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Imagine, if you will, the Grammy Awards of 2045. The winners will be a diverse lot: young pop-rappers who sound like suburban Wiz Khalifas; dance-music producers using the dubstep drop ironically; all manner of Taylor Swift revivalists; pop-R&B-hip-hop hybridisers who sample Drake, maybe Mumford & Sons.
And what a mistake all that will be.
That’s because the voters will by and large be the artists, producers, engineers and more of today — which means that there will be representatives from rock, and also teen-pop, hip-hop, dance music and so on (provided that the current generation of Grammy voters doesn’t exclude them with voter fraud measures).
And think of the complaints future generations of critics will lodge: the Grammys favour familiar modes! Youthful innovation is not being rewarded! Complaining about the Grammys is perennial and inevitable, because the structure of the award giving, which is flawed, is also etched in stone: the representatives of yesteryear weighing in on the acts of today.
The systemic issues in the Grammy voting pool are unlikely to change: younger artists and industry professionals will, in general, participate less, as will artists from less-established genres, whatever those might be three decades from now. Older voters will continue to vote long after they are past their peak relevance. That means that generally the voters with the most time and energy invested in voting will be the ones with the least time and energy invested in current music making. There will almost certainly never be harmony between those who make the music and those who determine its Grammy fate.
Why complain, then? One, the historical record matters. For better or for worse, the Grammy tally will be used as a measuring stick for future generations to understand the past, and when it’s flawed, as it reliably is, it disrupts the proper writing of history. What’s more, there remains a serious misalignment between the shape, scale and range of what popular music is and what the Grammys capture.
They remain boneheaded about hip-hop, R&B and country, a point they proved this year with their showering of riches upon the full spectrum of vanguard-free rock bands. The garage-rock revivalists Black Keys won three awards, for best rock performance, best rock song and best rock album, and the group member Dan Auerbach won for producer of the year, nonclassical. The Queen imitators Fun won best new artist and song of the year, and the Peter Gabriel-manqué Gotye won record of the year, best pop duo/group performance, and best alternative music album. The Dust Bowl fetishists Mumford & Sons won album of the year, the night’s top prize.
But while those acts are all young, or youngish, they unfailingly hew to old styles, dating back in some cases to the 1930s. If the Grammy narrative is to be believed, the last time there was musical innovation worthy of celebration was the mid-1980s, which may well line up with the prime creative period of many Grammy voters.
Not coincidentally, hip-hop and dance music, which reached their commercial primes more recently (or are still ascendant), were shut out of the main category nominations: Jay-Z, Kanye West and Skrillex won three awards each in the genre categories, and Drake won one.
Also, the lone hip-hop performance was the night’s closing set, which included Chuck D of Public Enemy and LL Cool J, rappers two decades past their peak relevance, or, in other words, Grammy-voter manna.
The primary, loosely construed exception to the forward-looking nomination freeze-out was the R&B singer Frank Ocean, who was nominated six times and won twice, including for best urban contemporary album, a new category that in no way correlates to an actual genre, and feels as if it were invented so that Ocean might win something on his own — his other award was for best rap/sung collaboration, with Jay-Z, West and The-Dream — without disrupting the reign of rock. Additionally, the silky R&B singer Miguel was nominated for song of the year, and the pop-country wunderkind Taylor Swift was nominated for record of the year; both lost.
Adele won best pop solo performance for the second year running, for a live version of a song released a year earlier, beating Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry, Rihanna and Carly Rae Jepsen in what was either pure travesty or the richest parody in Grammy history. Do Grammy voters receive a shock every time they vote for someone other than Adele?
Unlike, say, the Oscars, where expensive awards campaigns can tilt voters in a film’s direction, the Grammys appear largely impervious to influence, reasonable or otherwise. (An exception was the unknown Al Walser, nominated in the best dance recording category, who gamed the system by convincing out-of-touch Grammy voters that he was a legitimate contender.)
That means that the structural problems will remain. (This year’s broadcast drew 28.37 million viewers, the second-best ratings since 1993, though down from last year’s 39.9 million.) Compound that with the woeful and clunky arrangement of performances, which serves to compress as many faces as possible into allotted time slots.
What’s left is an impression that the generation of musicians genuinely driving pop into a bolder future isn’t to be trusted. History will frown on this. And the future is likely to repeat it.