BE BETTER

How to Make the Stale Grammy Awards Relevant Again

Rewarding black artists would be a good start.

Christopher Polk/Getty

To be sure, bitching about the Grammy Awards from one angle or another is as much a January tradition as the State Of the Union. Piling on “Music’s Biggest Night” has for many years been like shooting ducks in a barrel. But in a way, The Recording Academy has itself to blame for being such an easy target—music fans (and journalists) make for a cruel mistress, and when you’ve got 84 awards in 30 fields and a three-and-a-half-hour show stuffed with 20 performances across multiple genres, you’re bound to catch flak on a few fronts.

And credit where it’s due: the Grammys have made slow and steady strides toward relevance in recent years, both in term of who gets nominated and wins, and who gets time on stage—never more so than this year, when at long last The Recording Academy seems to have realized that hip-hop defines pop culture, as it has for at least a quarter century.  

Still, there’s room for improvement—both in terms of the broadcast and the awards themselves. The only way the Grammys will continue to improve is if we look at them as a glass half empty. So on the eve of its 60th Anniversary, a few modest proposals on how “Music’s Biggest Night” might make strides toward becoming music’s most important one.  

1. RUFFLE SOME FEATHERS

Why, oh why, is Stephen Colbert not hosting the Grammy Awards? The most trenchant man in late night has had a banner year thanks to the inspired ferocity of his opposition to President Donald Trump. I love me some James Corden as much as the next person—he knows music, he’s been known to speak his mind on occasion, and he was a welcome presence when he took the reins in 2017 after five straight years of the utterly anodyne LL Cool J. But right now what this show needs is sharp elbows, and CBS has the man in its ranks to deliver them.

On the performance front, we know that Kendrick Lamar will open tomorrow’s show, and that’s exciting—no rapper has opened the Grammys since Jay-Z joined Beyoncé on her “Drunk In Love” in 2014. But he’ll be joined for the opener by U2, presumably for a mash-up of the Grammy-nominated DAMN’s “XXX” which features the Irishmen, and “American Soul” from U2’s Songs of Experience, which opens with Lamar’s words, “Blessed are the bullies, for one day they will have to stand up for themselves.” The TV in the White House may want to have the mute button at the ready. All respect to Bono and the gents, and God knows they’re longtime Grammy favorites, but something about this feels like four white guys being added to the opening to mollify those viewers who might be put off by Kendrick on his own, doing “DNA” or “Humble.” The Grammys would no doubt call it unity, but it’s also having it both ways.

The Grammys reflexively go for the familiar, like a moth to a flame—CBS, the show’s broadcaster and the fustiest of networks, no doubt has a hand in that.

Likewise, hallelujah that as the Grammys return to New York for the first time in fifteen years, Bronx native-made-good Cardi B has a performance slot. But again, it’s with the more mainstream-palatable Bruno Mars, for the New Jack-styled remix of “Finesse” from his 24K Magic. A very current choice, to be sure—the remix was only released earlier this month—but also a less edgy one than allowing Cardi to do her own “Bodak Yellow,” “No Limit” and “Motor Sport”—the singles that put her in the Billboard Top 10 and made her one of the best breakthrough stories of 2017.

One of tomorrow night’s most somber moments will come when country stars Eric Church, Maren Morris and Brothers Osborne play a tribute to the victims of the Route 91 Harvest music festival massacre in Las Vegas on October 1. It’s an important, touching gesture. Also important would be a moment to address why this obscene mass killing was allowed to occur—and continues to with horrifying regularity in America. Bruce Springsteen’s “41 Shots,” Vic Mensa’s “16 Shots” and even the four-decade-old “I Don’t Like Mondays” by The Boomtown Rats all got it. But don’t hold your breath for the Grammys to, in unison, take a stand against guns.

2. FOLLOW THROUGH ON YOUR HIP-HOP PROGRESS

The Grammys got deserved kudos when nominations were announced in November and rap more than ever got its due: Jay-Z led the field with eight nods coming from 4:44, his mid-life contemplation of life, career, family and fidelity, the sort of record that is rare in hip-hop, still mostly a young man’s game; and Lamar was just behind with seven nominations. They were joined in the rap categories by such of-the-moment names as Migos and Lil Uzi Vert—who even landed a surprise nod for Best New Artist. Tyler, The Creator’s adventurous Flower Boy, too, is in the running for Best Rap Album.

But the Grammys can’t be said to have fully embraced hip-hop until the genre breaks the awards’ de facto glass ceiling of winning in its most prestigious “Big Three” categories: Album, Record, and Song Of the Year. The stat can’t be repeated enough: it’s been fourteen years since Outkast was the last hip-hop record to win Album of the Year, a span in which albums by Drake, Lil Wayne, Eminem, Kanye West (3) and Kendrick (2) all were nominated for the top prize, but lost to the likes of Adele, Taylor Swift, and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Will Kendrick or Jay-Z break the drought and be standing at the podium at the end of the night tomorrow? Maybe.

And while they’re at it, it wouldn’t hurt to have some hip-hop figures as Grammy presenters either. The last time a rapper presented? Queen Latifah introducing Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ performance in 2014, and before that, Drake and Common presented in 2012. Presenters matter—it’s a way of saying who you are as a show.

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3. DO SOMETHING ABOUT THOSE ROCK AWARDS, PLEASE 

You’ve gotten better—way better—about hip-hop. Now how about doing the same with rock? Granted, it’s a genre whose relevance has long been in decline, but that doesn’t mean the rock categories have to, every year, be so lazily populated with household-name veterans who’ve been at it for decades. To be sure, there is the occasional current breakthrough—The War on Drugs’ acclaimed A Deeper Understanding landed a Best Rock Album nomination this year, but it has to be considered a long shot in a category with Metallica and Mastodon. The biggest shock is that Foo Fighters weren’t nominated for that same award for their Concrete and Gold, as they seem to have a reserved spot in the category with every album.

The Best Alternative Music Album category—a dated name that needs to be changed—is equally predictable. All this year’s five nominees have previously been up for Grammys—and one, Arcade Fire, won Album of the Year in 2011. This time though, they’re up for the poorly-reviewed Everything Now, while lesser-known indie artists including Julien Baker, Perfume Genius, Mount Eerie, Waxahatchee and Algiers, all of whom delivered excellent work, were overlooked. Relevance and credibility aren’t only qualities to aspire to in the rap categories.

Rock doesn’t have to be 40+ white dudes. Even Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong—a 40+ white dude himself—has bemoaned the lack of love for under-30 rock bands, from awards show and radio programmers alike. There are plenty of young bands playing exciting and vital rock—the UK’s Shame have one of the best-reviewed albums of a still-young 2018. Does this exhilarating post-punk outfit have a prayer of registering on the Grammys’ radar come next year’s awards? I’d love to say yes, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

4. LOOK FORWARD, NOT BACK

What the hell was that Pentatonix cover of The Jackson Five’s “ABC” in last year’s show all about? It was as random as it gets, and felt like nothing more than an excuse to wedge in another familiar blast-from-the-past into to an already long show. The Grammys reflexively go for the familiar, like a moth to a flame—CBS, the show’s broadcaster and the fustiest of networks, no doubt has a hand in that. Tributes to music legends, dead or alive, are a given, and in recent years they’ve gotten out of control: Bob Marley, Levon Helm, Dave Brubeck, Adam Yauch, Phil Everly, The Beach Boys, Prince and George Michael are among the artists who’ve received tributes on the show since 2013. And in 2016? Whoa, was it stuffed. In one show alone, we got tributes to Lionel Richie, Glenn Frey, Maurice White, Michael Jackson, B.B. King, Lemmy and David Bowie (a 10-song medley by Lady Gaga and Nile Rodgers). This year’s tributes haven’t been announced, but it’s hard to imagine that after a year in which we lost Tom Petty, Fats Domino, Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, that they won’t each get remembered, and not just as part of an In Memoriam.

Those are all giants and deserving of recognition but, dear God, that’s a lot of time devoted to oldies, even in a three-hour show. The conceit here seems to be: we know our audience skews older, so as long as you deliver a familiar old chestnut at regular intervals throughout the night, you can keep reeling them in. That thinking—peppering the young with the old—is what led to the Grammys’ tried and true gimmick of cross-generational artists performing together. Sir Paul McCartney has played with an eclectic bunch: Rihanna and Kanye West in 2015 and Jay-Z and Linkin Park in 2006. Only one such pairing has been announced so far for this year: Elton John with Miley Cyrus—timely for the Rocket Man, who’s just announced an upcoming farewell tour, and a way on the show for the newly family-friendly Miley, who wasn’t nominated. If that were the only one, it would be fine with me, as the vets-with-youngsters thing feels played out. Look forward once in a while, Grammys! Matter of fact, feature performances from artists with upcoming albums—vets Madonna, Jack White and Christina Aguilera would fit the bill nicely this year, as would young guns Rae Sremmurd and Troye Sivan. Now that would be a forward look.

5. IN CONCLUSION

Nineteen-year-old R&B sensation Khalid—up for five Grammys tomorrow, including Best New Artist—told Billboard earlier this week that his “whole life is going to change” if he wins even one. While I’m not sure that’s true—Khalid’s life has changed and will continue to change if he keeps making records as good his debut LP American Teen, Grammy or not—it’s clear that winning a Grammy still means something to many. But here’s a tip, Academy: let other people say that, unprompted. As we’ve seen with our president’s insistence on telling us how smart he is, sometimes it’s best to say nothing, and let your significance speak for itself. “Music’s Biggest Night” has been a trademarked phrase since the mid-2000s. Let that sink in. The Grammys felt it important enough that no one else use the phrase that they now own it. That is some Super Bowl and Olympics-level behavior. Likewise, annual segments on the Grammy site touting previous winners’ “First Grammy Memory” or fondest Grammy moment are self-congratulatory to the point of feeling defensive. We get it: there’s a ton of televised music awards shows out there, something the Oscars don’t have to contend with. You feel like you need to assert preeminence, set yourself apart. But really, relax. We know you’re special, so stop reminding us.

How about handing out a few more trophies in your now three-and-a-half-hour broadcast? I realize the awards themselves may mean more to those of us in the Fourth Estate than others in the audience, but they also mean something to the nominees, and more than ten ought to be given a moment on national television, including some genre categories—electronic, alternative, roots, perhaps—that just might expand your image ever so slightly. So knock the performances down to say, 18, and let a couple more winners shine.

Finally, Grammys, you know, you’ve created this perennial whining from observers because a long time ago you decided to try and be all things to all people—young and old, staid but cool, populist but credible, and now 84 categories—84!—from Liner Notes to Instrumental or A Cappella Arrangements, American Roots to Tropical Latin, World Music, Spoken Word, Contemporary Christian, ad infinitum. Ambitious doesn’t begin to describe it, and that’s a lot of masters to serve. It’s all predicated on the idea that, to paraphrase seven-time Grammy winner Madonna, music makes the people come together. And…it kind of doesn’t. Not only are the rebel and the bourgeoisie more divided than ever, but our musical lives are self-curated playlists we share with balkanized, like-minded listeners. The musical monoculture is no more—we only have brief glimmers of it in the form of songs as ubiquitous as “Despacito,” which has the inside track to win Song or Record of the Year, or both.

So the challenge is big—to get disparate groups of people, from those who need that Tom Petty tribute to those who’d rather hear Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang”—to care. And then you get us in the peanut gallery moaning about it all. But we appreciate the progress. If your evolution on hip-hop is any indication, you’re on the right track. It’s not that we don’t love you, Grammys. But we could love you a heck of a lot more.