The Grammy Awards show has consistently remained the single most important music awards show in the United States — although auxiliary ceremonies such as the Billboard Music Awards, MTV Video Music Awards and American Music Awards do exist and are culturally relevant, none of them quite reach the gilded spectacle brought forth by the Grammys every new year.
That being said, this all-important annual awards night has been nothing short of a dumpster fire for the past decade and beyond — and this year was hardly any different. Historically, important albums such as Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 decade-defining opus To Pimp a Butterfly have been relentlessly snubbed by a hilariously out-of-touch voting committee that awards popularity and music industry status over actual musical merit.
Taylor Swift’s win over Lamar for Album of the Year in 2016 for her lackadaisical album 1989 was an inexcusable mistake made by the Recording Academy — the magnitude of this error was felt by fans and artists alike, with important figures such as Frank Ocean publicly denouncing the choice and subsequently removing their own work from consideration by the Recording Academy altogether. This year, Kendrick Lamar along with winners Drake and Childish Gambino all declined invitations to perform at the show, reflecting the now-diminishing influence of a once-sovereign night meant to recognize masterful artistry.
As more mainstream artists disavow and disaffiliate themselves from the very awards that are supposed to quantify their merit, the Grammys continue to lose touch with reality. In a reactionary move, the Recording Academy attempted to make concrete changes to the ceremony’s structure and voting system. This year’s show on Sunday, however, displayed that although the Recording Academy is attempting to modernize itself, its effort remains a shamefully infantile work in progress.
Although many aspects of the night fell flat, the sentiments behind some of the ceremony’s live performances were successful in comparison — the keywords, of course, being “in comparison.” The Recording Academy put forth notable efforts in highlighting womxn of color and celebrating diversity in the music industry. Many of the acts involved combinations of artistic styles, with contemporary and classic artists performing side by side — these included Camila Cabello with Ricky Martin, Miley Cyrus with Dolly Parton and Post Malone with The Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Considering the evening highlighted diversity both in terms of race, gender and ethnicity and of genre, one can easily see that the Grammys are making a deliberate attempt at progress and inclusivity. There are still genres, however, that receive little to no recognition when it comes to live performances, such as indie rock, bedroom pop and alternative.
Host Alicia Keys took the stage to perform a medley of songs she said she wished she wrote. With features of a Coldplay song, Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up” and a range of other hits, Keys brought artists together by celebrating music as a form of artistic and emotional expression. This genuine, heartfelt solo performance was easily one of the best of the night, considering other performers from the night have already witnessed their fair share of controversy for possibly lip-syncing rather than performing live.
If there’s anything the Grammys did right, it’s bringing on legendary artists Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson to the lineup of performers. Ross sang a medley of her signature Motown hits, such as “The Best Years of My Life” and “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).” The singer was honored during the ceremony for “the rich history of her greatest musical accomplishments.”
Jennifer Lopez performed alongside Robinson for a tribute medley to Motown, featuring songs such as “Please Mr. Postman” and “ABC.” While Robinson himself melted hearts with his performance of “My Girl,” this act as a whole sparked much criticism, considering Lopez, a Latinx pop singer, was singing in tribute to a genre traditionally rooted in Black soul music.
Performance-wise, the Grammys were a relative success — even though the production quality and wow-factors were almost nonexistent, which was especially clear given the boring stagings and lack of artistic lighting.
Drake’s megahit “God’s Plan” winning Best Rap Song was no surprise — filled with meme-able punchlines and a party-ready beat, the streaming-era single became the most successful song of 2018, receiving a Diamond certification by the Recording Industry Association of America, or RIAA. The RIAA certifies tracks and albums as Diamond when they surpass 10 million sales and sale-equivalent streams. Although Drake’s musical output in 2018 was categorically panned by critics, his music had the most reach of any artist worldwide — the Grammys stayed true to its horrific tendency to judge music predominantly based on its commercial success. In his award speech, Drake himself spoke out against the Grammys and asserted that the awards are irrelevant — before he could finish his statement, the show’s telecast cut to commercial.
An outcast of the country music scene whose music was shunned by radio, Kacey Musgraves received the recognition she deserved Sunday night for her amazing album Golden Hour when she took home the Album of the Year prize. While some fellow nominees, including Janelle Monáe and H.E.R., were proper contenders for the award, other choices such as Drake — whose painfully mediocre Scorpion seemed more worthy of year-end “worst of” lists than a Grammy nomination— appeared to be included solely based on their popularity.
The similar Song of the Year and Record of the Year awards both went to Childish Gambino this year for his smash-hit “This is America.” Although “This is America” rightfully made history by being the first rap song to win in both categories simultaneously, its competition in both categories was laughable at best — Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up,” Zedd’s “The Middle,” Cardi B’s “I Like It,” and Post Malone’s “Rockstar” all shared the same focus-tested, engineered-for-radio quality that the Recording Academy seems to look for when deciding upon its nominees.
Overall, yes, with every passing Grammy Awards show, the Recording Academy seems to be trying. No, the program is unfortunately still not that enjoyable. Every year, there is consistently a handful of artists that receive nominations from the Recording Academy or perform at the show while receiving hardly any radio airplay or media attention prior to the award show airing. The Grammys continues to support under-the-radar or underappreciated artists — while this could be seen as a positive attribute, these musicians are traditionally white artists who are play-it-safe, easy-to-listen choices who rarely create music that is as socially conscious as their perhaps more popular industry peers.
What’s apparent once again this year is that the Recording Academy is still lacking in diversity. The Grammys’ Diversity and Inclusion Task Force was not created until May of last year, and the short time frame makes sense considering the awards show still feels out of touch with younger listeners — and oftentimes, the general public. The new push for diversity is a welcome change in the Recording Academy that should persist each year going forward, but until we get a real reflection of what musicians and audiences resonate with today, we’ll continue to award artists who, while creating beautiful work, do little to change the game.
Justin Sidhu covers music. Contact him at [email protected].