There’s a thread of predictability that runs through every Grammy’s night. An artist or group performs, and following that performance, an award is announced where said artist is typically nominated. The camera pans to the other nominees—if present, they’ll be seated and looking indifferent (since they know the drill)—as the artist who just performed waits backstage, nervously awaiting the results. That artist wins, taking the very short walk from the side of the stage to the front again, in presumably feigned disbelief that they were even a contender.
For nearly six decades, the Grammy’s televised elements of suspense have moved from cuteness to consternation, almost like now watching a season of MTV’s The Real World, already knowing that someone will skinny dip in the first episode. It’s merely a symptom of how the Grammy Awards have struggled to play on the emotions of both the artists and fans, leaving everyone more aggravated than entertained. It’s become a drained spectator sport, but begs the question of just how relevant the Grammy’s are when everyone has seemingly tuned out?
In 2005, on the song “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” Kanye West declared “Grammy night, damn right, we got dressed up!” yet a little over a decade later he was boycotting the ceremony over lack of diversity in nominees—a problem that has persisted since 1959 when the ceremony first aired. Much like the Oscars, the Grammy’s exist as the bright and shiny celebration of fame, as the purveyors of art shake hands and kiss asses at the intersection of relaxed and uptight.
Its glitches don’t really become apparent until 1989, when the first rap-related Grammy was awarded to DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince for Best Rap Performance of “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” The award wasn’t even televised, and hip hop was already 16 years old. It spoke immediately to the dearth of knowledge that the Grammy’s board had in emerging music. Artists like LL Cool J, Kool Moe Dee, J.J. Fad, and Salt-N-Pepa were nominated, though the most hyper-commercial duo won. Not-so-coincidentally, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air would air a year later. It conflicted drastically with the Award show’s mission to “honor artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position.” Still, it was during that year that the Grammy boycotts first began. Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen started the movement, with artists jumping in to support. Over the years, the primarily hip hop-inspired boycotts (save for Justin Bieber’s absence last year) stemmed from the preferential treatment of the most over-popularized (often white) nominees.
Grammy Board members are urged to only weigh in on their respective musical expertise when determining the nominations, though the results never seem to make the mark. “Like much of the industry, [The Grammy’s] have been slow to recognize the quickly changing tide and the power and diversity of young artists and how fans are listening to their music,” explains Dana Meyerson, a Partner at Biz 3.
In 2011, the Grammy’s trimmed their categories from 109 to 78, in response to the theory that the oversaturation of awards ultimately weakened the power of them. It currently sits at 84 categories, with additions and subtractions made over the years, following music industry fluctuations (including finally considering streaming music numbers in the voting process).
This coming year, the 60th Grammy Awards are the theoretical crossroads for the ceremony. 2015 was the coup de grâce for many, considering hip hop was once again shafted on the televised front (after Macklemore beat Kendrick Lamar the year prior) and Beck beat Beyoncé for Album of the Year (though many will argue he deserved that win for twenty years). This year, Drake didn’t even bother to submit his work for consideration, riding on the heels of his displeasure that “Hotline Bling” was categorized as “rap” a year prior and alleging that his latest project, More Life, is a mixtape and not an album. He may have experienced some hindsight regret, considering the Grammy’s this year have made a valiant attempt to maintain relevancy, starting with the diversity of the nominees.
Legends like JAY-Z are re-entering the conversation, along with neophytes like Cardi B who have jumped in the running without an album. Categories like Rock and Country have taken a back seat, perhaps reversing the alleged whitewashing of years prior. “The art that was placed out there forced their hand,” says Jermaine Hall Vice President and Managing Editor, Digital at BET. “The Academy is about high-quality music content. The Grammy’s are the biggest accolade that you can receive as a musician. For them to not recognize Kendrick [Lamar], JAY-Z and Bruno [Mars], who are producing incredible bodies of work—that just happen to be Black music—would have been a misstep.” While the upper crust of Black music (which is now more or less pop music) is represented, artists like A Tribe Called Quest were still left out of any nominations in 2018 for their final album We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, indicative of the learning curve that’s still present. “It certainly seems like it,” Meyerson says when asked if the Grammy’s are taking another stab at relevance. “That said, I’m on Team Q-Tip [of A Tribe Called Quest].”
It could be a situation of “too little, too late,” though that isn’t the case with the Grammy’s, at least not statistically. Last year, the televised ceremony saw a 4 percent jump in viewers, following two years of dipping ratings. That means people still care, and given their newly minted move toward variety, the Grammy’s may be on track to finally catching up. It only took sixty years. “This is a step in the right direction. It’s fair and just based on the music landscape,” adds Hall. “Next year if rock or pop have major moments that deliver high-level music than we should all be fine if the tables turn. But they can’t turn for the sake of turning. The music has to be the deciding factor.”
Are the Grammy’s still relevant? Absolutely. “Overall, the large majority of artists will be there on Grammy’s night,” says Lipshutz. It’s attempted to ride the waves of music—sometimes crashing, other times staying afloat. The ceremony is still a work in progress, though the gestures of change prove they’re open to flexibility. And like most things, that leads to longevity–while they’re not the only ceremony to celebrate musical talent, they’re the longest running one to date. As both compliments and insults are still being flung in the Grammy’s direction, it reflects emotions either way. Until universal apathy sets in, the Grammy’s are here to stay.