The Grammys—following in the footsteps of NBA refs and Robinhood—seem to become hated more with each passing moment. Continued controversy has led many to discredit the organization, with major voices like Drake and The Weeknd speaking out against the questionable decisions in recent years.
Despite the obvious difficulties in singularly awarding achievements in what is such a subjective form of art, the work of the Grammys is—and always has been—culturally significant. The tag “Grammy-nominated” or “Grammy award-winning” is carried around by artists for the length of their careers, and acts as a sort of a stamp—one that reads, “This person is legit.”
But when the organization determining these distinctions consistently fails at honoring the best works in a given year, the distinction itself can lose value. The one unifying body that determines musical success is delegitimized. But the award’s value doesn’t need to be deteriorating—there just needs to be a few structural changes along the way to fix the key issues with what should be a celebration of art.
1. Make the voting criteria obvious
The biggest eye-raising decisions in recent years have mostly resulted from a lack of continuity in winners or nominees. You don’t go from the hilariously tone-deaf decision in awarding 2012’s Best Rap Album to Macklemore’s The Heist over Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, then try to make up for it by awarding Kendrick the win in 2016 and 2018 with his next two LPs. It would be one thing if the Grammys stated their goal was to award the music that was the most commercially successful. It would be controversial, but at least listeners would be able to understand that the goal isn’t necessarily to present awards to the best pieces of art.
But the Recording Academy claims their current model is one that “celebrates artistic excellence.” But nowhere do they mention what that actually means. If the Grammys want to be taken seriously by music fans, they should specify exactly what their criteria for voting is. Is it commercial success or artistic merit? Is it somewhere in the middle? Where is the line drawn? This isn’t the NFL, where every player is playing on the same field under the same rules for the same goal. If you’re going to create an award that is as subjective as the art that it’s judging, it would help to have some guidelines in place.
2. Institute required listening and group discussion
I searched for a good two days to discover whether there was any joint listening session for the voters, or any group discussion that went into the decisions influencing the vote. According to the Grammy website, all voting is done remotely online, in an effort to ensure artists and other members of the industry that may be on tour are able to carry out the process easily. As such, there is no requirement for voters to listen to projects in their entirety, and no decisions that require a reaffirmed vote.
Let me say that again: there is nothing that ensures voters are listening to the entirety of the albums or songs they’re voting on. This may be the most counterintuitive facet of the process as a whole. Of course, with the large number of members in the Academy (12,000), it can be a daunting task to reel swaths of musicians into a room and ask them to listen to and discuss someone else’s music for hours on end. But, this brings me to my next point.
3. Slim down the number of voters
The push for more diversity in voices is an important one, and the push to include as many voices as possible seems fair when making judgments of who is considered to be at the top of a field. Though more data might seem like the right way to go from a statistical standpoint, the cost is well-developed opinions. By slimming the Academy to even just 1,000 members, the diversity of voices can be maintained while the prospect of individual discussions can be considered. The diversity of voices is only relevant if voices are able to express why they feel a certain way about a project. If such a technique was employed, the albums that hold up the best to analysis and insightful dialogue would rise to the top of the nominations and wins. Adele’s 25 wouldn’t have beaten out Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and (can’t believe I have to say this) Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly would have won over Taylor Swift’s 1989.
4. Ask artists what genre they’d like to be grouped in
Tyler, the Creator expressed contempt after his Best Rap Album win last year, stating that the award was a back-handed compliment as his album—which he considered to be a pop album—could only ever be viewed as a rap record because of his race. Tyler despises the word “Urban,” and thinks of it as a discriminatory word for an academy as well-versed as the Grammys. And he’s got a point. Much of IGOR features Tyler singing, and when he does rap, it’s used sparingly.
The current system has artists and labels send in their records to a preliminary listener committee that determines who fits into what category. Again, if that committee had really listened to the project, it would’ve been pretty obvious that what was playing wasn’t much more of a rap album than Taylor Swift’s Reputation would have been for a spoken hook “Look What You Made Me Do.”
If the committee had just asked Tyler which grouping he would have preferred, the issue would have likely been avoided. Besides, who knows an album better than the artist that created it?
Of course, there are problems with the Grammys that transcend the way voting is carried out. The Weeknd’s questionable snubs at this year’s ceremony, the odd choice in changing the name of the award for “Best Urban Contemporary R&B Album” to “Best Progressive R&B Album,” and the instance of a former Grammy executive being ousted for attempting to remove race-based and gender-based biases from the awards are issues that permeate not just the Grammys, but many long-standing American institutions as a whole. There are reforms that require more restructuring to remove aspects of racism, xenophobia, classism and corruption from the Grammys that I haven’t outlined above.
My proposed changes are all meant to serve one goal: restore the Grammys to an institution of artistic respect on a musical level. Of course, disgruntled viewers and listeners will be a staple of any awards show. But right now, the fans that are disappointed with the Recording Academy are the ones who are the most avid music listeners. Any effort towards mending that is, I think, a noble one.