By Kate Shackelford
Art by Catherine Ferguson
“The Recording Academy’s job isn’t just to hand out awards; it’s to listen to the music and to hear the voices of all those who make it, and we’re listening like never before. We hear the cries for diversity, the pleas for representation and demands for transparency,” said interim CEO and president of the Recording Academy Harvey Mason Jr. in his televised message during the Grammys, which aired on March 14.
Every year the Grammys receives just as much backlash as it does praise. This usually just means that the awards given out and the artists who receive them are important to the audience, that the general public cares, which is a good thing; however, I can’t help but feel that this year is different. A certain definiteness seems to be looming over the criticism following the show. Action is being put to words. Many established artists are calling out the Grammys on social media and talk shows, and the Weeknd has even gone so far as to boycott by refusing to submit any future work for consideration.
The Recording Academy is made up of musicians, producers, sound engineers and other industry moguls. To become a member, one must submit two peer recommendations and a brief profile detailing his or her music career. If the application is reviewed and the person is accepted into the Academy, one must then meet the eligibility requirement of having at least six credits on commercially-released tracks or twelve on digital-only tracks in order to be able to vote.
Music is submitted to the Academy in two different ways; either an artist’s record company submits their work, or it is nominated by an Academy member. All ballots must be received by Jan. 16 in order to be considered. Then, all the music (which averages to about 20,000 works) undergoes a careful screening process overseen by a committee of 300 people tapped each year by the Academy. During this process, the submissions are categorized, and nothing is eliminated. After that, there are two rounds of voting: one to determine the Grammy nominations and one to finalize the Grammy winners.
A few red flags pop up in my mind as I review this information. First, my attention is drawn to the two methods for submission. It seems like this would make it very difficult for smaller, independent artists to send in their work. Furthermore, there are no specific details regarding how they review membership applications, what sort of criteria they are looking for. To me, it seems eerily similar to college admissions, and that process is proven to be extremely unfair. Also, the Academy conceals the identities of its members. For all we know, there could be only ten voting members. With awards like these, the overall decision is swayed by the group members’ individual biases. A larger group increases the accuracy with which these decisions align with public opinion because it leads to a greater diversity of thought and background. That is the key point to keep in mind: the Grammys are subjective. These awards are not given to artists based on the number of album sales, how well a song or album fared on the charts, or any sort of quantifiable data. They are based on the subjects’ (in this case, the Academy’s) analysis of the “quality” of the work and their individual tastes. This leaves a wide margin for issues like favoritism, potential racism and xenophobia and maybe even a dash of networking here and there to occur.
Mason said, “Work with us, not against us as we build a new Recording Academy that we can all be proud of, one that will continue to do the work and serve everyone in the industry… And, we will stand up for what’s right and fight for greater diversity and more equal representation. This is not a vision for tomorrow, but the job for today.”
The categorization of works has been an ongoing issue for the Recording Academy. After the 2020 Grammys, Tyler, the Creator spoke out about the underlying message of his being placed in the rap and urban categories.
Tyler, the Creator said, “It sucks that whenever we — and I mean guys that look like me — do anything that’s genre-bending or anything, they always put it in a rap or urban category.” He then described his award for Best Rap Album as a “backhanded compliment.”
The fact of the matter is that the majority of international and POC artists are segregated by being placed in restricting categories, labelled with terms like “global music” or “urban,” often due to what they look like or what languages they speak. The big four categories seem to be reserved for the same small inner circle of big-name artists every single year.
Because there is not enough time during the ceremony, many awards are announced pre-show via the Grammy website. This year, as in years past, the majority of the rap, R&B and Latin music categories were announced before the ceremony actually began during what is called the Premiere Ceremony. The ceremony was kicked off with a tribute to Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” followed by performances from Lido Pimienta who sang her track, “Eso Que Tu Haces,” and Nigerian singer-songwriter Burna Boy, a nominee for Best Global Music Album. Of the pre-show acts, only one quarter of them were white Americans. Sure, they are including marginalized voices, but who is actually watching the pre-show on the Grammys website at noon PT?
Moreover, the Recording Academy used the most highly-anticipated artists, like Doja Cat and BTS, for social media coverage and saved their performances until the end of the show to ensure viewer retention. If those are the artists that are drawing the most attention and that are being used to promote the ceremony, then I wonder why they did not take home any awards? This begs the question, are these awards really reflective of public sentiment?
The Recording Academy promises that they are working to reform and broaden their “diversity, representation and demands for transparency.” While we have witnessed small amounts of change, like the renaming of categories in time for this year’s show, it seems that the Grammys are losing their luster to both artists and the public. After all, the 2021 ceremony set the record with the least amount of viewers in the show’s history, drawing only 8.8 million people as compared to the 18.7 million people who watched in 2020 and 19.9 million in 2019. People are turning to favor more inclusive awards that are representative of all global music, like the Diamond Award from the World Music Awards.
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