What’s Wrong with the Grammys?

And what can they do about it?

Sam Zelitch
Jan 11, 2019 · 4 min read

Award show season is upon us again. Did you see Dr. Brian May celebrating at the Golden Globes with Rami Malek? A testament to the real reason we give awards, which is not to single out any one performer over another, but to bring people together.

Perhaps more than any other award show, the Grammys have suffered skepticism from media, public intellectuals, and musicians for their alleged sexism, racism, and general unfairness. Cosmopolitan has called them “bull.” Future has produced an anti-Grammy diss track.

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By the time of the first Grammys ceremony in 1959, the Emmys and Oscars were already red ink in the entertainment industry calendar, annual rituals to celebrate the growth and changes in two budding industries. And while the Oscars and Emmys seemed to reflect the changing times in their respective industries, it could take a recording artist years to receive recognition from the Grammys for their work, some not at all. The list of game-changing recording artists who never received a Grammy gives one pause. Among them:

  • Tupac Shakur
  • Run D.M.C.
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • ABBA
  • Chuck Berry
  • Diana Ross
  • Parliament/Funkadelic
  • The Sex Pistols
  • Oasis

(source: Digital Music News)

Yes, art is largely subjective, and the public will always quibble over who deserved what award, who got shafted, who needs to go home, why Kendrick Lamar lost out to Macklemore for Best New Artist (a choice even Macklemore regretted). But the negative response to the Grammys is more than just aesthetics. It gets to the heart of what differentiates music from other forms of expression.

Take Kendrick Lamar, who’s up this year for eight Grammys, the most by one person. In Kendrick’s albums, he often raps about himself, his upbringing, his feelings about the world. That’s not to say he can’t play a character from time to time, or even tell a fib, but by-and-large his music is based on the life and times of Kendrick Lamar. A similar assumption happens, I think, when we listen to all kinds of music. The lyrics are usually written in the first person, with very few cues telling us that this might be a work of fiction. This differs from film and television, where actors, directors, and writers win awards for telling invented stories about other people.

With this kind of intimate access to the thoughts and experiences of artists, it can’t be surprising when fans feel personally hurt by the strange decisions made by the Grammys. But it also can’t be surprising that, with their current model, the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences won’t seek to respond by differentiating their award show so that it reflects the unique quality that music brings to the artistic feast.

I won’t suggest that future technology should work to measure the emotional impact of music on us, as even science claims that mystery is far from being solved. I will suggest that if the Grammys wanted to win back credibility with their audience, they might consider looking deeper into the data.

Because the data wonks are winning. When Spotify released their 2018 Wrapped page late last year, Twitter blew up with ideas about what that meant.

People were either dismayed or pleasantly surprised, but either their findings supercharged the Spotify brand online. Spotify Wrapped represents an amazing use of modern technology, and something really only possible for music. (I was personally thrilled to discover how much John Coltrane I listened to in 2018. I’m not sure I would like Netflix to tell me how many hours I spent watching Frasier.)

Spotify Wrapped is entertainment technology at its best. Unlike most entertainment industry data, Spotify Wrapped shows you a picture of you, apart from the gross data inflated by huge marketing budgets. If you were peeved by the Drake takeover of Spotify this summer, you won’t see any Drake in your Spotify Wrapped.

This personalization is something the Grammys — and the larger music industry — have mostly ignored, to their detriment. It makes me imagine a people’s award show, where we could come together as a community to determine the most meaningful music experiences, where artists are rewarded for years of hard work and developing their talents, where the scale is tipped away from the huge artists who get big boosts from their labels’ marketing budgets.

And what’s next? Certainly, Spotify Wrapped sets a precedent for how to build communities on the best of technology. And like the best of technology, award shows should work to bring us together.

Are you listening, Grammys?


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