The Grammys are fun to complain about, because no matter how spectacular of a showcase the annual awards show may be or how many unforgettable moments take place on the stage of the Staples Center in Los Angeles, someone or something will feel spurned. Perhaps the obvious choice for album of the year gets passed over, a favorite artist is not given enough stage time for his or her performance, or the current music trends are just too blasé to handle.
Worse is when the Grammy magic is stifled by systemic problems — the categories don’t make sense, the right songs aren’t eligible, and the telecast feels about seven hours long. The first half of those Grammy woes are too subjective to fix, but the second half? That’s where we come into play.
Here are some tips to improve the Grammy Awards ceremony, in 10 (not-so-)easy steps:
1. Redefine ‘Best New Artist.’ The best new artist category, one of the four major awards given out on Grammy night, recently rewrote its rules thanks to a ghastly snub of Lady Gaga, who was ineligible to compete in the category in 2010 because her song “Just Dance” had been nominated a year earlier in one of the dance categories. Now, a performer can compete for best new artist as long as he or she “releases, during the eligibility year, the recording that first establishes the public identity of that artist or established group as a performer,” according to the Grammys website. “A GRAMMY nomination in a performance category in a prior year disqualifies an artist from competing in this category, unless the nomination came from a single or a guest spot on another artist’s recording, and the artist hadn’t yet released a full album.”
Got all that? If you do, you’re smarter than we are. Also, since that convoluted rule change took effect in 2010, James Blake was nominated after releasing his sophomore album, and Ed Sheeran was nominated one year after scoring a song of the year nod for “The A Team,” since that was technically a songwriting nomination. How about this for the new best new artist rulebook: The artist has to put out their debut single or debut album during the eligibility period in order to compete. That way, the Grammys don’t have “new” (read: not previously nominated) veteran artists clogging up the field, but if an artist takes off with a first album more than a first single (like Gaga did), they remain in the running. Cool? Cool.
2. In Fact, Let’s Redefine a Bunch of the Categories. What exactly is the difference between the alternative music album category and the rock album category? The Grammys certainly don’t seem to know — Jack White‘s Lazaretto album is nominated in the alternative field this year, while his last album, Blunderbuss was nominated for best rock album (the White Stripes were considered “alternative,” though). Meanwhile, we have best urban contemporary album and best R&B album as separate categories, as well as best R&B performance and best traditional R&B performance (“Drunk in Love” is a great R&B song according to the Grammys, but not a great traditional R&B song).
Best of luck trying to decipher the distinctions between these categories. Most music fans will simply throw their hands up and refuse to care about the fine print, but the Grammys should want casual viewers to become invested in these minor awards and the requirements that make each one unique.
3. The Gregorian Calendar Is Your Friend. Every year, the Grammys eligibility period for albums runs through the first day in October through the last day of the following September (the 57th Grammy awards will honor the albums released from Oct. 1, 2013, to Sept. 30, 2014). We understand why the Grammys operate this way — with nominations announced in December, the Recording Academy voting members need some time to digest the music released at the end of the eligibility period in order to avoid snap decisions. On the other hand, the 2015 Grammy awards will not celebrate the music released in 2014, but the music released in the last quarter of 2013 and the first three quarters of 2014. That’s not the catchiest title to hold!
The Grammys should exist with the same January-through-December rigidity of the Academy Awards, with a end-of-year flurry of new projects and nominations announced in mid-January for an early February ceremony. Who wouldn’t want to watch fourth-quarter albums like Taylor Swift‘s 1989, Nicki Minaj‘s The Pinkprint or D’Angelo‘s Black Messiah duke it out at this year’s main event? The dust has settled on the critical debates focused on those 2014 projects, and they should be eligible to appear at the 2015 show.
4. Expand Song Eligibility to Eliminate ‘Live’ Submissions. In this year’s best pop solo performance category, two “live” versions of songs, John Legend‘s “All of Me” and Pharrell Williams‘ “Happy,” are nominated, since the studio versions of the tracks were commercially released before the eligibility period began. Of course, “All of Me” and “Happy” became hits months after their original release and are No. 1 hits with positive messages that play like catnip for Grammy voters. So Legend and Williams snuck around the eligibility rules, submitted the live versions of the songs during the year of their greatest impact, and each scored Grammy nods.
Legend and Williams are far from nefarious — this act of ducking around the Grammy rules happens all the time. Adele won the best pop solo performance award in 2013 for a live version of “Set Fire to the Rain,” a song that was two years old at that point. So if it’s that easy to sneak around the rule, why have the rule at all? Get rid of the eligibility regulation that causes these live versions to pop up in major categories and just have artists re-submit songs that have not been previously nominated but they feel made the biggest impact during the eligibility period.
5. Let Metal Experts Pick the Metal Nominees. Metal music is relegated to one category, best metal performance, so no metal albums will win a Grammy this year anyway. But have you seen the metal songs up for a Grammy? Two of the tracks come from a Ronnie James Dio tribute album, and one of those songs is by Tenacious D, which is more of a comedy project than a real-life metal outfit! The past few Grammy metal winners — Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest — appear to just be the most recognizable names in the pool of nominees from their respective years. This Grammy category, perhaps more than any other, needs to be modernized immediately.
6. Pare Down the Collaborative Performances. Dan D’Addario of Time already wrote about this, and to echo him: What’s with the influx of the “Grammy Moments” that typically kill the momentum of the telecast? Occasionally, a unique performance courtesy of a contemporary star and a legendary artist can yield fascinating results, from Taylor Swift linking up with Stevie Nicks to last year’s glorious mash-up of the “Get Lucky” crew and Stevie Wonder. Too often, however, we’re left with Robin Thicke limply strutting next to Chicago or Tony Bennett crooning with Carrie Underwood — awkward fusions with only cross-demographic programming, not memorable music, in mind.
This year, Bennett will return with Lady Gaga, Tom Jones will join Jessie J, and Hozier will perform with Annie Lennox. Will they all avoid coming across as cringe-worthy as the Maroon 5/Foster the People/Beach Boys wreck of 2012? We can only pray at this point.
7. Cut the Running Time. This goes hand-in-hand with the previous suggestion, but I think we can all agree that the Grammys will forever include too many performances and stretch on about an hour past its expiration date. Last year’s spectacle included 20 performances, from nominees like Lorde and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis to legends like Metallica and Paul McCartney to a Phil Everly tribute to… well, we don’t know why Hunter Hayes performed “Invisible” last year either, but there he was. The Grammy Awards are billed as “music’s biggest night,” but that doesn’t mean it has to be music’s longest night. Cut the performance number down to 12-15, and no one will complain.
8. Present One Lifetime Achievement Award Instead of Seven. One of the strongest aspects of the Golden Globes, a patently ridiculous movie/TV awards gala, is that the telecast always blocks off a full segment for the Cecil B. DeMille Award — a lifetime achievement trophy given to one individual who gets a highlight reel, standing ovation and heartfelt speech. The Grammys give out Lifetime Achievement Awards too but spread them to seven artists each year and often race through the honors during the telecast for everyone other than the most recognizable name. Sure, the Beatles were lavishly honored in 2014, but it’s hard to remember what the Grammys did to toast their fellow Lifetime Achievement honorees the Isley Brothers, Kraftwerk andClifton Chenier.
The solution is simple: One Lifetime Achievement Award every year, with a bulked-up salute during the show. There will be many less artists that earn the honorary trophy, but that makes it all the more prestigious. And hey, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame already exists to acknowledge influential artists from every age and genre. Let the Grammys have their lone icon of the night the same way that they only have one MusicCares Person of the Year for their philanthropic branch.
9. Present Producer of the Year, Non-Classical During the Ceremony. First presented in 1975, the production award has quietly become one of the more interesting battles of the Grammy evening — and it’s never given out during the actual show. How cool would it have been to watch Dr. Dre accept his producer of the year trophy in 2001, after a dominant beginning of the millennium? Or Rick Rubin in 2007, following his illustrious work with the Dixie Chicks, Justin Timberlake and Red Hot Chili Peppers? Or Pharrell Williams last year, when his “Get Lucky”/”Blurred Lines” reign returned him to superstar status? This year, Max Martin could win his first producer of the year Grammy after a career spent re-molding pop music… and we won’t get to watch it. Bummer.
10. Make the Album of the Year & Record of the Year Categories More Iconic. This is unquestionably the biggest problem with the Grammys, and the hardest problem to fix. Whereas Oscar season is defined by months of jockeying for nomination consideration, public and private arguments about what will and should win best picture, and months of multiplex visits to make sure that you, the dutiful viewer, have watched as many nominated films as possible, the Grammy Awards just… sort of… come and go. The whole point of the Grammy Awards is to tune in for the performances, while the actual awards remain something of a byproduct of the star-studded evening, information that does not feel necessary to retain. Do you remember which album won album of the year two years ago? Do you know which Taylor Swift album won album of the year and which one was nominated but didn’t win? Can you name one song that won the record of the year award during the 2000s? For those of you that quickly rattled off Mumford & Sons‘ Babel, Taylor Swift’s Fearless and Red, and maybe a Norah Jones song or two, congratulations. Also, please understand that you are most definitely in the minority.
This year’s record of the year nominees are “Fancy” by Iggy Azalea feat. Charli XCX, “Chandelier” by Sia, “Stay With Me (Darkchild Version)” by Sam Smith, “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift and “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor. All five of those songs are pop smashes, and after this weekend, very few will actually care which of them was deemed the “record of the year.” That golden gramophone will not sway one’s personal preference within that collection of tracks, nor should it; but it’s also fun to overanalyze such trivial pop culture matters, like when Crash snatches best picture glory from Brokeback Mountain, or Shakespeare in Love stages a coup over Saving Private Ryan. There’s a level of investment in the major Oscar categories that does not exist, and may never exist, with the top trophies at the Grammys. For all the opulence of Grammy night, no one forms their historical biases on the awards doled out by this particular institution; if they did, they would look at the numbers and conclude that Kings of Leon is/was a better rock band than Nirvana.
Will the biggest album and song categories ever become cultural touchstones? It’s hard to say. The Grammys could take a major cue from the Oscars and put more stock in the nomination process, so that we obsess over which songs and albums could make the respective shortlists months in advance of their unveiling, and what nominations mean for the legacy of those projects. Or maybe the Grammys can downplay the song of the year award so that only one song category is the evening’s main event. This will be a tough process to complete, but it’s a fix that will make the Grammys all the more exciting, and let the show reach a new level of importance.