David Anthony: Last night was the 59th Annual Grammy Awards, an event that, year after year, sparks the same debate: Do the Grammys actually matter? And while the question of awarding art is always up in the air, this year it was more apparent than ever that the Grammys really aren’t concerned with the awards themselves. Of the 84 awards that were given out, the vast majority were announced during the pre-show, meaning that by the time the show started only about a dozen remained.
This effectively makes the Grammys less of an award show and more of a block of high-profile performances. It’s not about the records or songs that were released, its about the artists putting on a show. In a way, it’s a smart ploy, knowing that people who are otherwise indifferent to who wins the award for Best Alternative Music Album—it was, unsurprisingly and deservedly, David Bowie—will tune in to see Chance The Rapper, Beyoncé, and whatever the hell Metallica and Lady Gaga are going to do together.
Though the Grammys have been trending this way for some time, this year it felt incredibly apparent that the awards are just a formality. The choice to have James Corden host feels like an acknowledgment of the spectacle of the whole thing. The Grammys need a host who’s willing to fall down some stairs and then half-rap after Adele sings “Hello” at the top of the show. In the first half hour, there were three performances and one award given out, and while Chance The Rapper winning Best New Artist certainly felt like the academy slapping its seal of approval on him, I’m willing to bet his joyous performance later in the show did more to have people checkout Coloring Book than the fact he got a statue earlier in the night.
So my question to you, Marah, is: What value do you think these awards have? By the time the Grammys roll around year-end lists have been out, tours have happened, and the records have, by and large, been sold or streamed. So what do the Grammys add to the music world in 2017? And at what point do they just drop the awards and let the big names get all dressed up and do what they do best?
Marah Eakin: I think the awards mean a lot to the people who actually win them, but as a viewer, I honestly don’t give a rip who wins or doesn’t, unless it’s Beyoncé. When I was thinking about how we’d wrap our heads around the Grammys, I thought it might be helpful to tackle how to fix the Grammys, because I think it’s safe to say we both think they have some problems—namely, that they try to be all things to all people. You want to see some awards handed out? We’ve got you, albeit on a small scale. You want to see some insane, beautifully artistic performances? Get ready for some Chance. You want to see some total bullshit? Get ready for Pentatonix.
It’s too much. It makes the stuff that shines—your Beyoncés, your Chances, your A Tribe Called Quests—absolutely dominate the rest of the show’s pap, whether it’s Corden’s inevitable Carpool Karaoke bit or whatever that horrible, horrible MetalliGa thing was. (Seriously, I hated every single second of that performance.)
If I had to fix the Grammys, here’s what I’d do. Granted, I don’t know if this would get CBS more viewers, but I’d enjoy it more, so that’s fine with me:
1. Five awards. Album Of The Year, Song Of The Year, Record Of The Year, Best New Artist, and some random wildcard. The other 79 would be given out in a separate ceremony, but one that I, an interested party, could actually watch on some ancillary cable network. What’s Showtime airing on a Sunday afternoon anyway? Or, hell, even CBS. Football’s over, after all.
2. Less horrific mashups. I like Kelsea Ballerini well enough, and I tolerated that “7 Years” song well enough the first time I heard it, but throwing Ballerini and Lukas Graham together to trade verses of their own songs was awkward and did them no favors. Ditto Gaga and Metallica, and all the artists that stepped up for that Bee Gees tribute. I’d love if the Grammys could just stop trying to force “Grammy moments” to happen, especially by throwing two artists together. At best, it’s fine, as in Alicia Keys and Maren Morris’ team-up, and at worse, it’s MetalliGa. (Again, blech. I can’t stop thinking about how bad that was.)
3. Give your big artists 10 minutes, a huge budget, and tell them to go nuts. This year’s standout performances were by the artists who had the breadth and artistic depth to really go big. A Tribe Called Quest made a statement and had the Staples Center rocking. Beyoncé was beyond amazing, and Katy Perry made us all care about her new single—and Skip Marley, for that matter—by manipulating a blank set into something high-energy and conceptual. That’s the kind of stuff I’m going to be thinking and talking about for the next few days, weeks, and months, and that’s what I think makes “Grammy moments,” if I’m being forced to use that term.
David, what about you? You’re not exactly an avid Grammys viewer. What would you do to change the show, other than to make it shorter? Because lord knows it could stand to be a bit shorter…
David Anthony: I agree with your point that the whole thing needs to be slimmed down, as a four-hour broadcast is really draining by the end—even if this one picked up in the back half. But the biggest problems I see are ones that are more systemic.
For one, the timetable that’s being honored always feels wonky. Since this year’s awards were covering October 1, 2015 to September 30, 2016, so much of this just felt dated. After all, Adele’s 25 came out in November of 2015. That feels like a lifetime ago. It’s also strange that Bruno Mars and A Tribe Called Quest performed at a show they were both ineligible for. Granted, I think Tribe’s performance was a highlight. And Mars’ tribute to Prince was the best anyone could have done. But are we just going to see them back at the next Grammys when they are actually up for an award?
But the biggest problem year-in and year-out is the Grammys’ glaring issue with race. Nothing has born that out more than the last few years, as it could be argued that Beyoncé has been snubbed twice in the Album Of The Year category—Beck took home the honor in 2015—and last year Kendrick Lamar lost to Taylor Swift’s 1989 (not to mention him losing the Best Rap Album award to Macklemore a couple years before that). Frank Ocean lost to Mumford & Sons in 2013 and, as much as the Recording Academy tried to anoint Chance The Rapper last night, it’s clear that it’s turned its back on music that’s pushing the form forward. It’s part of why Frank Ocean refused to submit his records for consideration, and in a Tumblr post that came over the weekend, he laid into Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich and writer David Wild. In an interview with Rolling Stone Ehrlich and Wild said Ocean’s 2013 performance was “not great TV,” but Ocean turned that phrase back around on them, encouraging them to, “Use the old gramophone to actually listen bro. I’m one of the best alive. And if you’re up for a discussion about the cultural bias and general nerve damage the show you produce suffers from then I’m all for it.”
As Beyoncé said in her acceptance speech after winning the Best Urban Contemporary award, “My intention for the film and album was to create a body of work that will give a voice to our pain, our struggles, our darkness, and our history, to confront issues that make us uncomfortable.” That’s the type of work the Recording Academy should be celebrating, the kind that resonates deep inside of people and says something about the state of our world. It’s clear the Grammys are willing to let artists do that during performances, but that’s still for their own gain. Beyoncé’s massive performance early in the show only brought more eyes to the telecast, only to have her denied awards later, an outrage that saw Adele snap a trophy in half to share it with Beyoncé. Until the Grammys are willing to acknowledge and award the people it’s long been overlooking—and not just use them as a way to boost ratings—it’ll only continue to push itself toward irrelevancy.
So my last question to you, Marah, is this: We know what’s wrong with the Grammys, but do we think they’ll ever actually change?
Marah Eakin: I think the only way the Grammys—or anything, really—will ever change is if more people start participating. I don’t necessarily mean more viewers or more musicians, but more voters. If more of the industry can be represented in the voting pool—and more independent members of the industry—then maybe the Grammys will start rewarding artistry over sales. Right now, there are about 21,000 members of the Grammy committee, but only about 12,000 are eligible to vote. We need to keep adding to those numbers year after year. Maybe then, the Grammys will actually come to resemble something we could be proud of.