After the Grammy awards on March 14, there was, as always, much discussion of the winners, losers, and integrity of the choices made. One prominent “snub” was The Weeknd, for his album “After Hours,” and specifically the song “Blinding Lights,” which was the longest running top-ten song of all time, spending 52 weeks in the uppermost ten slots of the Billboard Top 100 and 4 weeks in the #1 position. The lack of recognition for this song, as well as the smaller hits from the album such as “Save Your Tears,” “Heartless,” and “In your Eyes,” prompts the question of the purpose and validity of the Grammy awards. Do the Grammys reward the most popular songs of the year, the most culturally relevant songs, or the “best” songs according to some measure or rubric? Is this process carried out with significant attention to accuracy and objectivity or is it biased and dictated by nepotism? Is the unjust exclusion of a certain project a genuine phenomenon or a matter of opinion that cannot be objectively decided? More specifically, was The Weeknd truly “snubbed”?
To evaluate the validity of The Grammy awards, looking at the voting process and the Academy itself is a conducive first step. According to the Bylaws of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the purposes of the Academy are to “advance the arts and sciences of recording,” foster creative leadership in the field of recording, recognize “outstanding creative achievement” through awards, advocate for the interests of artists before policymakers, and to “foster and engage in study” of the music industry. For the purposes of examining the Grammy ceremony itself, the statement regarding recognition of outstanding creative achievement is most pertinent – before determining whether or not the Grammys are important in general, they must first adhere to the rules and purposes stated by the Academy. If this condition is not met, there is no standard and the illusion of objectivity is destroyed.
This is a difficult task in itself because of the inherently subjective nature of art and music, but certain elements can be clearly examined and judged. For example, “Yummy” by Justin Bieber was nominated in the Best Pop Solo Performance category despite having conventional, non-innovative harmonic and melodic structures and instrumentation, a lackluster autotuned vocal performance, and lyrics that are repetitive and bland at best and rather repulsive at worst. Conversely, “I Can’t Breathe” by H.E.R. winning the Song of the Year award can be justified by the well-executed combination of lyricism and melody as well as its connection to the events and conversations that dominated 2020. Similarly, “Lockdown” by Anderson .Paak winning Best Melodic Rap Performance was a welcome continuation of .Paak’s Grammy recognition due to the creativity and innovation in song structure as well as the well-crafted and relevant lyrics. From these selections, it is clear that the nominees and winners are of varying degrees of quality – not offensive enough to make the assertion that the Academy is not adhering to its own statement of purpose, but also too suspiciously in the range of mediocre to bad in some cases to maintain the objectivity of the Academy.
One oft-cited explanation for these seemingly inexplicably poor selections that must be acknowledged is nepotism. The Grammys’ history of rewarding certain artists repeatedly and excluding “non-Grammy alumni,” especially if the non-Grammy winners are historically better remembered, combined with the vague official description of the voting finalization process after the preliminary voting by the general member body takes place only reinforces this idea. According to bylaws, the official voting process is as follows: “The first-round ballots and the final ballots of the GRAMMY Awards shall be cast by Voting Members, subject to classification and qualifications under rules or regulations approved by the Board of Trustees.” There is no discussion of quality assurance or the validity of the decisions of the board and this, in addition to the general lack of detail, leaves room for fraud. Another possible explanation for the lack of total adherence to the purpose of rewarding outstanding creative achievement by the Academy is the declining number of network television and award show viewers. With the audience for such ceremonies generally declining, the Academy and CBS, the network airing the Grammys, must attempt to keep their viewers engaged and spark interest around the ceremony. The Grammy’s goal of remaining relevant by their ability to meet rating quotas supersedes the stated goal of recognizing creativity and may lead to awarding the most popular artists rather than the most creative artists. If viewers hear that an artist they know and enjoy will be performing and in consideration for an award, they are more likely to watch and be interested in the ceremony than if it were focused on artists of whom they had not heard. An example of this from the 2021 Grammys is the inclusion of a performance by BTS, which was repeatedly pushed to the end of the ceremony, combined with BTS’ lack of recognition in the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance category. BTS has one of the largest and most devoted fan bases, estimated to include approximately 30 million members, making them an ideal target of the Grammys. Their performance was crucial for sustaining views, as exhibited by the drop in views from 1.2 million to 400 thousand after it concluded.
Finally, the importance of award shows and the reasons for their existence must be examined. As declared by the Academy, the purpose of the Grammys is to recognize excellence in music and recording arts, yet this does not relate to the audiences of the ceremony. To connect directly to the viewers, the primary argument that can be made is that the Grammys encourage their viewers to explore more new music and to give a platform to smaller artists. This exposure for artists is not entirely a valid reason for justifying the importance of awards shows because of two main reasons. First, the majority of the artists recognized at the Grammys are in heavy rotation on radio stations which gain them more exposure than a single award or show. Second, the artists that did not receive extensive radio play that were acknowledged through nominations by the 2021 Grammys such as Big Thief or Fontaines D.C. were not a part of the main Grammys telecast, preventing casual viewers from discovering them.
Ultimately, award shows exist because people enjoy seeing their favorite artists perform, interact with one another, and gain recognition for their work. Although awards are seen as “stamps of approval” and passage to success in the music industry, they have no inherent meaning and are not always awarded objectively or fairly, so the best course of action is to reconsider the importance placed upon such ceremonies and to simply enjoy them as the entertainment that they are designed to be. To answer the initial question – yes. “Blinding Lights” might be more creative than “Yummy.” “After Hours” might be more successful than “Everyday Life.” The Weeknd might be more deserving than other nominated artists, yet there are too many factors contributing to the decisions made in the Grammys for any objectivity to be maintained, and after all, they are designed as entertainment and should be enjoyed as such.