Why The Grammys Matter More Than Ever

by Carl Wiser

Once dismissed as out-of-touch and irrelevant, Grammys are now more coveted than ever.

The Eagles didn't bother showing up when "Hotel California" won Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards in 1978. But times have changed. In 2017, Don Henley was one of the many stars performing at the MusiCares gala to honor Tom Petty, one of many Grammy-associated events surrounding the awards ceremony in what is now Grammy Week. "Twenty years ago I'd have been way too cynical to do this, but I'm 66 now and I feel ya," Petty said.

The Grammy Awards are determined by about 12,000 voters, many of whom are present at events like the MusiCares gala. These days, just about anyone with a chance of winning does the circuit, which includes meet-ups, fundraisers, and showcases at the Grammy museum. There's also a huge PR push, which includes "For Your Consideration" ads in trade magazines and email blasts to potential voters. Some even post their pleas on social media.

This craven campaign system is certainly no worse than what goes on with the Oscars (where films are often crafted to appeal to voters) or in many other industries that dole out awards. And it doesn't always work - Harry Styles got snubbed despite his best efforts to curry favor. What is surprising is how we've all assimilated to it.

Grammy wins have always corresponded to a huge boost in sales, but in this era of fractured journalism where press bios are regurgitated for stories, the "Grammy-winning" descriptor shows up more than ever as an instant indication of quality, regardless of category. You don't read much about "American Music Award-winning" artists.

There was a time when an endorsement from John Peel, Dave Marsh, or any number or other influential DJs and journalists could mean more than an award, but these days the biggest tastemakers are the artists themselves, armed with legions of followers on their social media accounts. And they want the hardware.

Predictably, many old-school music journalists have a problem with this. David Hepworth, who was writing for Smash Hits and NME in the '70s, told us: "I hate it when I turn on the radio and they announce that somebody's dead with the words 'Grammy Award winner...' That's why they made such a fuss about Bob Dylan getting the Nobel. So that when he goes they can say 'Nobel prize winner Bob Dylan' when in truth he's bigger than that. He doesn't need your prizes. He's Bob bloody Dylan."

Grammy Flubs

The Grammy folks have gotten their act together over the last decade or so. Milli Vanilli got caught lip-synching in 1989, then won the award for Best New Artist seven months later. It was rescinded when the duo admitted they didn't even sing on their album.

Such a fiasco would be unlikely today, when there is more due diligence and a better understanding of the genres. Sure, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis beat out Kendrick Lamar in 2014, but that's a minor lapse in judgment compared to the first rap Grammy, given in 1989 to DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. (At least they didn't give it to J.J. Fad, who were nominated). That same year, the flute-forward Jethro Tull won in the Hard Rock/Metal category, bewildering even the band.

Fixing The Mistakes

When the Grammys drop the ball on an artist, they make up for it by bestowing a "Lifetime Achievement Award," their version of an honorary degree. The Beatles, who won just three awards while they were active, got one in 2014. Led Zeppelin didn't win a Grammy until they got it in 2005. Elvis Presley, whose only award had come in 1967 for Best Sacred Performance, was bestowed the honor in 1971.

These awards are limited only by the number of gongs they can produce in the foundry. Last year, seven were given, to Velvet Underground, Charley Pride, Nina Simone, Shirley Caesar, Ahmad Jamal, Jimmie Rodgers and Sly Stone. That's covering your bases.
They were the first girl group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but The Supremes never won a Grammy. Diana Ross, 0-12 on Grammy nominations, got the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012, but The Supremes were never honored.
And it's not just every musically important person who gets an award. Thanks to the category of Best Spoken Word Album, they can honor luminaries and influencers across the spectrum. Carol Burnett won last year; previous winners include Stephen Colbert, Sidney Poitier, Michael J. Fox, Barack Obama (twice!), Maya Angelou, and one they'd rather forget: Al Franken.

Giving someone an award is a great way to curry favor. Unless it's Bob Dylan.

It's still basically a popularity contest; the last two Album of the Year winners - 25 by Adele and 1989 by Taylor Swift, were the best-selling albums the years they were released. When it does go off-script, like when Beck won that award in 2015 or Steely Dan in 2001, that's when the system seems flawed.

Giving In

What's not to love? Only the most churlish among us can have a problem with Petty's MusiCares celebration, a fitting tribute that raised millions to support musicians in need. A number of young artists - The Head and the Heart, Elle King and The Shelters among them - got to show their stuff to the Grammy voters that night by performing Petty's songs. Good fun all around.

The last major award winner to skip the ceremony in protest is Sinead O'Connor, who won Best Alternative Music Performance in 1991. She explained: "I wanted to voice my objection to the use of the music business as a means of controlling information and of honoring artists for material success rather than artistic expression or the expression of truth, which I consider to be the job of artists."

January 11, 2018
Here's our list of songs that won Grammy Awards

More Song Writing

Comments: 1

  • Indy from UkI'm honestly not intending this comment as rude or start an inflatory discussion. I like America, it's music, and people, but it is worth knowing, from an international standpoint, the Grammy doesn't travel far.

    Perhaps these awards are valued only to corporate America and to some Americans. The arts and sports departments seem to be in a perpetual wallow-ment of self congratulatory award shows.

    I also thought the article well wriiten, and I'm of course probably wrong about the Grammys influence...
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