Movies aim at more general audiences, while even pop music tends to be niche-oriented. When a Moonlight or Roma gets an Oscar nod, film lovers will go out of their way to catch up with them. But music’s diverse demographics make that a lot trickier. Unlike movie stars, musicians are often famous only within their genre -- recall when “Who is Arcade Fire?” became a meme after The Suburbs snagged album of the year in 2011. The music business is more spread out geographically, too -- Nashville has quite a different culture than Los Angeles or New York, let alone Atlanta -- which is why the major category winners are often well-known enough to be recognized outside their genres.
Meanwhile, both academies share a strong interest in ratings. But while the Oscars are an international event -- no matter the nominees, viewers will tune in to watch movie stars in gowns and tuxes making speeches -- the Grammys depend more on star performances, which in turn often depend on nominations. If those lists are too unfamiliar to the public, ratings slide. And as recent history has proved, music fans are more likely to take lasting offense if their favorites are slighted -- see the uproar around the absences of Lorde and Ariana Grande from the last two Grammy telecasts because of disagreements with producers.
In truth, the Grammys have for decades often produced results that seemed out of step with the most important developments in popular culture -- ignoring rock through much of the ’60s in favor of Frank Sinatra and Las Vegas lounge comedy, for instance, or being slow to recognize the rise of alternative rock and, especially, hip-hop through the ’90s and into the 2000s. Around that time, The Recording Academy instituted a set of behind-closed-doors review committees, first genre-specific and later for the biggest categories, to adjust nominee lists that fell too far out of touch. Even after that, there were awkward moments, like Herbie Hancock’s 2008 album of the year win for a little-heard set of Joni Mitchell covers, which beat generation-defining records from Kanye West and Amy Winehouse. Under stress first from the more youth-oriented MTV Video Music Awards (for many years better at generating conversation, if not consensus), and then from loud callouts online, the Grammys have become more nimbly reflective of the pop zeitgeist.
The internal mechanisms involved are a bit opaque, but publicly the academy has undertaken recruiting a younger, more diverse membership. Still, it’s dogged by the fact that most voters are older, whiter and more male than today’s most vital artists and their fans -- though perhaps not as different from the likewise older-skewing audience for broadcast TV than the impression that the most active online critics convey. The Grammy-nominee lists today more accurately reflect the state of 21st-century pop, but women are often underrepresented, and black hip-hop and R&B artists still seldom bring home the major awards. Recently, the likes of West, Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Frank Ocean have stopped even showing up. (The question remains whether incoming academy president Deborah Dugan will be able to help change any of this.)
As broadcast viewership has slowly eroded, the Oscars too have come to consider whether more populism might be the remedy. Last year, the film academy proposed a new outstanding achievement in popular film award, but backed off after complaints that it was a patronizing and ghettoizing gesture -- it would, for example, have taken the groundbreaking Black Panther out of direct competition with more standard Oscar fare. (Still, it did not win.)