The Grammys: Is music a fact-based or opinion-based industry?
There was a time when an offer to perform on the Grammys stage was one of the most coveted honours in music, where if the Grammys adjudicators deemed you an artist worthy of showcasing, then you’d made it.
It was the seal of approval most musicians pined for. But today’s awards ceremony is very different to how it once was. Two of the biggest artists of the day, Kendrick Lamar and Drake, both rejected opportunities to perform; Song of the Year and Music Video of the Year winner Childish Gambino didn’t turn up; and neither did the industry’s power couple Jay-Z and Beyoncé.
Notably, most of the artists that continually turn their noses up at the Grammys operate in the Hip Hop arena. This is partly because the genre has quickly become the biggest in the US, with Nielsen Music’s report suggesting 8 out of the 10 most streamed artists in the world are rappers. However, this surge has arguably not been mirrored by the genre’s award tallies, with the Grammys coming under fire for its problem acknowledging artists of colour, as well as consistently under-representing women. Clear attempts were made this year to shine the spotlight on female artists, with Kacey Musgraves winning Best Album and Dua Lipa winning Best New Artist.
But Hip Hop continued its troubled relationship with the industry’s most prestigious awards ceremony, with the biggest incident of the night arriving during Drake’s acceptance speech for Best Song. Instead of thanking the adjudicators (whoever those mysterious people are) for choosing ‘God’s Plan’ as the winner, he criticised the very existence of the Grammys. He addressed the crowd, “I want to let you know we're playing in an opinion-based sport, not a factual-based sport”, before elaborating, “Look, if there's people who have regular jobs who are coming out in the rain, in the snow, spending their hard earned money to buy tickets to come to your shows, you don't need this right here. I promise you, you already won.”
Half of this speech was ‘accidentally’ cut off, so that viewers didn’t get to see it, but it seems like Drake had a point. Although it may appear a little paradoxical for a music critic to claim that we are wrong to judge music, I think the Canadian rapper is right in that we cannot really take an objective approach, and the eclecticism that expresses itself through people’s music tastes highlights this. You’d be hard-pressed to sit a Heavy Metal fanatic opposite a Jazz connoisseur and get them to agree as to which is the ‘better’ form of art. By the same token, it seems futile for some unbiased umpire to conclude Jazz as superior to Heavy Metal, or vice versa. They’re just different, not necessarily better or worse. You could argue that the charts are this independent referee, so to speak, as the more popular a song is, the better it must be. But how come critics so frequently give an album a very bleak review, yet it subsequently leaps to number one in the charts? Whose opinion should we trust more? We can only really talk in terms of preference, rather than quality, and this is the notion Drake was trying to convey.
Can we compare Travis Scott’s ‘Sicko Mode’ to Mozart’s 21st Symphony? Can we rate Tracey Emin’s ‘Unmade Bed’ higher or lower than Dali’s ‘Lobster Telephone’? Can we even judge songs within the same genre to be better than others, or is it always going to be a matter of personal palate? Some Hip Hop heads might be obsessed with the Migos, while others will complain they are garbage compared to the old guard of 2pac and the Notorious B.I.G.
So really, who are the Grammys to say that Childish Gambino had a ‘better’ song than Lady Gaga, or Shawn Mendes? How can they profess such insight as to be able to do what nobody else seems able to do, and rank music, not only within genres, but across genres. Perhaps Drake summed it up perfectly in saying, "This is a business where sometimes it's up to a bunch of people who might not understand what a mixed race kid from Canada has to say or a fly Spanish girl from New York or anybody else, or a brother from Houston right there, my brother Travis [Scott]. But my point is you've already won if you have people singing your songs word for word, if you're a hero in your hometown.”
Music is made for the public and for the fans, it’s not aimed at critics or Grammys adjudicators. By the same token, for me to talk of ‘good music’, it should really just be interchangeable with ‘music that I like’. This isn’t a fact-based sport, it’s an opinion-based one - your playlist is your pantheon of Grammy winners.
So I guess that leaves me awarding Travis Scott the Best Metal Performance, Drake the Best New Age Album, and Future the Best Jazz Vocal Album. Who knew Hip Hop was so versatile?