Anyone who cares about contemporary pop music knows that the Grammy Awards have been way too bloated for way too long. Year after year, an unlistenable amount of music is nominated for an unreasonable number of prizes, leaving fatigued academy voters feeling defeated by choice, resulting in the perennial search for the nearest box labeled “Adele.”
Routinely, the most coveted Grammy in the lot, album of the year, seems to go to the wrong act, producing an alternate-universe pantheon that doesn’t include Nirvana, Madonna, the Rolling Stones, Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen, Mariah Carey, Radiohead, Jay-Z, Prince, 2Pac or Led Zeppelin.
Nor does it include Kendrick Lamar or Drake, two rap superstars who have reportedly turned down invitations to perform at this year’s Grammys, along with Ariana Grande and Childish Gambino, who also said no thanks. The disillusionment is clearly spreading from the audience to the artists. Despite being nominated for album of the year on Sunday, Drake and Lamar aren’t even expected to show up to the ceremony.
Plus, as popular culture sinks deeper into digital space, the album format itself continues to matter less and less. Some of today’s most visionary musicians release multiple albums each year. Others prefer to spray singles. The difference doesn’t make one artist any more resonant than another. And why judge the greatness of music on the shape of its container, anyway? We don’t pick our favorite foods based on portion size. At least we shouldn’t.
So here’s an impossible fix to this unholy mess: Give out one — one! — Grammy each year. And to pull it off properly, the Recording Academy would only have to steal ideas from two neighboring awards shows.
The first is the Country Music Association Awards, which gives out its top prize for entertainer of the year. This award measures an artist’s holistic impact — it accounts for their recordings, their live performances, their general public presence. Everything counts. And isn’t that how we measure greatness in our multiplatformed era? Nashville is behind the times in a lot of ways, but when the CMAs give out that EOY trophy every autumn, the city momentarily transforms into the sparkling music capital of the future.
The other music awards show with theft-worthy elements is Britain’s annual Mercury Prize, which generates a shortlist of 12 great albums made by U.K artists and then gives out a trophy to whomever made the best one. There’s a televised ceremony, and most of the nominees perform on it, and then someone reads someone else’s name and that’s it. From afar, it seems so elegant.
So why not remake the Grammys in a Frankenstein style? Stitch the CMA-EOY head onto the Mercury Prize body — and voila! The trophy itself instantly becomes wildly prestigious, not unlike a sports championship in which there’s only one winner.
As for the telecast, it would suddenly feel urgent and illuminating, efficiently familiarizing the greater listening public with a dozen of the most esteemed musicians at work. And if music-biz veterans need to be involved in order to draw older viewers toward their TV sets, no sweat. Invite the legends of popular song to introduce the performances being given by their direct musical heirs. (And make your words count, you speechifying legends. Even if you’re reading off a teleprompter, you’re performing up there, too.)
The nominee pool would be genre-blind, of course, which would require the Recording Academy electorate to consider a lot of ineffables in selecting the 12 nominees. But so what? Music itself is made of ineffables, and awards shows should be fun. This would be fun.
Picture Sunday night’s Grammy ceremony in this trim, suppositional shape. Of the dozen nominees, you’d surely have R&B cosmonaut Janelle Monáe and country psychonaut Kacey Musgraves in the house, based on the strength of their albums alone. Cardi B’s debut album felt big, but her cultural impact felt mondo, so she’s in, too. Lady Gaga nailed a career-defining ballad in “Shallow,” which just happens to be on the soundtrack of a blockbuster romance in which she stars — plus, she has two concurrent residencies up and running in Las Vegas. She’s definitely in. Meantime, here in reality, Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” is nominated on Sunday for song and record of the year, plus best music video — so that multiplatform confluence earns the guy a hypothetical invitation. Same for Kendrick Lamar, who performed on and helped curate the soundtrack to “Black Panther.” And like too much cologne, Drake remains omnipresent, so yeah, fine.
With five spots left, we should add the Carters, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, who staged a pretty great 2018 tour for their pretty good 2018 album. Also, reggaetonero Bad Bunny, who releases hit singles like he’s shooting them out of a T-shirt cannon. Ariana Grande dropped a beloved pop album, and then a planet-eating single with “Thank U, Next,” so she’s on board. For a dark horse, how about country singer Ashley McBryde? She seems to have spent the past few years living “A Star Is Born” in real life. And last, we must invite rap eminence Pusha T, not just for his adequate album “Daytona,” but for “Story of Adidon,” the most nuclear diss-track in history.
Put the dozen of them on one stage and let ’er rip. Imagine the anticipation leading up to it. Imagine the urgency of the performances. Imagine all of the evening’s drama folded-up inside a single envelope. Imagine one name being called. Imagine one acceptance speech! Imagine watching the 11 o’clock news at 11 o’clock. Sounds dreamy, doesn’t it? Wait. I think I hear my alarm clock going off, and it sounds like a Post Malone song.
The Grammy Awards 8 p.m. Sunday on CBS.