A Controversial Grammy Night

Technology has changed not just how music is transmitted but also how it is made, helping independent artists become national sensations in a matter of months.  The Grammys, however, are designed to reward talented artists and musical excellence. The challenge is when the “flavor of the week” overshadows a distinguished act.

On February 20th, the New York Times published a long and passionate plea from renowned hip-hop producer Steve Stout that questioned the selection methods at the Grammys.[i] Many were quick to label this as an artist’s publicity stunt, but Stout’s brief produced reactions globally, and not just from fans but the creative community and industry professionals.  Had the Grammys lost touch with mainstream culture?

The Recoding Academy maintains that the Grammy Awards are “awarded to artists and technical professionals for artistic or technical achievement, not sales or chart positions.” Commercial success should have little bearing, if any, on a Grammy. ‘Artistic achievement’, of course, is a loaded phrase encompassing much meaning.   Therein lies the difficulty—and this in spite of the openness of the voting by members of the Academy and the strict criteria for selection, including “no less than creative or technical credits on six commercially released tracks, or their equivalent”.  The reader can consult terms at http://www.grammy.org/recording-academy/awards/voting-process.

As members on the nomination committee are industry professionals, the yearly winners can often be at odds with public opinion, for the criteria is not usually congruent with that of the casual music listener.  This begs an important point. If the Academy’s choice does not fit into our current cultural and musical mosaic, could it lose touch and deny accolades to the talent in society that is most loved?

Advocates of the advancement of music as an art form will say that it is good to promote artists who, in their own individual way, are guiding music to new and unexplored places. However, critics cite occurrences of grandfathered artists stealing Grammy awards with a mediocre album or song. An example that is often quoted is Eric Clapton’s 1992 win for Layla. At the time, it was believed that Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit should have made the honor.

Still, the Grammys do advance the cause of album sales for lesser known, but promising talent. Artists like Lauryn Hill and Alanis Morissette, although definitely not anonymous by any means before their respective wins, saw up to six digit boosts in album sales, and this propelled their careers to new heights. Another example is Esperanza Spalding, winner of 2011 Best New Artist. Spalding has witnessed a nearly five-fold increase in album sales to date (www.grammy.org). In fact, one would be hard pressed to find any past winner of the big awards whose sales failed to grow after the televised show. The Recording Academy, in short, has a key role in promoting new artists in the marketplace.

Yet the Recording Academy does not necessarily have just music sales in mind.  Esperanza Spalding’s talent and genius are unquestionable, but her jazz-based target audience seems limited for a Best Artist of the Year award. If the Academy had wanted to reach a larger audience, they would have picked Justin Beiber, who’s mellow and bland pop tunes seem to have the capacity of reaching millions. Interestingly, Bieber did not seem to need the award as much. Digital album sales of his Never Say Never increased by two-thirds after this year’s Award Ceremony (www.grammy.org).

It is also important to note that while there will always be some debate as to the legitimacy of the awardees, the Academy has clearly made significant efforts to keep the various performances seen during the ceremony in line with popular culture. For instance, this year’s performers included Lady Gaga, Eminem, Katy Perry, Drake and Rihanna, all of whom are international pop icons.

Perhaps the approach to determining the role of a music artist in our ever-changing culture has been defined too narrowly. What if the scope of their engagement to society is not to fulfill one specific goal but instead to fill many of them simultaneously? Using this explanation, the general unpredictability of the results becomes much more understandable as goals may vary from ceremony to ceremony or even from award to award. Although the legitimacy of some of the past winners is debatable, one cannot overestimate the positive impact the Grammy’s have had on the promotion of music through media.

Finally, it has to be said that Steve Stout’s grievances may have some validity. The Recording Academy did use the most popular artists of the day to promote a show full of upsets. But this compromise over TV ratings should not be viewed as defining the Academy over time. Choosing the Grammy Awards is a complex proposition for many of its voting members. The choices they make both promote sales and contribute to music’s general appreciation. The Recording Academy should be judged on a variety of fronts.

By Frederic Choquette



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