Last Monday marked the 58th Grammy Awards, the annual award show that recognizes the best music of the past year in various categories. The night is always full of spectacle, as the music industry’s heaviest hitters come together under one roof for a night of bombastic performances, emotional ballads and touching tributes. In a time when music distribution is at its most scattered, with streaming and illegal downloads outnumbering both physical and digital sales, the Grammys work to assure us that popular music is still a unified force working to reflect the minds and attitudes of culture at large.
But do the Grammys represent an accurate picture of pop culture today?
2015 was a year in which great music was constantly being released. Drake’s surprise “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late” began a seemingly constant flow of great releases, some of which we knew would likely not be recognized by the Grammys (see Sufjan Stevens’ “Carrie & Lowell”) and others of which had the potential to bring in numerous awards.
One release in particular stands above the rest of the great albums released in 2015, an album that was deemed “classic” the moment it was heard: Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly.” The album is massively ambitious and politically charged, covering topics from greed and personal depression to and the cost of celebrity status, but above all, it is Kendrick Lamar’s portrayal of what it means to be black in America today. The album uses soul samples, a full jazz band and complex arrangements to present music that sounds as focused and bold as its subject matter. This was an album designed to make a statement, and the statement resonated; “To Pimp a Butterfly” seemed to be inspire culture just as much as it drew from it, with the Black Lives Matter movement adopting the song “Alright” as a unifying chant at rallies and marches. As noted by collaborator Pharrell Williams, an album has not been ingrained this much into the social politics of America since Bob Dylan’s “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” in 1963.
Kendrick Lamar was nominated for 11 Grammys this year, just one shy of Michael Jackson’s record of 12 nominations for “Thriller,” and while it won five of those nominations, there was one category in particular that it missed out on: Album of the Year. Taylor Swift’s album “1989” was released in the calendar year 2014, but due to the Grammys’ cut-off rules was eligible for this year’s awards. It ended up beating Kendrick for the album of the year, which is not necessarily surprising given the Grammys’ history of ignoring hip-hop, but, when evaluated further, says something about the value of the Grammys.
While there always seems to be disagreement between critical acclaim and award show recognition, this year in particular begs the question of the Grammys’ relevance. In 2015 Rolling Stone Magazine, Pitchfork, Spin, Billboard and Guardian, the top publications in music criticism, all placed “To Pimp a Butterfly” at No. 1 on their top 50 albums of 2015 lists. The previous year, “1989” scored at No. 10 on Rolling Stone’s list, No. 34 on Spin’s, No. 31 on Pitchfork’s, No. 12 on Guardian’s and No. 1 on Billboard’s. While the performance of ‘1989’ on these lists is impressive, rarely does an album achieve a unanimous crowning from all of the top publications like “To Pimp a Butterfly” did. Where does the disconnect between expert analysis and Grammy awards come from?
The process of selecting Grammy winners is a multi-step process, as detailed on the award show’s website in an easy-to-follow infographic, with nominations being screened first by “Academy Voting Members,” which are made up of more than 150 industry experts, who decide what entries will move on. The entries then go through to the voting members of the Recording Academy. To become a voting member, you have to have credit on six commercial releases or 12 online releases. The application verifies you as a musician of such credentials through AllMusic.com before giving you membership (I know, I tried). To get on AllMusic.com you simply have to send your music to the data collecting company Ravi, which will add you to their database. This means with the ease of digital recording today, one does not exactly have to be a member of The Beatles to become a voting member of the Recording Academy. Once you are a voting member, the screened nominations will be sent and you will be allowed to vote for the general fields (Record, Album, Song of the Year and Best New Artist), and nine of the 30 other fields, which means there is a potential for you—again, not a member of The Beatles—to vote for a lot of categories that you know nothing about without any sort of monitoring.
This explains why a lot of the more commercial releases win certain categories despite expert opinion (see Macklemore and Ryan Lewis winning Best Rap album in 2013 or even Meghan Trainor winning Best New Artist this year). To not name Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” is to disagree with all of the top music critics in the world, and if critic’s opinions should not be the only consideration, then surely the cultural significance “To Pimp a Butterfly” has shown, highlighted in Lamar’s breathtaking performance at the ceremony, is enough to set it apart as something truly special.
In addition to voting members potentially failing to crown the greatest musical accomplishments, the Grammys are susceptible to irrelevancy due to some of their entry rules. As Chance the Rapper points out on a guest verse in Kanye West’s latest album “The Life of Pablo,” “I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy.” This means that releases that are distributed for free, like Chance’s 2013 mixtape “Acid Rap,” are not eligible for any awards. This further separates the Grammys from popular culture as the music industry continues to drift into the digital abyss and album releases are becoming a less concrete event. So far this has not posed a huge problem for the Grammys, but if others follow the path of Chance, who would have likely been a least nominated for Best Rap Album or Best New Artist, it could further separate the Grammys from popular culture, rendering them completely useless to a digital generation.
I do not intend to declare the death of the Grammys or take away from Taylor Swift’s achievements with this piece. “1989” was a great pop album that showcased a confident new artistic identity that aims to empower women everywhere. Taylor’s acceptance speech, featuring a pointed dig at the latest Kanye West offense (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, just google “Kanye Taylor”), was a beautiful moment that she deserved to have. Instead I hope to shed light on what an exciting, fast-changing time in music and pop culture we are experiencing and point out that the Grammys sometimes miss what is important. As Beyonce stated in her presentation of the Record of the Year award at this year’s ceremony, “Art is the unapologetic celebration of culture through self-expression.” 2015 was a year in which there was a lot to express as violence, racism and divisiveness plagued the American public. The world is moving quickly, with new technological possibilities being opened everyday, and pop culture is moving right along with it. Music will continue to grow, adapting and regenerating based on the environment — both social and technological — that it is being created in. I just hope the Grammys can keep up.