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5 Times The Grammys Needed to "Step Up"

Last night, 18.7 million people tuned in to the 63rd annual Grammy Awards. While this number is impressive when compared to other pandemic-era awards shows, it still marks a 12-year low.

The prevailing takeaway from last night's festivities seemed to be that this was surprisingly one of the best Grammy nights in recent memory: an actual celebration of the young, diverse musical talent shaping pop culture today (although this is supposed to be the very point of The Grammys, it rarely delivers on this). Yet, despite insanely sexy performances by Dua Lipa, Dababy, and Megan Thee Stallion, a standout, politically-charged number by Lil Baby, and one of the most effective In Memoriam's in awards show history, it was hard to shake the feeling that this event was little more than the Grammys trying to save face in the wake of a series of controversies, including shocking snubs, accusations of racial bias, and revelations of corrupt processes. In trying to win back their audience, the odds were stacked against the Recording Academy: with all the logistical challenges that come with trying to put on a spectacle in the midst of a pandemic, they couldn’t even bank on the nostalgia that the traditional format of “music’s biggest night” can sometimes engender. Even if they could, it wouldn’t change the fact that this event just doesn’t seem as important to people as it used to.

Why might have viewers been slow to give last night’s event a chance? The fact is, this shift in audience reception has been some time in the making. In the last few years especially, there have been signs that The Grammys are no longer an effective or legitimate barometer for musical merit. To catch you up, we’ve compiled some of the more recent Grammy moments that made us question why we still bother with these awards:

Not Working for The Weeknd

Let’s start with the most recent. Just after the onset of the pandemic, The Weeknd released his fourth studio album - After Hours - and received a kind of success that was new even to a star like him: not only was the album a huge critical success, but the virality of “Blinding Lights” helped him break the record for most weeks spent in the top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Everybody saw this album as a gimme for The Grammys. Yet, when the nomination list for this year’s awards was released, The Weeknd walked away with a whopping 0 nominations, perhaps the most shocking and widely-discussed snub in Grammy history. Many theories - both educated and not - have emerged as to how something like this could have happened: a hostage situation involving the Superbowl, expert nominating committees that have seemingly no accountability, personal grudges against Abel, etc. The truth is, it doesn’t totally matter what the circumstances are. The fact that an album that beloved got that few nominations and enraged that many people means that, at best, The Grammys are not the arbiters of taste they portray themselves as and, at worst, there is something actively nefarious about them. The Weeknd has since stated that he will no longer allow his label to submit his music to The Grammys. He adds his name to a powerful list of artists (predominantly people of color) who have loudly spoken out against the institution, artists like Drake, Kanye West, Frank Ocean, and Zayn Malik. Given how visually immersive last night’s performances were, it was hard not to feel the absence of The Weeknd, one of the most visually creative artists in pop music.


Beyoncé's Surfbort Ride

The Grammys are often a real rollercoaster ride for members of the Beyhive. Beyoncé has a complicated relationship with the Grammys: last night, she broke the records for Grammys won by a woman and by a singer (both previously held by Alison Krauss). At this point, the woman has so many Grammys, the Academy basically said “Hey, why not just give one to her daughter?” However, despite her impressive catalog, Beyoncé has never won a single major award (Album of the Year, Record of the Year, etc.). She is at once one of The Grammys’ most decorated winners and its most under-appreciated artist. Her standing with the Academy is a perfect example of The Grammys effectiveness at recognizing talent: they vaguely acknowledge her importance as an artist by giving her record-breaking wins, yet, when she actually releases music that demands critical attention (4, Lemonade, etc.), they leave her high and dry. Considering the Academy's track record with both women and artists of color, it's very hard to think that the lack of recognition for albums by one of the most beloved entertainers of our generation isn't a reflection of an institution who picture white men when they picture a musician.


Kung Fu Kenny vs. The Professor

If you were a hip-hop head in 2013, there was no album you talked about more than Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, the debut album from Compton-bred rapper, Kendrick Lamar. If you had a car or a YouTube account in 2013, there was no song you heard more than “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore, a white rapper from Seattle whose poppy and optimistic rap album, The Heist saw huge mainstream success. That’s ultimately what the 56th annual Grammy Award for Best Rap Album came down to. To anyone who was closely monitoring the rap categories that year, it seemed obvious that Kendrick was the most deserving nominee - to this day, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City is widely thought to be a definitive 21st century work of music, black or otherwise. In fact, if anyone thought Kendrick was going to lose, they probably didn’t think it was gonna be to the guy that looked like Heffer from Rocko’s Modern Life. (It’s worth saying that besides these two artists, Best Rap Album was a stacked category that year, with Drake, Jay-Z and Kanye West receiving nominations for an award they could have easily won in a different year). In retrospect, it should have been obvious that the album that gave birth to “Thrift Shop” - as well as other light-hearted mega-hits like “Can’t Hold Us” - was going to get more Grammy success than the dense and nuanced album whose biggest hit (“Swimming Pools (Drank)”) only peaked at #17 on the Billboard charts. However, when Macklemore’s name was eventually called over that of an artist whose cinematic and critically-acclaimed album vividly described life as a young black Californian, it felt like a blatant example of a bias towards white artists. Even Macklemore agreed, having sent (and - unfortunately - published) a text to Kendrick apologizing to him for the upset. Looking back on it now, Kendrick emerged the real winner of this battle - he has gone on to become one of, if not the most respected and successful names in hip-hop. However, this memorable Grammy snub was a clear sign that the Recording Academy has severe flaws that keep high black art at a distance, even when dealing with overtly black genres.


Lorde is a Woman

To some people, Lorde is an artist who, out of nowhere, took over radio in 2014 with her runaway hit, “Royals”. However, to people paying closer attention, she is one of the most artful songstresses in pop music. In 2018, her sophomore opus, Melodrama - one of the defining pop albums of the 2010's - was the only album by a female artist to receive a nomination for Album of the Year. While this in itself was a bit of a controversy (more on that in a second), for Lorde fans, that was just the tip of the iceberg. When the list of performers for that Grammy ceremony was announced, everyone took notice that Lorde was the only Album of the Year nominee who would not be performing. After The Grammys defended themselves, saying that Lorde declined an opportunity to perform, it came out that actually, The Grammys had insisted that she perform a duet with Tom Petty. Lorde then refused, stating that she would not perform unless she was given the same solo platform as her fellow nominees. Rather than complying, The Grammys refused to budge, and, in a year where only five people were nominated for Album of the Year, only the four men performed. Whatever reason The Grammys had for denying Lorde a solo performance, it only bolstered the rhetoric that the institution actively excludes women from their award show.


"Step Up" and Then Step Down

At the 2018 Grammys - the same Grammys that denied Lorde a performance - only one woman received an on-camera solo award (Alessia Cara, who won for Best New Artist). What's noteworthy about the 2018 Grammys is that the night they announced the nominees was ironically a great night for women; SZA, for example, was one of the most nominated artists that year. That was also the same year that Kesha took the stage with several female stars for a deeply rousing performance of "Praying", a song overtly tied to the #MeToo movement. However, this made it all more infuriating when so few women walked away with any statues. After years of being accused of racial biases, The Grammys were then hit with a new accusation: #GrammysSoMale. Neil Portnow, the Recording Academy's then-President, was sent out to quell the flames. He only poured gas on it. In a statement to the press, Portnow said: "I think it has to begin with women who have the creativity in their hearts and their souls — who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, who want to be producers, who want to be part of the industry on an executive level — to step up because I think they would be welcome." Many perceived Portnow's statement as a way of blaming their lack of gender representation on a lack of talented women, and the outrage against The Grammys only grew more fervent. Since then, Neil Portnow has stepped down, and The Grammys have been trying to save face, not only nominating more women, but forming task-forces to address issues of bias, and spending ceremony-time specifically honoring women (although it would have been nice if this year's tribute to women in country wasn't crashed by John Mayer). Time has yet to prove that this is enough.

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