The Problem with the Grammys
The Grammys have come back around again, this time for the 60th anniversary of the awards. What does this mean? Another demonstration of how flawed the western world’s largest music awards really is.
Of course, the talk of the awards was Bruno Mars’ wins in all 6 categories for which he was nominated. Whilst I can’t deny the appeal of 24k Magic in its funk, disco and 90s pop nostalgia, it was no doubt written for the dancefloor. This is not an album whose lyrics have been written to be analysed, whose music has been written to be digested over multiple listens from track 1 through to track 9. And whilst this is not a problem- feel good, easy listening dance hits are great- 2017 was a tumultuous year in which awful political decisions were made, and many accounts of tragedies and abuses both personal and widespread finally reached the public. A lot of great, heartfelt, cathartic music was written in response to the many problems that 2017 bought with it.
“Bruno Mars’ wins are symptomatic of a larger problem in this year’s awards: favouring of club bangers over socially conscious, emotionally stirring music in a year in which this music really needed to be recognised.”
One glaring example of this favouring of easy listening music over something with more substance is in Ed Sheeran’s Best Pop Solo performance for his club objectification ballad ‘Shape of You’. This win sticks out like a sore thumb against its competition of 4 female artists, in a year in which female identifying artists were already severely underrepresented in the nominations. Kesha’s gorgeous comeback ballad ‘Praying’ also featured in this category, detailing her self-empowerment and new found confidence in a soulful declaration of freedom directed at her abuser- whose name I won’t include so that, as Kesha wishes, ‘(we) won’t even know (his) name’. Given the nature of the emotional abuse that Kesha was subject to, the award to ‘Shape of You’ is shocking considering its lyrical content. As is the win for ‘24k Magic’ in the Album of The Year category- with choice lyrics from the title track not sounding too dissimilar to this emotional abuse (I’m looking at you ‘ya ugly ass friends’).
Considering the competition Mars had in the Album of The Year category, I am even more dumbfounded that he won. As I said earlier, I believe a lot of the appeal of 24k Magic is due to the disco and funk nostalgia its beats and instrumentals evoke. This is also largely true of Childish Gambino’s ‘Awaken My Love’, also nominated in the Album of The Year category, whom heavily draws upon Funkadelic on the album, and classic soul in others. However, ‘Awaken My Love’ is the superior album in my opinion, as Gambino more deftly handles a range of styles both in the instrumental composition, and his exquisitely diverse delivery (from the gorgeous falsetto on ‘Redbone’ to the shrieks of ‘Me and Your Mama’).
Kendrick’s masterful, diverse DAMN., Jay-Z’s frank and apologetic ‘4:44’, both of which address personal and societal issues, and Lorde’s truly terrific ‘Melodrama’ were also nominated in the Album of The Year category. Kendrick delivered a brilliant performance art piece, with a variety of instrumentals and vocals from DAMN., as well as a new track released with Jay Rock and Future in anticipation of the upcoming Marvel film Black Panther. The performance expertly mixed the contemporary music of DAMN. with the jazz inspired live band sensibilities Kendrick showcased on To Pimp a Butterfly. Jay-Z was asked to perform but snubbed the Grammy’s producers- understandable given his complicated relationship with the awards. Childish Gambino delivered a soulful rendition of ‘Terrified’, and Bruno Mars treated everyone to a rendition of ‘Finesse’ with Cardi B. Where, then, was Lorde? Given her role as a feminist icon, you might think she turned down an offer to perform in protest against the underrepresentation of those who identify as women at the awards. Rather, she wasn’t even offered a solo performance slot, only being asked to perform as part of the group Tom Petty tribute. She was, then, the only artist nominated in the Album of The Year category not asked to give a solo performance. The Grammys is well known for its lack of representation of female identifying artists, and this year’s awards have provided yet more evidence that the Grammys need to evolve and progress.
Another glaring flaw in the Grammys, in my opinion, is its western centric approach to music. Take, for example, the World Music category- which Ladysmith Black Mambazo won for their album ‘Shaka Zulu: 30th Anniversary Revisited’. World Music is such a defunct genre title- what does it exactly mean? To me, it strikes me as meaning music from anywhere that is not the western world. To lump so many diverse genres, from Gamelan, to Soukous, to Mbube, to Indian Classical music together under one blanket term is dangerous and ignorant. This 'genre’ contains music originating from many different cultures, with entirely different ways of thinking about music (use of microtones in gamelan and Indian classical music, no concept of harmony in Indian Classical music) to each other and to music in the Western tradition. Grouping them together under one umbrella perpetuates the idea that they are somehow all similar and does not acknowlede their differing roots in disparate cultures, and only leads to their continuing perception as ‘exotic’. Despite the obvious influence of many different ‘World’ music genres on some of the western world’s most popular artists- from Indian Classical music (Ravi Shankar notably) and The Beatles, to a huge variety of African genres on Vampire Weekend- the Grammy’s still refuses to acknowledge their independent existence as separate genres.
It’s a shame- the Grammys should be a celebration of unity, of the collective love shared for music by so many. And yet, the failure of ‘the World’s leading society of music professionals’ to recognise the achievements of such a large proportion of the world- be they female identifying or making music endemic to a region or culture that is not considered part of the western world- prevents this from happening. Instead, the Grammys continue to insight controversy year after year- unfortunately, this year was no different.