Say hello to the slimmer, svelter Grammys.
What, you didn’t notice? The annual awards — taking place on Sunday in Los Angeles — have eliminated 31 categories, scaling back from 109 to 78.
And it’s still way too big.
Yes, a Grammy is still the highest honor bestowed in the record industry, but the cutback isn’t enough to help the annual awards shake a decades-long reputation for feeling bloated past the point of meaning. If those little gramophone statuettes ever hope to hold as much cultural prestige as, say, an Oscar, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) needs to keep slashing, even if it rankles genre underdogs who protest that the Lady Gagas of the world already enjoy enough acclaim.
That protest has been loud and passionate. Two weeks ago, Jesse Jackson penned a letter to NARAS President Neil Portnow to say that he was considering a boycott of the awards ceremony for stamping out categories noted for racial and cultural diversity. “Music, of all arts, should be expansive and inclusive,” Jackson told the Associated Press. “So much talent comes from the base of poverty and those in the margins. You limit the base, you miss too much talent.”
The cuts don’t exclude anyone — they just force artists of certain genres to compete in broader, consolidated categories. But Jackson is right about there being too much talent out there. There’s far too much. An immeasurable number of recordings were made this year, and more than 17,500 were submitted for Grammy consideration.
So instead of trying to wrap its arms around the entirety of recorded music — an impossible task — shouldn’t the Grammys celebrate very best of the very best? It’s time to ditch the every-kid-gets-a-trophy approach. Reduce and consolidate more categories. Exclude no one, raise the bar and let the Grammys thrive on competitive zeal.
It’s doable. “There’s nothing in stone about our process,” says Portnow over the phone from Los Angeles. “That’s the beauty of it.”
Portnow also says that the recording academy understands that the world of music is increasingly fluid, and each year NARAS evaluates its awards structure to help the Grammys better reflect reality. This historic overhaul is a little different, though. It came after a two-year review of the entire Grammy infrastructure out of concern that the awards had become diluted. “In 2011, we had 109 categories,” says Portnow. “Does that mean in five years it’s 150, and in 10 years its 200?”
This year’s big reduction is a shrewd step in the right direction, but it’s still just a step. Additional cuts would result in more artists competing for fewer awards, bringing the Grammys closer to establishing meaningful standards of excellence in a sprawling pop music landscape that longs for shape and definition.
Last year, Arcade Fire provided Grammy night’s biggest shock by winning album of the year. Instead of the evening’s biggest honor going to a previously overlooked veteran or a high-sales favorite, it went to an indie rock band in the prime of its relevance. After decades of ignoring landmark records from Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, the Rolling Stones and others, the recording academy had provoked a sort of inverse gasp. The Grammys felt a little more in touch.
In his 1992 book “Broken Record: The Inside Story of the Grammy Awards,” author Henry Schipper argues that out-of-touchness was written into the Grammys’ genetic code. When the founders of NARAS assembled in 1957 hoping to create an awards show, they were flummoxed by the rise of rock-and-roll — “ a kind of antimusic — lyrically inane, shoddily produced, a mockery of any reasonable set of musical standards,” Schipper writes.
To honor “artistry” and “excellence,” NARAS hosted the first Grammy Awards in 1959. There were 28 categories. Henry Mancini took home album of the year. Other winners included Ella Fitzgerald, Perry Como and “the Chipmunks.“
As rock-and-roll came to a boil in the ’60s, it was largely ignored on Grammy night, and the recording academy was roundly criticized for being too conservative. The reputation stuck. In 1981, The Washington Post’s Richard Harrington wrote, “Again this year, the nominees reflect a conservative bias that has diminished the weight the awards carry within the very industry they serve.”
It’s been a major image problem the Grammys have struggled to overcome. “The academy may have lagged behind,” Portnow admits. “Most of our infrastructure here would say that was the case. But we’ve gone to great lengths to make sure that isn’t the case any longer.”
Part of the remedy, in the past, was to include more music by adding more categories — for rock, rap, metal, reggae and other genres. (By the time disco got its own category in 1980 its popularity was already waning, and the award was scrubbed the next year.)
In 1972 there 47 awards. In 1982 there were 62. In 1992 there were 78. In 2002 there were 102.
“Keep these speeches short!” Kathy Griffin shouted at last year’s Grammys. “We have 90 [bleeping] categories!” The comedian was helping host the pre-telecast portion of the awards, a ridiculously rushed ceremony that illustrates the Grammys’ unnecessary girth.
Television viewers never see it because only a dozen or so Grammys are handed out during the network awards telecast. Last year, it was just 10 — the iceberg’s tip. This year, the 12,000-plus voting members of NARAS narrowed more than 17,500 submissions down to a final ballot of about 390.
The sheer quantity of the recordings submitted suggests that members are voting on music they haven’t spent much — or any — time with. Critics have wondered if go-with-who-you-know voter fatigue has contributed to conservative nominations and victories over the years.
Meantime, prominent musicians have criticized this year’s shrinkage, saying it hurts diversity, including Paul Simon, Herbie Hancock, Bonnie Raitt, Eddie Palmieri and Carlos Santana. Four Latin jazz musicians went as far as filing a class-action lawsuit against NARAS in August.
For artists who might win in the categories that were trimmed, a Grammy nomination alone could help keep a musical career afloat until retirement . (R&B, classical and American roots lost four categories in the reduction. Pop, rock, country and Latin each lost three. And best Hawaiian album, best Native American album and best rock or rap gospel album categories were eliminated altogether.)
One solution might be to try to break the Grammys up into genre-specific awards programs. The Latin Grammys were launched in 2000 to better recognize a branch of music that was sprawling across the globe. Could other genres splinter off like the Latin Grammys did? Portnow says, “Anything is possible.”
Another idea. The four “general” categories — record of the year, song of the year, album of the year and best new artist — are the most coveted awards at the Grammys, partially because they’re genre-blind. Could the Grammys streamline the awards structure by consolidating into more genre-agnostic categories?
Portnow: “We haven’t arrived at that thus far. It doesn’t mean that we couldn’t.”
Portnow says NARAS is sensitive to drum-banging. And while artists and critics have been particularly vocal this year, it’s yet to be seen how fans will react. TV viewership has been up, with 26.66 million viewers tuning in to last year’s telecast, the Grammys’ highest ratings since 2000.
Even as music sales decline, the world of music is getting bigger, and so is its audience. But the Grammys must continue to shrink if they ever hope to embody a coherent expression of excellence.
For that to happen, prestige is paramount. In a recent rockumentary by filmmaker Cameron Crowe, Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard goes rummaging through his home and finds the Grammy he won in 1996 gathering mold in a dark corner of his basement. What actor would treat an Oscar with that kind of pffft?
“It’s critical that the Grammy be perceived as prestigious by the artist community,” says Portnow. “If it wasn’t meaningful to the artists, by extension, it wouldn’t be important to anyone.”