Why the Grammys Matter

The day after the 2012 Grammys, an NPR article debating the award ceremony’s merits found its way onto my Facebook feed (“Question of the Week: Be Honest – Do You Care About the Grammys?”, 11 February 2013). As Jacob Ganz notes, “cataloging the Grammys’ flubs has become easy sport,” yet he answers his question with “a surprising yes.”

Wait – what? How could any self-respecting journalist part with the widely-held belief that “the Grannys” are out of touch and irrelevant? Didn’t this guy get his Music Journalism 101 handbook? It clearly spells out what anyone writing about music is supposed to hate: pop music made for and by teens and tweens, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, bands that sell out and, most of all, the Grammys.

After all, this is the organization which made such notorious flubs as giving a Best New Artist trophy to Milli Vanilli and deciding to break in its hard rock category by bypassing Metallica in favor of Jethro Tull. The judges thought it made more sense to give Song of the Year to Roger Williams’ “Little Green Apples” than The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”. Heck, this is the organization which gave Tony Bennett’s 1994 MTV Unplugged the lofty Album of the Year prize.

Indeed, there are some embarrassing chapters in the Grammy history book. However, more often than not, the Grammys get it right. Well, maybe not 100 percent right, but more right than wrong. Let’s look at just the last decade’s Album of the Year winners (parentheses indicate year it won, not year of release):

– Mumford & Sons Babel (2013)

– Adele 21 (2012)

– Arcade Fire The Suburbs (2011)

– Taylor Swift Fearless (2010)

– Robert Plant and Allison KraussRaising Sand (2009)

– Herbie Hancock River: The Joni Letters (2008)

– Dixie Chicks Taking the Long Way (2007)

– U2 How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2006)

– Ray Charles Genius Loves Company (2005)

– OutKast Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2004)

The most popular criticism of the Grammys is that it leans toward safe, middle-of-the-road picks. Most of these albums can be spun at a dinner party without riling the guests. Even OutKast, arguably the edgiest act on this list, is bound to produce smiles when “Hey Ya!” kicks in.

However, this isn’t just a list of music for 40somethings and beyond. Adolescents caught with Arcade Fire and Mumford & Sons on their iPods aren’t going to become pariahs. No matter how mainstream Adele and Taylor Swift are, can anyone reasonably argue they don’t deserve golden trinkets to decorate their fireplace mantles?

Another common complaint levied specifically at the Album of the Year prize is that it’s more of a career achievement award. That certainly has happened – does anyone really think Hancock’s River or Charles’ Genius are the pinnacles of their careers? Doesn’t it seem silly that the former beat out Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black and Kanye West and that the latter triumphed over Green Day, Usher, Alicia Keys, and, well, Kanye West?

However, most of these albums were significant releases representative of a surprisingly wide array of genres including folk, British blue-eyed soul, rock, country, Americana, jazz, R&B, and rap.

Cynics may whine that none of these albums represent their genre at its best. Sure, Taylor Swift may be categorized as country, but she’s more pop. U2 may be the biggest rock band in the world, but they hardly represent the edgiest stuff the genre has to offer. These albums, however, may well open up the average music fan to stretch his or her music palette.

Detractors are fond of screaming “The Grammys are just a popularity contest!” Uh, yeah. That’s kind of the point. The Recording Academy isn’t generally trying to tout the next big thing – unless it’s crowning Esperanza Spalding Best New Artist like a couple years ago. Its members are understandably looking to boost the profiles of already familiar properties. The ideal candidates mix critical acclaim and an “it” factor along with commercial clout. It should be no surprise that the Grammy powers-that-be aren’t aiming to spotlight your local club’s favorite Saturday night bar band as the best in its field.

One of the biggest flaws behind the average person’s arguments regarding awards shows, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or assessments of who should and shouldn’t get radio airplay comes down to this: people are baffled when the rest of the world doesn’t share their musical tastes.

It also wouldn’t hurt to remember that when Mumford & Sons takes home the big one, their fans who have been with them since the beginning had their dreams come true – the rest of the world did catch on to their personal tastes.

Reflect on the Grammys of yesteryear and there are signs that things have changed. Look at the ’80s. It was the decade of the blockbuster and the Grammys were doled out accordingly. Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, George Michael, Lionel Richie, and U2 all produced memorable Album of the Year pop chestnuts, but were far from edgy picks which would challenge the average music listener to open up to a “new” kind of music.

Maybe you didn’t root for Mumford & Sons or Adele the last couple years. Maybe you have no use for them at all. However, they are flag bearers for some of the most significant directions for music in recent years. Along with success for the Mumfords comes exposure for The Lumineers, Alabama Shakes, The Avett Brothers, and The Decemberists – and maybe a dip of the toe into the musical folk-rock pond which spawned them. People who champion Adele might also try Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Joss Stone, Florence + the Machine, or other artists indebted to the blue-eyed soul of Dusty Springfield a generation ago.

That’s the context in which to judge the Grammys. They are markers of what is popular today and what is trending for tomorrow, but they can also serve as links to the musical past. Complain and whine about the awards if you wish, but as for Jacob Ganz’s question “Do You Care About the Grammys?” I reply with a resounding Yes!