Year after year, the Grammys expose the disconnect between the music industry’s inflexible self-image and the perpetually evolving attitudes, values, tastes and habits of the greater listening public. Rap music, inarguably the defining music of our century, has only been blessed with the most coveted Grammy, album of the year, once. On top of that, we’re about to finish up a decade — the era of Beyoncé, Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West — in which no black artist won album of the year.
Up for the big one in January: Bon Iver, Lana Del Rey, Billie Eilish, Ariana Grande, H.E.R., Lizzo, Vampire Weekend and Lil Nas X. With the women outnumbering the men, it appears that the Recording Academy now understands that representation matters to its audience — but it has chosen to address its gender problem before working on its race problem.
We obviously need to keep arguing about how the canon gets built, and we will. But now is also a fine time to ask why we care so much about a canon in the first place. In the world of pop music, prestige season is upon us, with critics compiling their year-end lists while the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame stokes its perennial food fight over who’s worthy of entry to its stupid club. Throughout these discussions, a blurry line of logic prevails: What makes music important today is its potential to remain important tomorrow.
And that’s an idea that invites us to really zoom all the way out and think about our future as a society, or even as a species. In terms of climate science, this has been a year of grim news and urgent warnings. You won’t hear that urgency in the music of most of this year’s Grammy nominees, but as spectators, perhaps our canon-building can start to feel like a tacit gesture of hope. When we talk about which music deserves to endure, we’re placing little bets on the future. The optimism is implicit. We’re assuming that humanity will have a future in which to enjoy “Old Town Road.”
But let’s not be idiots. We’ve forfeited our right to assume anything on this fragile blue dot. We need to be pressuring our leaders to act on climate change at every available opportunity. Yeah, sorry for the inconvenience, but even on Grammy night. If we’re going to argue over which music we want our grandchildren to remember us by, our ecological future deserves to be at the very center of that discussion. Otherwise, all of our canon-talk becomes instantly meaningless.
Overall, this year’s full Grammy slate stashes a few meaningful ideas into the time capsule, even if the overall package feels imbalanced and incomplete. Lana Del Rey (nominated for song and album of the year) delivered ballads that spoke to our political and ecological despair. Billie Eilish (nominated for best new artist, album of the year and four other trophies) sang with intimacy and irreverence, offering a salve against digital alienation. Their music aims to achieve that same basic thing that every Grammy telecast aspires to: defeat our feelings of anxiety and isolation by bringing people together.
But regardless of who ends up on the dais at January’s Grammy ceremony — 282 days ahead of an election in which Americans will be asked to vote on the immediate fate of our planet — will they have anything to say about the one issue that binds us as a species?
It all feels so obvious. Preserving our music requires preserving our world.