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Are the Grammys Better Than the Oscars Now?
If the queasy feeling of will they finally get this right anxiety that lodged in the pit of your stomach late in last night's (Feb. 24) Academy Awards ceremonies felt familiar, it's probably because it was only two weeks earlier that the same feeling manifested in most of us at the climax of the Grammys.
For seemingly as long as either awards ceremony has existed, the biggest voting bodies of each have come under fire for being misguided, out of touch, or just lazy -- as movies and albums that went for simple thrills and comforting pleasures have repeatedly won out over more innovative, farther-reaching and/or more urgent fare. Issues of representation have also plagued both institutions, encompassing gender, race, sexuality and genre, leading to protests, boycotts and general disregard. At a time when distrust of longtime American cultural instituations appears to be at an all-time high -- while TV ratings are at an all-time low -- it was more crucial than ever for both award shows to demonstrate progress, while avoiding some of the more embarrassing pratfalls of recent years, both onstage and behind it.
And for the most part, one of them succeeded. This year's Grammys were by no means a perfect ceremony, as too many winners were ushered off in the middle of their acceptance speeches, minor categories frequently went to the biggest name regardless of worthiness, and hip-hop was again underrepresented on the whole. But in its major categories, the winners were modern, relevant, and largely deserving. Best new artist recipient Dua Lipa was legitimately one of the year's most successful and promising new talents. Song and record of the year winner "This Is America" by Childish Gambino was 2018's most explosive and debated single, a legitmately impactful hit, and the first-ever hip-hop winner in either category. And album of the year winner Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves was very arguably the year's most unanimously acclaimed LP, while also carrying the weight of the discussion of the depressing invisibility of female artists in mainstream country music. Female artists had won, hip-hop had won -- for the first time in a long time, the prevailing feeling of the Grammys this year was one of positive change.
On the other hand, last night's Oscars were more of a mixed bag, to say the least. There were deserving, exciting winners: Alfonso Cuarón took home best director for Roma, a personally felt, expansively filmed story that highlighted the lives of indigenous Mexican workers. Olivia Colman and Regina King won best actress and best supporting actress for The Favourite and If Beale Street Could Talk, respectively, two vulnerable performances in risk-taking movies from underrecognized veteran actors. And of course, after well over three decades of filmmaking, longtime Hollywood provocateur Spike Lee finally took home his first-ever competitive Academy Award, with his particularly timely BlacKkKlansman securing best adapted screenplay. There were encouraging wins in the less-heralded categories, too -- such as Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler becoming the first black women to take home Oscars for a non-acting category since 1984 with their wins for Black Panther in best costume design and best production design, respectively -- and the telecast generally drew positive reviews for the brisk-moving, hostless ceremonies, as well as fine performances of (most of) the best song nominees, particularly Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper's electric duet of "Shallow" from A Star Is Born.
However for many, these positives were likely overshadowed by the two movies that emerged as arguably the evening's biggest winners, despite being rooted in problematic concerns. Both Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody could lay claims to themes of progressiveness through their respective historical portrayals of fraught race relations in the deep south in the 1960s via piano great Don Shirley, and of queerness and the AIDS crisis manifesting in the heart of the hetronormative rock world in the '70s and '80s via legendary Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. But both movies proved clumsy with their handling of such issues: Green Book by framing the struggles of the black Shirley through the more-familiar perspective of his white chauffeur Tony Vallelonga, and Bohemian Rhapsody by both sanitizing Mercury's story and sexuality with its PG-13, rest-of-his-band-approved script, and by inaccurately presenting him initially as a closeted gay man struggling to feign heterosexuality, rather than the bisexual man simply wanting to break free that he's been historically confirmed as.
And of course, the controversies with the two films hardly ended with their on-screen content. Green Book has been heavily criticized by the surviving members of Shirley's family, who took issue both with its portrayal of the musician and of his relationship with Vallelonga, which they characterize more as one of professional necessity than the deep personal friendship developed in the film. (What's more, Green Book co-writer Nick Vallelonga -- Tony's son -- has admitted that he was unaware any such surviving family members even existed when creating the film.) More distressingly, Bohemian Rhapsody director Bryan Singer -- who was kicked off the movie for professional reasons before it had finished filming -- has received heightened focus for allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct, several of which have roots dating back to before Rhapsody's inception, leading to questions as to why the movie was ever made with him in the first place.
Yet despite these myriad on- and off-screen black clouds hanging over the two movies, their Oscar fortunes appeared unaffected. Bohemian Rhapsody won a 2019-best four Academy Awards -- best sound editing, best sound mixing, best editing and best actor (for Rami Malek's portrayal of Mercury), while Green Book won three -- best original screenplay, best supporting actor (for Mahershala Ali's portrayal of Shirley) and the night's top prize, best picture. Making matters worse, none of the Bohemian Rhapsody winners addressed any aspect of the Singer controversy, while the only Green Book winner to thank or specifically mention Shirley was Ali. While the nervousness surrounding the Grammys this year largely ended in a sigh of relief, the Oscars' denouement confirmed that anyone wishing for change -- as potentially represented from any number of this year's best picture hopefuls, including Roma, BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther -- had reason to still be concerned.
In terms of overall prestige, the Oscars have traditionally been held in higher regard than the Grammys: They've been around longer, are more limited in category and therefore more exclusive in total nominees and winners, and have the general advantage of rewarding movies rather than pop songs or albums, which still struggle in many quarters to be taken seriously as high art. The culmination of a months-long award season, the Academy Awards towers over the rest of the film industry calendar, while prognostication and betting leading up to the awards practically a sport into itself at this point. Though the Grammys are fairly billed as Music's Biggest Night, the culture surrounding it is relatively insular by comparison, and the awards are themselves viewed as secondary to the night's performances by many anyway.
However, it'd be inaccurate to say the Oscars have that sizable a credibility advantage over the Grammys, particularly in recent years: Compare 21st century best picture winners to album of the year winners on a year-to-year basis and both have their fair share of hits and misses -- an Argo for every Moonlight, a Babel for every 21. But the Grammys remain marked by instances of relatively unassuming albums seeming to come completely out of nowhere to beat significant heavy-hitters -- think lightly acclaimed but commercially marginal works like Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters and Beck's Morning Light triumphing over beloved blockbusters like Amy Winehouse's Back to Black and Beyoncé's Lemonade. By comparison, the Oscars' more controversial recent winners -- Crash over Brokeback Mountain, The King's Speech over The Social Network -- are a little more easily explained by Oscars history as the familiar winning out over the new, and maybe a little less surprising at the end of a long film awards season anyway. (The music awards season is much more disconnected and spread out over the calendar year, and thus significantly more unpredictable.)
But following a year like this, that could all be subject to change. While the Grammys still have a lot of work to do, and one year isn't a large enough sample to ensure they're on their way to doing it, they at least appear headed in the right direction -- not just with their encouraging spate of 2019 winners, but in the replenished voting body and newly formed diversity task force that helped make it possible, as well as the new leadership on its way with longtime Recording Academy president Neil Portnow stepping down after this year's awards. The Oscars, on the other hand, seem to be backsliding into old norms: Moonlight's best picture win two years ago seemed to be a big victory for the challenging and the underrepresented at the awards, but the big night for Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody this year threatens to undo that, re-establishing the corner-cutting, back-patting biopic as the easiest path to Academy gold. If both institutions continue to follow along these paths, it might not be long until a Grammy is considered entertainment's most prestigious trophy, and the mention of an Oscar is more likely to induce eye-rolls and sarcastic chuckles.
It's worth continuing to fight for progress at these award shows, because they do have a cultural impact that still matters. Following the Grammys, Musgraves' "Rainbow" -- her new Golden Hour single, which she performed at the ceremonies -- spiked on the Country Airplay chart, jumping from No. 58 to No. 40 last week, already making it her biggest hit on the chart in a half-decade. (It continues to climb this week, up to No. 38.) At a time when not just Musgraves, but seemingly all female artists in the genre, are unfairly struggling to make an impact on the airwaves, her big night at the Grammys established her as a force too big to be ignored, even by country radio. If a boundary-pushing movie like Roma, The Favourite or even Black Panther had won last night, there's no telling what kind of similarly positive influence it could have had on the film industry. And if the Oscars keep rewarding norm-reinforcing, socially backwards movies like Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody, we'll never get to find out.