In the 30 Years Since Jethro Tull, Have the Grammys Ever Understood Metal?

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Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull performs onstage at the UIC Pavillion in Chicago on Dec. 4, 1987. 

It was a slap in the face on music’s grandest stage.

Thirty years ago this month, the Recording Academy finally bowed to heavy metal’s sustained popularity throughout the ‘80s and introduced the best hard rock/metal performance category at the 1989 Grammys. At long last, there would be space set aside for serious headbangers to compete amongst themselves without the worry that U2 or Bruce Springsteen might steal their thunder.

This felt like a substantive victory for the genre -- recognition at the industry's highest level after 20 years spent climbing from cultish circles to bonafide cultural relevance. But as many veteran metalheads surely remember, the award’s credibility was tarnished immediately when genre icon Metallica -- a clear favorite to win the inaugural award for the band’s acclaimed 4th LP ...And Justice For All -- were inexplicably bested by Jethro Tull's Crest of a Knave, a modestly successful comeback effort from a band well past its artistic prime, and scarcely considered to be hard rock, let alone metal.

Rock star Lita Ford, who helped present the now-infamous award, recounted the moment to Classic Rock magazine in 2016: “I was trying not to show any emotion, but it was like, ‘What?!’ It was a shock to everybody when [co-presenter Alice Cooper] read out Jethro Tull’s name.” The live audience laughed and booed, critics slammed the Grammys as out of touch, and the category was consequently split the following year into best metal performance and best hard rock performance (the latter category was removed in 2011).

Three decades later, best metal performance is a low rung on the Grammys ladder, long removed from the primetime telecast. The mainstream-transcending nu metal craze wound down in the mid-2000s and the genre has since largely gone underground, compounding the problem of accurate representation. If the Grammy voters couldn’t get it right in 1989, as metal culture was at its most mainstream -- when Guns N’ Roses just had a No. 1 album and Headbangers Ball was a staple on MTV -- what chance do they have in 2019, when the genre has fractured into a kaleidoscope of exclusive subsects, virtually none of which are being observed on rock radio or being discussed beyond their exclusive communities?

As the show gears up to air Sunday, Feb. 10, it’s worth wondering whether the Grammys have ever, in three decades, given heavy metal a fair shake. Has any real progress been made since the Tull blaspheming, or is the ceremony’s most assailing category forever doomed to shred into the void?

Flash back to 1990, when best metal performance first premiered without the “hard rock” attachment, and consider the timing. The Grammys were woefully behind the trend, choosing to recognize a style only as its most visible iteration -- hair metal -- was already on the brink of self-immolation. Grunge blasted off in 1991, and obsolescence quickly became metal’s greatest foe. Throughout the mid-‘90s, metal was a dirty word among many in the mainstream, as alternative ambassadors Nirvana and Pearl Jam thrived and ‘80s metal’s leaders, including thrash’s “Big Four” — Anthrax, Slayer, Megadeth and Metallica — began to be viewed as campy relics when compared to the fresh wave of guitar bands.

The Grammys accordingly filled its nomination slots with bands whose sound was surely influenced by metal, but were not cut from the same devil-horned cloth: grunge-reared hard-rockers like Soundgarden and Rage Against The Machine, and electronic-influenced industrial outfits like Nine Inch Nails and Ministry. The category quickly became defined by an attitude as opposed to a definitive style of music: If a band was loud, angry and popular in the ‘90s, chances are it landed in best metal performance category and competed against thrash-metal’s enduring big four. (Metallica in particular, as the band has owned best metal performance over the years, winning a record six times.)

Name-brand acts dominating a Grammy category isn’t unique — all awards shows are popularity contests to some extent, and if an act hasn’t made a sizable splash in its own genre, its chances of winning in the general vote are low. More simply put, people vote for artists they know, and this logic has been detrimental to the metal category because so few bands this century have broken through to become household names. Hence the flood of legacy nominations throughout the 2000s and 2010s: While the pop and hip-hop categories cycle through new acts with regularity, best metal performance seems to just reshuffle its deck with the occasional reintroduction of nu metal and metalcore heavy hitters -- bands like Korn, Slipknot and Killswitch Engage -- that have already become elder statesmen in their own circles.

Such stagnancy is hammered home again with this year’s list of nominees, which at first blush may suggest the category has turned a corner in terms of pertinence among the bands it recognizes: Between The Buried And Me, Deafheaven, High On Fire, Trivium and Underoath.

No true legacy acts here, right? Maybe not, but BTBAM is nine albums deep and has been a staple in progressive metal for 15 years. Trivium was huge in the American metalcore boom -- 10 years ago -- and debuted in 1999. Other than the San Francisco black-metal outfit Deafheaven (formed in 2010), all of these bands are nearing their 20th anniversaries. Yet this is considered a progressive year by comparison, leagues better than comedy rock duo Tenacious D’s baffling win over Anthrax, Mastodon, Motorhead and Slipknot in 2015. What’s more, despite the veteran status for most of these groups, all the 2019 nominees but Underoath (second nomination) are being recognized by the Recording Academy for the first time.

An exceedingly narrow pipeline is to blame here. For an entire genre there are five nomination slots in a singular category that recognizes only individual performances and not full albums. This has to be the largest blunder of all -- metal is a staunchly album-oriented genre, whose fans still seek out, buy and voraciously consume whole records, practices that have been deeply ingrained in the culture since Black Sabbath. Why would the Recording Academy consider only metal-specific singles and live performances in the best metal performance category, leaving full albums to compete in the vast best rock album division (where in recent years Gojira and Slipknot have counter-intuitively faced off against Panic! At The Disco and James Bay)? The dissonance continues this year as the Swedish metal band Ghost takes on Weezer and Fall Out Boy.

The metal field is further crowded by the erasure of best hard rock performance, which was nixed in a large overhaul of Grammy categories in 2012. Hard rock again merged with metal for 2012 and ‘13 before it was folded into the best rock performance category created in the streamlining (if you’re confused, we don’t blame you). The prior existence of both hard rock and metal categories allowed for greater breadth of recognition for heavy music in general, but now genre-busting hard-rock acts like Bring Me The Horizon and Deftones must lean either into general rock, or metal. They have no true home.

Will hard rock ever regain its own category, or best metal performance shift to a more fitting best metal album field? It doesn’t seem likely considering that outside of an increased respect for the genre’s iconography of yesteryear, metal isn’t particularly fashionable in mainstream pop-culture. There’s no commercial demand to reshape this corner of the ballot, and Grammys executives have bigger fish to fry -- like getting Drake to show up -- than metalheads complaining how the Yob and Skeletonwitch albums aren’t earning the respect they deserve.

But fans can perhaps find some relief in the parity of nominees over the last three award seasons. Since Tenacious D’s upset, it’s heartening to see mid-level bands like Baroness, Code Orange and Periphery get nods, and Mastodon’s win in the category last year -- for “Sultan’s Curse,” off the sinfully good LP Empire Of Sand -- was a long-deserved victory for band that has been a flagbearer for 21st century metal, and a group that casual metal fans would expect to clean up in this category. Whoever wins this year, be it Deafheaven (a band that has been arguably the most mainstream-acclaimed metal outfit of this era) or another act, it will not be an artist who has won before, and that’s progress.

There are still plenty of bridges to cross before the Recording Academy feels sufficiently metal-conscious. We have no doubt that Metallica’s next release will lead the category regardless of its merits. But at least the days of total metal illiteracy -- the decisions that led a Grammy to Ian Anderson’s trophy case -- feel as though they’ve faded to black.

2019 Grammy Awards