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Are the Grammy Awards Really About Quality Music?
The Rap category of the Grammy Awards has been controversial for the last couple of years. In 2014, white rapper Macklemore took home all the awards. Macklemore himself acknowledged that Kendrick Lamar deserved to win the award for Best Rap Album instead of him. And critics would likely agree.
According to Metacritic.com, which aggregates album reviews from the most respected publications, Macklemore's album scored 74. That's pretty good but nothing on Lamar's acclaimed 91 Metascore. Grammy voters chose the popular album over the acclaimed and respected album. The Rap category was the subject of controversy again in 2015 with nominations for another white rapper Iggy Azalea. She got nominated despite a mediocre Metascore of only 56.
In "Hate Me Now: What It's Like To Be A Grammy Voter" Rob Kenner said:
"...the Recording Academy (who tend to skew older than the demographic for rap music) may not be well acquainted with the best releases in any given year."
Nominations in the various categories often seem to be based on who's well known rather than who's made the most acclaimed music. Songs of Innocence by U2 (Metascore 64) and Turn Blue by The Black Keys (Metascore 72) did only moderately well with critics but received nominations for Best Rock Album while critically acclaimed albums like Lost in a Dream by The War on Drugs (Metascore 86) were ignored. Macklemore took home the Best New Artist Grammy in 2014 beating out Kacey Musgraves who has a whopping 88 Metascore for Same Trailer Different Park. For 2015, Sam Smith (Metascore 62) beat Haim (Metascore 79). For 2016, Taylor Swift got nominations but Emotion by Carly Rae Jepsen, which many critics proclaimed the best pop album of the year, was snubbed.
While they're the most iconic of all music awards, the Grammy Awards often focus on popularity over quality. If they were only about quality Iggy Azalea and many others wouldn't even be nominated. And a recent Entertainment Weekly (EW) article "Grammys secret ballot: Three insiders reveal which stars got their vote" make the Grammy's seem like a complete joke. EW interviewed three Grammy voters and some of their comments were jaw dropping. Music critics listen to the albums they review often multiple times. Only after that they form opinions on what they hear. You would think that's how Grammy voters make their decisions but based on the EW article that doesn't seem to be case.
How The Recording Academy Describes their Award
A GRAMMY is awarded by The Recording Academy's voting membership to honor excellence in the recording arts and sciences. It is truly a peer honor, awarded by and to artists and technical professionals for artistic or technical achievement, not sales or chart positions.
Entertainment Weekly interviewed three Grammy voters, an artist, a producer and a songwriter, to find out who they'll vote for and why. The article has so many facepalm moments, some people in the comments section questioned if EW was trolling. It doesn't seem like the Grammy voters had even listened to all the nominees to make informed decisions based on quality at all. These are some stunning responses.
For Album of the Year:
The Artist: I know the one Sam Smith song because I think I heard it in yoga, and it didn’t strike me as something I would stand up for as Album of the Year.
He/she heard it in yoga? They never listened to the full album and yet decided it wasn't album of the year material?
The Songwriter: I would go with Sam Smith because it’s heartfelt, not gimmicky. It’s songs with real performances.
While better than I heard it in yoga, heartfelt and not gimmicky don't come across as well thought out reasons to choose this particular album over the others either.
For Record of the Year:
The Artist: The Iggy Azalea song [“Fancy”]. The times I’ve heard her, I always ask what it is, and people tell me, “Oh, that’s that Iggy girl, you know her!” And I’m always like, “I know Iggy Pop, I don’t know Iggy Azalea.” It would stick in my mind because of that.
For Song of the Year:
The Producer:“Stay With Me.” I knew it was a winner when my 4-year-old was singing it in the back of the car.
Imagine a music critic giving a song or album a positive review because their 4 year old was singing along in the car.
Respected Artists Who've Never Won a Grammy
Many respected artists have won Grammy Awards. But there are also many respected artists who made a huge impact but never received music's most prestigious award. These are some surprising artists who've never won a Grammy.
- Janis Joplin
- The Jackson 5
- Jimi Hendrix
- Patti Smith
- The Doors
- Bob Marley
- The Who
- Public Enemy
- Iggy Pop
- Run DMC
- Led Zeppelin
For Best New Artist:
The Artist: I like Iggy Azalea more than the others. If someone has to win, it might as well be her.
The Songwriter: Sam Smith. I think he’s going to open the door for other things that are real. Record companies will go, “We want a soulful singer with a piano!” Like, “Really? It doesn’t have to be all synthed out and EDM? Nice!”
Critics haven't been as positive about Sam Smith. His album has a Metascore of only 62 and he comes across to many as an attempt by a record label to create a male version of Adele (with inferior lyrics and vocals). And quality has little to do with genre. An EDM album could be far superior to a minimalist R&B album. Electronic artists like Crystal Castles and Grimes have Metascores in the 70's and 80's far above those of Sam Smith. It's a mistake to equate minimalism with quality.
For Best Alternative Music Album:
The Artist: I would say alt-J. I like quite a few of their songs…. Enough to vote for them. I like Jack White even though I don’t really listen to his new record.
So, The Artist hasn't listened to all the Alternative nominees. And that goes for the Rap nominees as well having only heard "some" of one of the nominated albums.
The Artist: I’ve heard some of the Childish Gambino, and I liked it.
The Producer: I’m going to be controversial here and say Iggy Azalea. Look, I’ve spent a lot of time in Australia, and Australian white people are way whiter than American white people. They put extra mayonnaise on everything. So there’s something interesting about this girl from Australia dominating the hip-hop world.
Again, Iggy has a Metascore of 56 for her album The New Classic. She's been criticized for her poor rapping ability and her songs seem to be popular due to their catchy pop hooks sung by other artists rather than her rapped verses (which many people believe are ghostwritten for her). Despite a hugely successful lead single, The New Classic has also had poor US and worldwide sales.
The Songwriter: Skip! [Laughs]
I assume this means The Songwriter hadn't listened to any of the nominated Rap albums. For Best Pop Duo/Group Performance:
The Artist: Dang. I would go with “Fancy.” Of all these songs, I think I’ve heard that one enough to get into it.
These awards aren't always about rewarding talent, innovation or quality. Based on the EW article, voters may not have listened to all the nominees to determine who they think is most deserving of a win. Rob Kenner says this is the case:
"...the vast majority of the nominations are chosen by people who have little real expertise in a given field. I refrained from voting in heavy metal and classical because I know very little about those genres. But I could have if I wanted to, and that strikes me as a problem."
Limiting voters to genres they have experience and knowledge in could make a big difference. Maybe music critics should be heavily recruited for voting duties as well. While critics aren't always perfect, at least they listen to the albums they review and they're experienced when it comes to forming opinions on them. Many critics listen to and review albums that cover multiple genres. Artists who've proven themselves in categories like pop, rap, dance, alternative, folk, rock and country could be chosen based on who delivered quality rather than popular material. After all, plenty of lower quality albums outperform higher quality albums in sales. Plenty of great albums go under the radar for various reasons. Critics could bring attention to great albums people have missed.
The problem is an award show like that may generate little interest. People tune in to see and hear the big names in music at the moment rather than to see the most talented and creative. Those big names aren't always the ones making the best music. Maybe it's not surprising the Grammy's often choose popularity over quality despite their claims to the contrary. Kenner says:
"[The Grammy] has become just another TV awards show, focused on big-name performances calculated to maximize Nielsen ratings and revenue."