Why The Grammys Will Forever Be Broken


The full list of Grammy nominees are here and, as always, most of us can agree that there is some absurd stuff going on in there. Most of us won’t agree about exactly which parts are absurd, but we’ve long understood that the Grammys are hugely inadequate. They pick weird nominees, weirder winners, define genres in unfamiliar ways, don’t know what a “new comer” is and sometimes the politics are frustratingly obvious. They’re broken, and they will be for the foreseeable future. Music as a culture has grown too massive and music as a product has become a utility that resists easy canonization.

The problem is that we need music awards shows to present some kind of generally agreeable consensus, because that the way they used to do it. It’s what the Oscars still do today. Sure, the Academy will get on the wrong side of history every so often, but their errors are less common and less egregious than the Grammys. Their flubs have come to define the ceremony in a way that the warts of the Oscars don’t. While i’m sure some film festival darlings don’t get consideration, and there are always debatable snubs, it’s hard to argue with that the nominees routinely lack quality or are undeserving.

What’s different about music is that there’s access to so much of it now and we consume it at lightning speeds. It’s never been easier to dive deep into subcultures, build discerning taste and develop our own canon. Much has been written about the death of monoculture in music: with no singular radio playlist to point to to show clear genre lines and authoritative popularity indicators, there is nothing that resembles a modern music canon. You can no longer look at what KROQ plays and see what’s hot in alternative music — at best they have the capacity to promote just a few dozen new songs amidst their Nirvana, Sublime and Blink 182 mainstays.

Imagine, for a moment, that there was an awards show for Best Food. Every year, an academy of knowledgeable chefs and food critics would get together and vote for the best meal.

The same goes for the Grammys. With so much out there, picking 6 songs will always be insufficient, and more than any other art form, trying to objectivize the wildly variable tastes out there is a losing bid. It just doesn’t make any sense. Music acts like a utility now that to try and define its year is like trying to define the year in water.

Imagine, for a moment, that there was an awards show for Best Food. Every year, an academy of knowledgeable chefs and food critics would get together and vote for the best meal. And every year, they would nominate the same institutions. Meal of the Year would invariably involve Salisbury Steak, Skittles, Foie Gras and Apples. Imagine how impotent the whole ceremony of declaring “best meal” is, when there’s an endless variation of it out there, when so much of it depends on the consumer. Not only is it hard to build consensus, the very idea of even trying to build a consensus is ridiculous.

That ridiculousness is what we feel during some of the Grammys most notorious recent “flubs”: Herbie Hancock taking the top prize out of nowhere over Amy Winehouse in 2008; the creeping suspicion that they invented the “Urban Contemporary R&B Category” to make sure Frank Ocean got a trophy because they steadfastly refused to concede “Album of the Year” to him; Arcade Fire winning for “The Suburbs” when they should’ve been on the radar for 2004’s “Funeral,” but the Grammys are never cutting edge relevance.

That hasn’t happened with films yet because the means of production aren’t as open. You can’t make a great 120 minute film in your bedroom. Even if you could, there is no widespread, portable and simple service that allows us instant access to the work everyone is doing. And even if there was, there are only so many hours in a day. Only the most dedicated film fanatics would be able to watch a hundred films in a year. So unless we start valuing short films on the level we value feature length films, the Oscars are safe from this type of dilution and irrelevance.

The Grammys, though? They’re cursed. Their legitimacy is purely supported by faith at this point. We’re all just clapping our hands and making Tinkerbell is real. I’m sure it’s nice to have one, and I’ll bet it looks great on a shelf. But it’s only a benchmark because we, as fans and critics and people talking about music, want it to mean something so when “our guy” wins there will be some validation.

With all that said, we’ll be doing our end of the year awards next week.

Justin Pansacola is a writer living in Los Angeles. At the University of California, Riverside he received his degree in Creative Writing, not English, although he has resigned to the fact that no one cares about the difference. You can follow him on Twitter @wordcore. On some nights he looks up at the moon and wonders if you’re looking at the same moon, too.

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