The Grammy Awards are no longer the prestigious institution they once were. Gone are the golden days of artists who truly deserved acknowledgment actually receiving it. To the despair of many, an event dedicated to musical excellence has digressed to a night of stardom marred by "safe" choices and petty drama.
Let's go back to May of 1959 for a moment, as the world witnessed the first formal gathering of the musical elite for a black-tie award ceremony held in the Grand Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton. Countless icons were in attendance: Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Gene Autry, Johnny Mercer, Henry Mancini and André Previn, just to name a few. Leading the field that night with six total nominations, Sinatra was upset by Domenico Modugno's “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)” for song of the year, while Album of the Year went to Henry Mancini's The Music from Peter Gunn. As a new institution, only 28 categories were initially offered, yet the winners on that late spring night suggested a diversity that many speculated would come to characterize future Grammy Awards, with winners ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to David Seville and the Chipmunks.
This trend, at least artificially, is still claimed to be present. When responding to Variety’s questions regarding the current state of diversity in the Grammys, long time producer of the awards, Ken Ehrlich replied:
“I certainly have grown up under a whole different set of circumstances and the music world that I live in is colorblind. I’m not a kid. When I was growing up, and when I was listening to early rock and early R&B, white kids were listening to black music. My generation was kind of the first generation where that became the dominant form of entertainment…Several generations have now grown up not really looking at the color of a person’s skin but just loving what they do musically. All forms of our contemporary music are rooted in African American culture; they’re rooted in black music, they’re rooted in the blues, they’re rooted in reggae. This has such a profound affect on this country musically that I don’t think we face the same set of criticisms that other artistic disciplines do."
Despite these claims and historic evidence, the opposite could not be more apparent in recent years. Only three rap albums have ever claimed Album of the Year, and none in the past decade. Last year, Beck’s pensive and introspective Morning Phase beat out Beyonce’s hard hitting, raunchy self-titled album. Before that, Daft Punk’s smoothly synth-filled beats of Random Access Memories upset Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar’s first major release good kid, m.A.A.d city, with the latter album also falling to Macklemore’s The Heist in the Best Rap Album category.
This trend has spurred extensive criticism in hip-hop spheres, more notably following Kanye West's failure to receive a nomination for Album of the Year with his 2013 release, Yeezus. In a concert, he famously remarked:
I'm 36 years old and I have 21 Grammys. That's the most Grammys of any 36-year-old. Out of all of those 21 Grammys, I've never won a Grammy against a white artist ... And "Yeezus" is the top one or two album on every single list. But only gets two nominations from the Grammys. What are they trying to say? ... When you see me talking about what people are doing when I say "marginalized," when I say "boxed in," when I say "hold back," when I say people are afraid of the truth, that's one example right in front of you. And people come to me and they congratulate me on those two nominations. F*ck those nominations!
Sadly, this past Monday, at the 58th gathering of this so-called prestigious institution of music, we witnessed the same trend for this Album of the Year, with Taylor Swift’s 1989 rising above Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, despite Lamar's astonishing 11 nominations—a quantity only second to Michael Jackson’s 12 in the 1984 Grammys.
This is exceedingly frustrating. To Pimp A Butterfly carries a far more culturally relevant message than that of 1989, preaching black excellence and conveying an unadulterated perspective of the African American experience in today’s society. It can’t be denied that Swift’s 1989 is a good album—it simply carries a far less pertinent message through the medium of safe and rather routine pop tracks.
Record sales tell a different story, however, with To Pimp a Butterfly selling 788,000 copies in the US while Swift’s 1989 sold 5,750,000. As such, it would be difficult to argue that Lamar’s work has a significant following outside of the insular world of hip-hop. His raw delivery of rhymes is clearly not for everyone, and “Every n*gga is a star” is certainly a more friction-inducing lyric than “Cause baby, now we've got bad blood…” With an obvious edge in global appeal, the award thus went to the “safer” choice.
These tendencies towards the “safe” bet only became more apparent in the live performances of the night. The Weeknd shied away from his typical God-level bomber jacket and denim layering game, opting instead for a tuxedo. The same effect was found in his refined piano-arranged performance of “In the Night:" a bland rendition, seemingly arranged to restrain his talents and preforming prowess to a level palatable to Grammy viewers and voters. Justin Bieber’s performance of “Where Are Ü Now” with DJs Skrillex and Diplo possessed similar elements, as they replaced the hard-hitting electronic production with guitars, keyboards, and bass drums.
The saving grace of the night came in the form of Lamar's red-hot, politically-charged performance, especially in contrast to the lukewarm other acts. Appearing in prison garb with his band confined to cells, he performed hits “The Blacker the Berry,” “Alright,” and a new song called "Untitled 3," while breaking into a tribal inspired dance in front of a blazing fire. The performance was raw, visceral, righteous, and quite simply amazing.
Later, in his acceptance speech for Best Rap Album, Lamar was as humble as ever. Praising his Compton roots, Lamar made sure to pay tribute to his heroes: “Ice Cube, this is for hip-hop. This is for Snoop Dogg, Doggy Style, Illmatic. This is for Nas. We will live forever. Believe that." This stands in stark contrast to the fierce acceptance speech of Taylor Swift, who, as stated by Lindsay Zoladz of Vulture, “...made it all about herself, gripping her Grammy like a dog with the last bone on Earth, because that sort of tenacious, gritted-teeth navel-gazing is exactly what got her there.”
Lamar has come to be recognized for this humble attitude, only serving to attract praise from fellow artists. Receiving a shout out from Adele, following her own powerhouse performance, and a public apology from Macklemore last year, his artistry has moved beyond questions or challenges. Although the Grammy Awards have lost their mojo, it is musicians like Lamar who redeem it by shining as brightly as possible regardless of the stage. These are the artists who give hope to the masses, and for the future of this historic musical institution.