The Popular Awards

By Jacob Bretz America's most iconic music award show aired on Feb. 15 of this year. Through the course of the ceremony, dreams were realized or crushed, tears were shed, laughs were had—some really great music was recognized for the genius it is. But none of it mattered.

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To be sure, the Grammy Awards show is a prolific event in entertainment industry. Incredible exposure is promised to any musician even mentioned in passing during the televised event. Every acceptance speech seems a heartfelt thank you to the artist’s loved ones, support team, and the voting committee. Still, the Grammys flaws are impossible to ignore. As the "only peer-based music award,” they too often miss the mark of categorization, nomination and commendation. Also, there is a massive bias in terms of genre and popularity. While troubling, neither of these things really matter, because as a whole, giving awards to a pursuit as open-ended and artistic as music is not just ridiculous but totally regressive.

If the aim of the Grammys is to entertain, then it surely succeeds. Who could forget Taylor Swift and Stevie Nick’s performance of “Landslide” in 2010 or Gwyneth Paltrow and Cee-Lo Green’s rendition of “Forget You” with the starring cast of the Muppets? The Grammys is an awards show and the aim of an awards show, at least in part, is to entertain. That is not something the producers of the show could be faulted for. They are meant to be a celebration of music, both past and present. If the Grammys broadcast was simply the listing of all nominees and winners, not a single person in America would tune in. There needs to be excitement and pizzazz to hold viewers’ attention.

This entertainment, however, often seems empty. The Civil Wars riveting performance in the 2012 show was little more than a minute long, yet Rihanna and Coldplay were allotted 9 whole minutes to perform three songs that impacted the music scene far less than the seminal Civil Wars album. The film "A Place at the Table" not only cemented the Civil Wars’ place in the folk music scene, but also helped usher in an era of honest Americana that western music has not recovered from since. The performances chosen for the Grammys are based on neither merit nor talent, but on sheer popularity. Sure, there have been plenty of good performances at the Grammys over the years: the White Stripes, Frank Ocean, Radiohead, even Kendrick Lamar. None of these performers are chosen based on talent, but rather by popularity. However, this is not the glaring issue with the Grammys.

Beyond the issue of the performances of the Grammys, most of the nominations are flawed for a plethora of reasons. Often times, lesser known artists are slapped into the wrong categories and sometimes the best albums in a given category are left out of the application process altogether. In 1989, Metallica—perhaps the most iconic heavy metal group of all time—lost the first ever Grammy for a hard rock/heavy metal performance to Jethro Tull. Let me repeat that, a band whose main melodic instrument is a flute beat "And Justice for All." Even today, artists are consistently left out of their rightful categories. This year, Ghost won the Grammy for best metal performance. While Ghost conveys a particularly devilish attitude, their music barely holds any stylistic semblance to heavy metal. I won't even mention Elle King’s pop hit “Ex’s & Oh’s” nomination for Best Rock Song.

Besides the issues of categorization, the Grammys refuse to nominate plenty of worthy contestants to different categories. Where was the love this year for Vince Staples, Mick Jenkins, Lupe Fiasco, or A$AP Rocky in any hip-hop category? As for the Heavy Metal Performance Grammy, basically every important release was left out of the nominations—Cattle Decapitation’s “The Anthropocene Extinction,” High on Fire’s “Luminiferous,” and especially heavy metal pioneers Iron Maiden’s “The Book of Lost Souls.” It appears that not only do the various nomination committees not understand how to categorize artists properly, but they also fail to recognize significant performances within their respective genres.

It's easy to get caught up in the ineffectiveness of awards organization. Too often critics—myself included—struggle with the particularities of a certain awards show rather than criticizing the construct that is entertainment awards. If you would please then, look past the misrepresentation and under-representation. See the Grammys for what it truly is: bullshit.

If that seems too forward, let me paint this picture for you. The Grammys process starts with eight members of a specific genre’s screening committee meeting in a room. The only requirement for joining one of the committees is six or more credits on some sort of project within a specific genre. This can include performance, composition, engineering, arrangement, or even the writing of album liner notes—just about any job within the music industry qualifies.

So after this handful of so-called “experts” are rounded up, they sit in a room and are handed a stack of albums to pick through and categorize. After these albums are categorized, members of the voting committee may choose to vote in any five categories plus the big four—Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist. There is no prerequisite for voting in specific nominations. Then, an even larger sample of the committee gets to vote on which of the nominees actually deserve the award.

So in the end, the winners are chosen by no more than a handful of people. The majority of these voters have little to no participation in the fields voted on. Does that not seem an inherently flawed system? This is why the Grammys should not be taken seriously, because the system does not allow for serious consideration of musicians.

Beyond concerns of structural issues, there persists the philosophical question of whether artistic pursuits should compete at all. Is it really the aim of the performances recognized at the Grammys to win? Does winning some symbolic award really add any merit to an artist’s work? Recognition is great, but competition, I am not so sure. Winning a Grammy does little to legitimize a work, it does nothing to add to its longevity. What happened to art for art’s sake? When an artist does win a Grammy that is good and fine, but when an artist fails to succeed, that may devalue a recording in the eyes of the public. Because of this, it is morally irresponsible to support art awards ceremonies.

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So sure, watch the Grammys, watch the Oscars, watch the Tonys, but know that these awards are skewed. Awards ceremonies are a farce and, worse than that, they are pointless.