Adam Graham: Grammy Awards strive for relevance in shifting world

This week the Grammys announced a major change in their nomination process. But will it make a difference?

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

The Grammys screwed up this year. And their solution to their screw-up may make things worse. 

Singer Bruno Mars poses in the press room with his Grammy trophies during the 60th Annual Grammy Awards on January 28, 2018, in New York.

At January's awards show, Bruno Mars was awarded the Album of the Year trophy for "24K Magic," a fine if not exemplary nod to 1990s new jack swing. In doing so, he beat out Kendrick Lamar's deeply literary "Damn," the heavy favorite in the category and the far more deserving candidate to win.  

Grammys gonna Grammy. It's not the first time the Recording Academy has gotten their big prize wrong, and it won't be the last. But the embarrassment was exacerbated in April when "Damn" became the first rap album in history to claim a Pulitzer Prize, meaning the the Pulitzers now have a better pulse on contemporary music than the Grammys. (The Pulitzers are also now more rap-friendly than the Grammys, which have only ever honored two rap albums with its Album of the Year prize, the last time being in 2004.) 

The Kendrick fiasco wasn't the only hit the Grammys took this year. The awards were widely criticized for the lack of female nominees in its top categories, to which Recording Academy chief Neil Portnow responded women should "step up" if they wanted to be better-represented. In other words, the fact that 13 of the 15 nominees in this year's Album, Record and Song of the Year categories were by men was not because of the politics of the nominating system or the makeup of the voting body, but rather a bi-product of women not "stepping up." Got it, Neil. 

After widespread criticism of his boneheaded comments, Portnow announced last month he'd step down from his position (but not immediately, he's going to hang on for another year, past next year's Grammys), and this week the Recording Academy announced a major shift in their nominating process: the fields for Album, Record and Song of the Year will be expanded from five nominees to eight. But the number of nominees in each category was never the problem. This change simply dilutes the fields, making it less meaningful for each individual nominee's inclusion, and gives Grammy voters three more chances per category to get it wrong.

Do the Grammys still matter? Viewership for this year's telecast was down 24 percent from last year's and hit a record low for viewers 18-49. As the music industry shifts toward streaming and new models of consumption, the Grammys, more and more, come off as a relic of the old industry machine. It seems the only time the awards are discussed is for purposes of ridicule (which they make so easy).

Awards shows overall are making strides to stay relevant and keep up with the times; this week the voting body for the Oscars announced they'd extended invites to a record 928 new members, 49 percent of them female and 38 percent people of color, in an effort to expand the diversity of the Academy's ranks. And the Oscars shifted their Best Picture field a decade ago from five films to 10, a move made to recognize more popular films, though it hasn't quite worked out that way.

Big, splashy awards shows may well soon be a thing of the past as viewer habits shift and society changes; MTV's Video Music Awards, once a barometer that set the pop culture conversation, have all but faded to obscurity. Change is necessary, but the Grammy move seems like the latest in a string of blunders. There are still too many categories -- 84 this year! -- and the show itself is a cluster of unmemorable performances and moments. (Remember anything that happened during this year's telecast? Exactly!)

There's still a place for the Grammy Awards, and there will be as long as young artists still dream of winning that symbol of recognition from their peers. But when Kendrick Lamar came to DTE Energy Music Theatre earlier this month, it wasn't his Grammy wins he was touting on his stage's video screens, it was that Pulitzer. To which the Grammys would have to say, "damn."

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