The Recording Academy needs to update its stated purpose for the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. There’s no getting around it.
For decades, the Academy has been opaque about how it chooses its winner, and it deserves to be faced with a challenge: be honest, be better, or be both.
According to the Academy, the Grammy Award for Album of the Year is awarded for “artistic achievement, technical proficiency, and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales, chart position, or critical reception.” But this is a lie. Its past three winners alone (Taylor Swift, Adele, Bruno Mars) prove that Grammy voters consider album sales and chart position the chief motivators for their decisions. Of this year’s five nominees for the award, Bruno Mars’ album 24K Magic, the eventual winner, had the most songs appear in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart: four, with another single — “Versace on the Floor” — appearing in the top 40. Adele’s 25 was the best-selling album of its year, as was Taylor Swift’s 1989.
But even if the Academy’s statement was true, it would be a seriously flawed method, to determine the best album of a given year without regarding critical reception. You can’t judge a work of art without investigating how it stands against its peers, those of the present and the past. This is the job of a critic — an invaluable service. As it stands, the Recording Academy couldn’t be more out of touch.
Why does it matter? you may be wondering. So Kendrick Lamar didn’t win Album of the Year — so what?
George Saunders, the fiction writer who recently won the Man Booker Prize for his experimental novel Lincoln in the Bardo, told The Guardian that when he receives praise, it helps him “be a little bit more brave.” In a world that’s all about the Benjamins, in which art is endlessly asked to compromise to rake in the dough, artists need as much support as they can get to create art that questions the status quos of their medium and our society. Great art depicts us as who we are, while it also shows us who we can be. If we don’t give it the attention it deserves, and reward it accordingly, fewer artists will be brave enough to give us work like Kendrick Lamar’s sonically raw Christian social justice commentary To Pimp a Butterfly; Lorde’s boundary-testing, lyrically complex Melodrama; or Beyoncé’s soul-bearing, historically sweeping musical project Lemonade.
Giving great art its proper due could also lead our entertainment industries — and our world — in the direction of giving proper due to the marginalized communities from which many of its creators come. As it stands, the Recording Academy falters in this way as well. Of the five artists nominated for this year’s Grammy Award for Album of the Year, the singer-songwriter Lorde is the only woman. The four other artists were each given the opportunity to perform solo on last night’s Grammy Awards telecast, but Lorde was reportedly only asked to perform with someone else — and not to sing her own songs, but Tom Petty’s.
A Tom Petty tribute performance is nice, but not at the expense of exploring the future of music.
When asked about the slight against Lorde, Grammy Awards telecast producer Ken Ehrlich said, “We have a box and it gets full ... There’s no way we can really deal with everybody.”
The Recording Academy has a track record of not honoring work by women — according to the New York Times, only 9 percent of the winners of the past six Grammy Awards, excluding last night’s ceremony, were women. Neil Portnow, who has been president of the Recording Academy for fifteen years, had this to say about potential change:
“It has to begin with ... women who have the creativity in their hearts and souls, who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, producers, and want to be part of the industry on the executive level ... [They need] to step up because I think they would be welcome.”
Neil Portnow’s statement directly discredits at least one performer at the Grammys on Sunday: the singer-songwriter Kesha, who led several women in an incredible performance in the name of the #MeToo movement. Far from failing to “step up,” Kesha has spent months fighting legal battles against Dr. Luke — the producer she alleges sexually assaulted her — after years of being shut out by the industry for refusing to play along.
Despite their faults, Neil Portnow, the Recording Academy, and the Grammy Awards still hold a prestigious place in our culture. Right now, they seem poised to keep it. Merriam-Webster defines “prestigious” as “having prestige,” but also “of, relating to, or marked by illusion, conjuring, or trickery.”
If we’re being honest, the Grammy Awards have never been about the former. The latter is a much more fitting description.