Next year, it’ll be entirely possible. After freshly ousted Recording Academy President Deborah Dugan surfaced allegations of vote-rigging and sexual misconduct within the organization’s highest levels mere days before Sunday’s awards, the academy is expected to make an immediate pivot into introspection. Let’s hope for the best. A smart shift in Recording Academy leadership could make the Grammys’ highly secretive voting process more transparent. It could make the awards more inclusive — and, you know, representative of our reality. It might even cultivate an environment where the artists feel free to speak their minds about the academy’s inner workings from the Grammy dais.
That didn’t happen on Sunday night, and the silence was eerie. The Grammys were trudging through the most contentious internal scandal in their 63-year history, but uninformed viewers would have had no idea. It wasn’t until the very last moment of the telecast when host Alicia Keys vaguely suggested that “we need to do better.”
Next year’s Grammys should at least look different on the surface. The telecast’s producer, Ken Ehrlich, is stepping down after 40 years of creating “Grammy moments,” usually via those transgenerational duets that made “music’s biggest night” feel more like a sodden veneration of the past than a vital celebration of the present. It’s an approach that brought Ehrlich into direct conflict with various nominees in recent years, including Ariana Grande and Bon Iver. (Dugan has also accused Ehrlich of having inordinate influence over the Grammy voting process. Ehrlich has denied it.)
Regardless, the Grammy night telecast has been Ehrlich’s baby for decades, and he ended his last one with a soaring tribute to himself: A long, loud, all-hands-on-deck performance of “I Sing the Body Electric” from the 1980 movie “Fame.” Aside from the man in the control booth, who was this for?
We like to think that the Grammys are for us, but we think wrong. In truth, the Grammys have only ever been the music industry’s overblown celebration of self, a prime-time public relations ritual in which a cutthroat industry pretends to put its best face forward.
And that makes the racism of the Grammys all the more galling. Rap music has been the dominant mode of pop music for this entire century, but here’s a distressing piece of Grammy trivia that we have to keep reciting, year after year: Only one rap album, OutKast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below,” has ever won the most coveted Grammy, album of the year. And that was 16 years ago.
Sean “Diddy” Combs has had enough. At a pre-Grammy gala on Saturday night in Los Angeles, he declared that “black music has never been respected by the Grammys,” then called on the academy to change course. It’s outrageous that the artists who’ve been excluded from the academy’s highest honors are the ones tasked with initiating reform, but here we are. “I’m officially starting the clock,” Diddy said. “You’ve got 365 days to get this s--- together.”
And who in the Grammy electorate wouldn’t have been inspired to do exactly that after Tyler, the Creator literally set the stage aflame on Sunday night? Joined by Charlie Wilson and Boyz II Men, the performance obeyed the law of “Grammy moments” — thou must collaborate with at least one household name at least twice your age — but it ultimately felt like an urgent, subversive, playing-with-fire kind of fun. Tyler was the greatest performer of the night. Why wasn’t he up for any of the night’s biggest prizes?
After the ceremony, Tyler said that the Grammy he later won for best rap album felt like a “backhanded compliment,” adding, “I don’t like that ‘urban’ word. To me, it’s just a politically correct way to say the n-word. Why can’t we just be in pop?”
Yeah, why not? Why not introduce more genre-blind award categories to the slate? Why not invite a wider variety of artists into the Grammys’ most prestigious winner’s circles? Tyler, the Creator has a cascading imagination, but this idea was simple enough. For a Recording Academy that desperately needs to re-imagine itself, it would be a good place to start.