I’m not here to complain about who should or shouldn’t have won a Grammy Award this past weekend. Sure, do I think it’s odd that SZA, an artist who not only performed, but was featured in three commercials during the broadcast (Gap, MasterCard, and Black Panther), went home with zero awards (including a loss for Best New Artist), despite being the most nominated woman of the year? Yes. And do I also find it strange that even though there are nearly a hundred categories of awards given out, the same two-three artists can take home almost all of the awards in the major category? Yes, I also find that pretty interesting.
But my problems with the Grammy Awards don’t stem from Bruno Mars taking home a majority of the awards; he’s a fantastic artist and an amazing performer and he deserves to be honored, as well as any other Grammy winner this past weekend. No, my problem with the Grammy Awards is not in who they pick for the awards, but in the awards themselves.
Not only is the voting process for the Grammy’s incredibly complex, but the sheer amount of awards given out towers over the rest of the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) Awards shows. Just in the Pop category alone, there exists Best Pop Solo Performance, Best Duo/Group Pop Solo Performance, Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, and Best Pop Vocal Album, as well as possibilities for these same artists to be up for the awards in the general category of Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Album of the Year, and Best New Artist.
Even further, besides simply just the rest of the genre categories, there exists separate awards for Engineering, Producing, Remixing, Composing, Arranging, Spoken Word, Comedy, Musical Theater, Film, Packaging, and Liner Notes. There’s a Grammy Award for the best liner notes. Sure, it’s nice to honor the people behind the scenes of the artists, and it’s something that I don’t think the Grammy’s should take away, but as music evolves and genres blend, it sure does get a lot harder to categorize artists.
It’s something artists such as Drake, Kanye West, and Frank Ocean, have all boycotted the Awards ceremonies for in the past, stating that categories such as Best Urban Contemporary Album limit African-American artists from expanding into other categories such as Pop or the general field. Drake, who won Best Rap Song for “Hotline Bling” in 2017, stated that while it was an honor to win the award, he was confused why the song was placed in the rap category.
The Grammy’s sought to fix these criticisms this year by having artists of color such as Jay-Z, Bruno Mars, Kendrick Lamar, SZA, Childish Gambino, Khalid, and No I.D., up for the majority of the awards, but with artists sweeping entire categories, as well as the general field, it brought up a new problem for the Award’s selections. What’s the point of having six distinctly different awards when the same artist can win them all?
Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Best R&B Performance, Best R&B Song, and Best R&B Album, are all completely different awards with separate criteria and separate sets of nominated artists, and yet, Bruno Mars was able to take home all six awards. Kendrick Lamar took home all four awards in the rap category, as well as Best Music Video, Chris Stapleton won Best Country Album, Song, and Performance, and Ed Sheeran won both Best Pop Vocal Album and Pop Performance.
This year’s awards were also not the only time an artist such as Bruno Mars swept the general category as well as their genres, as just last year Adele did precisely the same. Even more similar, before Bruno Mars tonight, an artist hadn’t taken home six or more awards since Adele previously swept the show for the first time back in 2012.
With genres blending more and more out of the Grammy’s defined categories every year, and the same artists taking home all of what could have been a more diversified celebration of awards, it seems that now, more than ever, is time for the Grammy’s to rethink their selection process. So, where do we start? As I said before, the process for Grammy nomination and genre sorting is extremely complex, but I hope that I’ll be able to explain it simply enough below:
- Submission: Essentially, the process begins when Recording Academy members and record companies submit their albums and songs up for consideration during what would be their eligible year. (example: Bruno Mars’ record label, Atlantic, would submit his album 24K Magic to the Recording Academy for consideration in the general fields of Best Album, Song, and Record of the Year, as well as its specific genre categories. In the case of this year’s Grammy Awards, Mars was placed in the field of R&B.)
- Screening: I used the word “placed” in that last sentence, because the screening process of submissions involves no judgement of the music itself, but rather ensures that each piece of music is “placed in its proper category.” Technically, events could transpire wherein the Recording Academy places Bruno Mars in Pop instead of R&B, or Drake’s “Hotline Bling” in Rap instead of Pop. This is the most contentious area of the Grammy’s process. It’s where all of the problems involving race, such as the Urban Contemporary field, and genre, such as artists being mistaken for different fields, arise. The same issues are found in other American Award shows as well, such as the mystery/thriller film Get Out placed in the Comedy field at the 2017 Golden Globes, as well as the Sci-Fi/Drama The Martian just the year before.
- Nominating (Who Can Vote?): After the Recording Academy properly sorts every submitted entry into what it believes to be the proper category, the process of first-round voting begins, and oh what a complicated process it is. First-round ballots are sent to the Recording Academy Voters that, according to the Academy’s website, are members who pay the Academy $100/year and are “creative and technical professionals” with music or work released for sale or placed on a recognized streaming service such as Apple Music, Spotify, etc. Therefore, you have to be a creator of music, whether that be the artist, producer, or engineer, past or present, in order to vote.
- Voting: Voters, are only allowed to vote within their “areas of expertise,” meaning up to 15 categories throughout the nearly one hundred Awards given out, as well as the four main awards of Best New Artist, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Album of the Year. This is how events such as Beck beating out Beyoncé for Album of the Year come to happen, as technically whichever genre with the most voting members is the category that will have the best chance at the four major awards that particular year. In the case of Beck vs. Beyoncé, I’m sure most Rock and Country voters chose Beck, while Pop, Rap, and R&B-oriented voters had the four other nominees (Sam Smith, Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran, and Pharrell Williams), to chose from, which greatly divided up their votes.
- The “Special Nominating Committee”: This is where things get strange. A seemingly super secret “Special Nominating Committee” composed of “voting members from all of The Academy’s Chapter cities” review and decide the nominees for each award, as well as their considered finalists.
- Final Voting and Results: The Recording Academy voting members vote once again, this time with only the final nominees for each award to decide from, and again up to 15 categories “in their field of expertise,” as well as the four main awards of Best New Artist, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Album of the Year. Interestingly enough, the finalists chosen by the “Special Nominating Committee” are also included within the ballot for consideration. The results are then tabulated and presented during the Grammy Awards telecast, with a majority of the Awards announced before the main performances and the most coveted awards broadcast on television.
Some of the easiest solutions for the problems presented in the voting and selection process for the Grammy Awards above can be found in other countries’ music awards, such as Great Britain’s Mercury Prize and Canada’s Polaris Prize. For one, there are no genre categories, throwing problem 1 (where artists are placed) and problem 2 (which categories voters can vote on) out the window immediately. In fact, the Mercury Prize and the Polaris Prize both consist of just one award: Album of the Year.
Selected by a panel of judges who not only create music (artists, producers, engineers), but work in the music industry, as well as tastemakers such as journalists, critics, and radio personnel, the entries for Album of the Year are submitted, regardless of genre, shortlisted and released as “nominees,” and then subjected to a final round of voting.
It might just be one award instead of nearly one hundred, but the removal of genre categories certainly eases the process of what can be voted on, and with the expansion of who is allowed to vote, the field seems more balanced, unlike the Grammy Award Voters only consisting of the music makers themselves. “One of the founding principles of the Mercury Prize is that all music be treated equally regardless of genre,” the official website states,” adding that “this principle is followed at every stage of the entry and judging process.”
Canada’s Polaris Prize holds the same idea close to the heart of the award, stating that “a select panel of music critics judge and award the Prize without regard to musical genre or commercial popularity.” Furthermore, the idea of some “Special Nominating Committee” is nowhere to be found, removing any skeptical, behind-the-scenes workings of some secret group shifting which artists get nominated and which go on to win.
Recent winners of the Mercury Prize have included Sampha’s Process in 2017, and Skepta’s Konnichiwa in 2016, with eleven other records honored as shortlisted nominees as well. The Mercury Prize website considers these albums to be the “12 ‘Albums of the Year,’” with one ultimately awarded the Mercury Prize of £25,000, and a special winner’s trophy. The winner of Canada’s Polaris Prize earns $50,000, with recent 2016 winner being Kaytranada’s 99.9%.
Both the Mercury and Polaris Prize’s are also not without their own controversies and criticisms however, including issues such as the “Curse of the Mercury,” a belief that winning the Mercury Prize dooms ones future. A piece written for Independent describes the “Curse of the Mercury,” reporting in 2006 that “of the previously triumphant, only 1992’s inaugural winners, Primal Scream, have managed to make anything like a go of their subsequent career.” Damon Albarn (Gorillaz) requested to have their debut record withdrawn from the shortlist back in 2001, in fear that, as fictional-bassist Murdoc put it, the win would be like “carrying a dead albatross round your neck for eternity.”
The Mercury Prize has also been criticized for previous panels seeming too “edgy” or “indy” to avoid looking like they have the tastes of the rich, white, elite class, while at the same time paying more attention to Pop and Singer-Songwriter artists than those in metal and hip-hop. Canada’s Polaris Prize has faced similar scrutiny and criticism over favored genres and worry of the Award’s image. As of late, the racial balance of awards has also come into question, but that’s nothing we’re not used to in America with the Grammy’s and even the Oscar’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign just last year.
While I don’t believe that the Grammy’s would ever condense down to just own award, I do think there is a lot to learn from these other countries’ Awards show and selection process. I do also very much enjoy that a big part of the Grammy Awards involves the behind-the-scenes honors of Best Producer and Engineer, other types of awards such as Best Music Video and Best Song for Film, and even Awards for Best Packaging and Liner Notes.
The removal of genre categories would however, alleviate a lot of the Grammy’s criticism, as well as opening up the voting process to journalists and music industry professionals, removing some more suspicion and controversy from the selection process. I doubt it’s anything we’ll see change anytime soon, especially since it would require such drastic changes to not only the voting membership program and process, but also the awards given out, but you can’t fault me for trying to find viable ways to improve the event beyond “so-and-so should have won instead.”
What do you think? Drop your thoughts in the comments below.