Photo Illustration by Israel G. Vargas

Why the Grammys' Populism Makes Sense -- And Is Ultimately a Strength

The Oscars prioritize prestige, but the Grammys lately have rewarded commercial success -- which may ultimately highlight what makes music singular in the first place.

Hardly anyone would expect a summer blockbuster like Avengers: Endgame to win the 2020 Academy Award for best picture. But at the Grammys, it will be no surprise if another pop phenomenon, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” gets record of the year. And it will be a shock if other chart-toppers like Billie Eilish, Ariana Grande and Lizzo aren’t among the Big Four nominees in November. Likewise, it’s difficult to imagine a Grammy equivalent to the most memorable recent Oscars rivalry -- Moonlight vs. La La Land in 2017, a showdown that invested two relatively commercially marginal works with outsize symbolism. It would be as if last year’s album of the year contest had come down to a faceoff between, say, Kamasi Washington and The 1975.

The highest-profile American awards shows in movies and music are each determined by the votes of working industry professionals. But in recent years, the Grammys have leaned toward reaffirming commercial success, while “Oscar bait” has become synonymous with prestige films that don’t do blockbuster business. What explains this populism gap?

Nearly every arts and entertainment award struggles to balance mass appeal and credentialed opinions, to reflect both the cutting edge and some form of consensus. Some rely openly on the cognoscenti (Canada’s critic-voted Polaris, Britain’s luminary-judged Mercury) while others are driven by commercial success (American Music Awards, Billboard Music Awards). The Oscars and Grammys, on the other hand, are industry popularity contests dressed up in the formalwear of professional “academies” and presented to the public as revealed truths -- and the complexity of the voting process can’t help but spark backlash.

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.)

This is where the Grammys’ populism shows its strength: Though connoisseurs might wish smaller gems could get more recognition, it’s no lesser ambition to make works of art that combine quality with hitting a widespread cultural nerve. Arguably, that’s the special superpower of American popular music. Its vitality has always sprung from the ground-level meetings and clashes of cultures that make up the nation. Rhythms, harmonies, gestures and symbols rebound off each other across genres and up and down the charts. When the people handing out the prizes listen for those echoes and overtones, what they put down in the record books will be more than the ups-and-downs of a cultural industry, but something closer to the story of the culture itself.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of Billboard.

2020 Grammy Awards


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