Grammys On Mute

Written by Chinwe Oniah

illustration by Paulina Zepeda

illustration by Paulina Zepeda


Female performing artists dominated the 2019 Grammys in the wake of Neil Portnow’s infamous “step-up” comments during the 2018 ceremony. One quarter of the ceremony performances featured women who took home most of the televised awards. Hip-hop music got some good looks too this year and the nominees were for the most part well diverse. The Academy has worked to right its wrongs, but we’re reaching a point where we’re beginning to really evaluate the relevancy of the Grammys as an award show and institution. The Recording Academy’s prestige has been eroded by the many gaffes the Grammys have made in the past several years. The award show has arguably become more important than the awards they give out, jockeying for Internet breaking moments, and being tone-deaf in the process. Ratings have gone down and the tomfoolery has gone up.

This year’s viewership numbers held steady from last year at 19.9 million, but, it’s a 24 percent drop from 2017 with 26.1 million. The highest Grammys ratings were in 2012 with 39.9 million and 50.1 million in 1984.

Like any televised event, the Grammys have always been a place where careers have been made or re-invigorated. Memorable moments have included Beyoncé’s performance while pregnant with twins, “Wu-Tang is for the kids,” P!nk aerobic act, Adele giving her album of the year Grammy to Beyoncé, Lady Gaga showing up in an egg, Beyoncé performing with Prince, Kanye pulling a Kanye on Beck, Beyoncé performing with Tina Turner, Queen Latifah officiating a wedding for 33 same-sex couples…

You get it.

For women in the music industry, the representation was great to see this year. Brandi Carlile’s performance was breathtaking, Chloe x Halle cemented themselves as the new vocal bibles, and Alicia Keys’ medley reminded us that she DOES THIS. This year it became clear that some of the greatest musical acts are women. While great performances and shocking moments are part of the award show spectacle, this year it didn’t feel like a celebration of music’s greatest talents. Instead, the Grammys felt like a cacophonous composition of politics, culture, and other moving parts competing for ratings. In a nutshell, the Grammys have lost hold of their symphony.

The Grammys as an event helps uphold the relevancy of the Academy. Just as the event is an opportunity to raise an artist’s profile, it is just as important for the Academy to maintain their credibility. From now and into the foreseeable future, many will still hold the Grammys as the highest award and honor a musician can receive. However, the constant missteps in the voting process and in the live show makes it increasingly difficult to take it seriously.

The most glaring issues are apparent even in the categories that the Academy chooses to air. Truth be told, the majority of the Academy is mainly composed of an older, white crowd that has no idea what the hell is happening in music today. The Academy is still paying for Macklemore’s wins over Kendrick Lamar in 2014, and Paul McCartney could fart on a record and still win a trophy. Remember when Iggy Azalea was nominated for Best Rap Album? “Grammy moments” are engineered and built into the show to attract viewers. We see this in tributes, special performances, Taylor Swift’s surprise face, but none of it is to genuinely uplift artistry. Butched tributes, cut off speeches, odd pairings (see Cee-Lo and Gwyneth Paltrow) and every year someone is left off the “In Memoriam” segment. If the voters can’t get it right and the show is garbage, why would anyone want to watch?

Artists have long criticized the Grammys too. Accepting his award for Best Rap Song, Drake summarily said the Grammys don’t matter, adding that an artist’s streams, ticket and album sales are the most important measures of their success. He’s not the first to say such; Bon Iver noted something similar in 2012,  Jay-Z in 1999, Eddie Vedder in 1996 and Sinead O’Connor in 1991, but Drake’s words stuck. As one of the most influential artists of the decade, his presence is felt nearly everywhere. He doesn’t need the Grammys; the Grammys need him.

Nonetheless, the academy has made some changes to the voting process. This year, 900 people across race, gender and genres were invited to be members of the Academy, and 22% of the invitees agreed to be voting members for this year’s ceremony. They’ve also made changes to their nominations and membership process. On the award ceremony side, there’s now eight nominees instead of five in the top four categories, a woman host (Alica Keys this year), and overall more women performers and presenters.

The show got points for featuring more women this year, but that doesn’t mean that there’s overall more women working in the music industry. University of California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s annual report showed that not much has changed in representation from last year: Of 48 engineers and producers nominated in 2019, only two were women.

Change can take a while and it’s clear the Academy and the Grammys are trying, but as Sinead O’Connor said in 1991, commercialization is a problem, and it ruins the artistry the Academy was built to celebrate.

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