It’s prestige season in popland, a time of year when institutional forces try to nudge music’s unknowable pleasures toward some impossibly nifty resolution. The Recording Academy unveils its massive slate of Grammy nominees. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announces a boost in membership. Record labels and streaming services count their beans. The rest of us contemplate what greatness sounds like, but instead of listening for it, we look to these scoreboards for the official results.
It’s ugly to think of popular music as a game that separates winners from losers, inductees from snubs, bestsellers from flops. But these bifurcation rituals persist because we crave certainty and we want it now. Prestige season offers authoritative, on-the-spot clarity. It promises to tell us whether Adele’s “25” is better than Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” or whether Pearl Jam is greater than Jane’s Addiction, or whether Drake is more popular than Michael Jackson. Premature conclusions get chiseled into the marble, clean and quick.
Actually listening for greatness, on the other hand, can feel like a slow journey through a heavy fog. But we coach one another through it, and eventually true greatness is conferred through lore — a holy alliance of time and talk. This is how the best music survives. When a piece of music radiates a beauty, or a virtue, or a usefulness that refuses to be depleted, we refuse to shut up about it. All the golden trophies, platinum records and exclusive membership cards in the world can’t compete with the sanctifying power of eternal blab.
The scoreboards of prestige were ostensibly built to guide those conversations, but their ulterior motive is to end them. Prestige season exudes an air of finality — as if our standards of excellence aren’t flexible, as if our pantheons aren’t porous, as if our values aren’t always up for debate. When we turn to the scoreboards, we’re looking for the last word in a conversation that never ends.
Here’s something to remember during the Grammy Awards telecast, next year and every year: If greatness requires time, a Grammy is nothing more than a bet on the future. Simple as that. The record-industry electorate is voting for the music it hopes will endure, so instead of rewarding excellence, a Grammy becomes a token of optimism. “Congratulations,” it says. “Your colleagues hope your songs will matter tomorrow.”
Hope is the operative word. The Recording Academy has consistently lagged behind the changing currents of popular music for so long, its knack for getting things wrong has become a running cosmic joke.
The ceremony’s highest honor is always tucked inside the envelope labeled “album of the year,” and here are some folks who never won it: James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye, the Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Led Zeppelin, Al Green, David Bowie, Neil Young, Queen, Curtis Mayfield, Willie Nelson, Diana Ross, Prince, Nirvana, Mariah Carey, Radiohead, Kanye West. Here are a few who have: Christopher Cross, Toto, Norah Jones, Mumford & Sons.
Against our better judgment, we still manage to scrounge up a little faith for the upcoming Grammys any given year — probably because that’s what the artists do. About this time last December, Kendrick Lamar was on a media blitz in hopes that his masterwork “To Pimp a Butterfly” might win album of the year. (No dice. The winner was Taylor Swift’s “1989.”) This year, Chance the Rapper has embarked on a similar campaign, pleading his case for the best new artist prize. These guys are each virtuoso rappers, and they’d each like to see their craft formally acknowledged by the industry that profits so handsomely from it — which is entirely fair and totally maddening. Their participation legitimizes the Grammys far more than a Grammy could ever legitimize their music.
Frank Ocean got wise and took a knee. The reclusive singer decided against submitting his latest work for consideration at February’s Grammy Awards because he’s seen the system perennially neglect the year’s most significant music, time and again. Jay Z expressed similar feelings back in 1999: “I am boycotting the Grammys because too many major rap artists continue to be overlooked. Rappers deserve more attention from the Grammy committee and from the whole world.” Since then, Jay Z has won 20 golden gramophones, 21 in all, making him one of the top Grammy winners of all time — but he has never sealed a victory in any of the “big four” genre-blind categories. When it comes to the awards that matter most, the Recording Academy seems determined to continue writing an alternate history — one that widely reads like a ledger of lousy bets.
If you believe in pop music as a collective expression of utopian spirit, you should make the pilgrimage to Cleveland to see the holy shrouds. James Brown onesies, Hank Williams Nudie suits. All under one roof. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a treasure in that sense. Aside from listening to their songs, what more intimate way to commune with your deities than by gazing at the garments they once wore? It can be a beautiful experience, so long as you skip the museum’s inductee gallery. That’s where the hall’s official members — Abba to ZZ Top — have their signatures etched into a glass-paned wall that effectively splits the gods from the wannabes. It looks neat, but it’s little more than a monument to the shared tastes of a nominating committee that deliberates in private.
So when the hall announced its new class last week (2Pac, Joan Baez, Electric Light Orchestra, Journey, Pearl Jam and Yes), the conversation wasn’t about who got in so much as who got passed over (Chic for the 11th time, among others) and why. As ever, there were no satisfying answers. The definition of “rock and roll” has gone from fluid to meaningless in recent years, and the bar for entry to the hall remains difficult to locate.
The industry-folk who sit on the nominating committee say that they’re honoring innovation, integrity and influence (the subjective stuff) while claiming not to care about popularity, airplay and sales (things we can actually measure — which is why it’s much easier to enshrine athletes than new-wave bands). However, unlike those unlucky Grammy voters, the hall committee at least has the advantage of time. They’ve been pondering the meaning of greatness for decades, and accordingly, the temple they’ve built on Lake Erie feels a little more in sync with the tastes of the wider public.
But that doesn’t make the hall’s superficial exclusivity any less degrading for the inductees, the rejects, the gatekeepers and the onlookers. When yesteryear’s counterculture heroes keep banging on the door, begging to be validated by the establishment, how could anyone ever feel good about letting them in?
In case you missed it, Drake caught up to the King of Pop this summer. The numbers said so. “Drake and Michael Jackson are now the only two male artists in Billboard history to concurrently have the No. 1 song and album for seven consecutive weeks,” the folks at Vulture reported in a piece headlined, “Drake Is Now Officially as Popular as Michael Jackson Was During Thriller.” A week later, Drake broke that record. Did that make him more popular than Jackson?
Among data-worshiping technocrats, maybe. Truth is, most of the action on pop’s national sales floor is made by curious listeners trying something new. A transaction is a flirtation, and it only takes a click. However, if streaming platforms continue to thrive, they may eventually help us to differentiate between the songs that get played and the songs that get replayed. We’ll be able to watch flirtations turn into commitments. But that doesn’t mean it’ll be perfect. Knowing how many times someone streamed “Billie Jean” doesn’t tell us how deeply they love it.
And it’s wrongheaded to rely on music’s commercial viability to explain the depth of our love, anyway. But it happens. When the mysteries of our pleasure overwhelm us, it’s much easier for us — fans, music journalists, everyone — to praise an artist for carving out prosperous new lanes in the marketplace. And when the boundaries between the sales floor and the dance floor go blurry like that, false equivalences are free to run wild. So in a relatively low-stakes kind of way, suggesting that Drake’s chart victories somehow allowed him to surpass the greatness of Michael Jackson back in July underscores the fundamental crisis of the information age: our inability to differentiate between information and knowledge.
Give up on the Grammys. Forgo the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rip up the charts, crumple them into a little ball and sink a three-pointer into the nearest wastebasket. Then what? If we renounce our faith in these things, where do we put it instead? As idealistic as it sounds, into our own talk. The scoreboards of prestige offer a handsome mirage of certitude, but our ongoing discussion about greatness remains unruly, public, perpetual and paramount. Prestige trickles from the top down. Consensus builds from the bottom up.
Those most comfortable in their greatness seem to understand this. In addition to Frank Ocean protesting the upcoming Grammys, we also saw Bob Dylan distance himself from the Nobel Prize in literature he was given earlier this year. Dylan seemed confident that his importance had already been ratified through the grapevine. And it has. We don’t call him “12-time Grammy winner Bob Dylan,” or “Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bob Dylan,” or “Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan.” We call him Bob Dylan.
We should trust our talk. We should trust the listening that ignites it. We should acknowledge the fact that music is every bit as unknowable as life, and that greatness is inherently mysterious, and that trying to speak our way toward it — as joyous and hopeless as it can feel — will always be worth the effort.