so, distances their records from a deserving audience. Barely any mainstream media reported on the Grammys awarded to country, jazz, reggae or classical artists. Instead, these genres are shrouded in a stigma of irrelevance due to their smaller commercial appeal.

But it’s not only these genres being affected. The preference for commercial success over critical success has bled into the more mainstream genres too. While many questioned the awarding of Grammys in the RnB category from both a musical and racial viewpoint, the most talked about was the awarding of the Album of the Year to Adele, over Beyonce’s Lemonade or Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.

The Recording Academy awards the Album of the Year based on “artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position.” Adele’s 25 was a good record, however it did not showcase a huge change in Adele’s artistic direction. With all due respect to Adele, even she admitted in her acceptance speech that she thought that Beyoncé’s album Lemonade should have won.

“I can’t possibly accept this award,” she said.

“The Lemonade album was just so monumental, Beyoncé. It was so monumental and well thought-out and beautiful and soul-bearing… we appreciate that. All of us artists here adore you. You are our light… The way you make me and my friends feel, the way you make my black friends feel, is empowering. You make them stand up for themselves. I love you. I always have and I always will.”

The issue with Lemonade not winning was – as well as adding to a list of outstanding black musicians who have not been recognised by the selection panel – that Adele’s unforeseen popularity and chart success clearly played into her win. The Grammys judged her as being the ‘most popular’. But does that mean it was the right vote? Lemonade was a better record. Beyoncé was as far away from her commercial roots as she has ever been. It was a record that pushed creative boundaries musically, it blended multiple genres, and it worked as a record that empowered and educated. Did 25 reach the same creative and social heights? No, it didn’t. And isn’t that what the award should be recognising?

So, what will the Grammys stand for in the future? Will it be about recognising innovative music, or will it be about where the money is? If it is indeed going to be more about commercial success, then Adele’s acceptance speech was a big middle finger to that ideology. To her, Lemonade was something that inspired her as a woman and a mother. Isn’t that what great music is supposed to do? And if so, isn’t that what the Grammys should be recognising?


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