Complaints about the Grammys are about as old as the Grammys themselves. Over the decades, Little Richard, Sinéad O’Connor, Frank Ocean and many others have ripped the awards show for being self-serving and for being exclusionary, especially to women and artists of color.
But these criticisms have reached a fever pitch over the past two years. Executives turned defectors have claimed widespread internal corruption, music stars have questioned the show’s voting processes, and streaming platforms have kickstarted their own rival shows to undercut the Grammys’ unique prestige. “What once was the highest form of recognition may no longer matter to the artists that exist now and the ones that come after,” Drake wrote in an Instagram story in November.
The Recording Academy hopes to salvage some of its reputation in this year’s ceremony, which arrives March 14 will feature a high-powered set of performers including Taylor Swift, Cardi B and Billie Eilish. But the academy’s long-entrenched structural issues, compounded by fundamental shifts in the music industry at large, may make its bid to regain primacy an uphill battle. Here are some of the main challenges the Grammys must overcome.
For years, public derision has followed each instance of white middlebrow acts triumphing over culture-defining Black art at the Grammys. (See: Macklemore winning over Kendrick Lamar; Beck over Beyoncé.) In January 2020, former Recording Academy president Deborah Dugan threw another devastating haymaker when she filed a formal complaint accusing its voting body of being a “boys’ club” rife with corruption and favoritism via secret committees. (She also accused high-ranking members of sexual misconduct and financial irregularities.)
Dugan’s claims were all that other industry power players needed to pile on to the organization. When the 2021 nominees were announced in November, Halsey, Nicki Minaj, Drake and the Weeknd all took to social media angrily, with Halsey alleging that nominations were often predicated on giving “‘bribes’ that can be just ambiguous enough to pass as ‘not bribes.’” (Dugan’s complaint alleged that high-ranking board members can push nominations to artists with whom they have relationships.)
These attacks served as a double blow: not only did they normalize the idea that Grammy victories aren’t truly earned, but they also exacerbated a trend of music’s biggest stars defecting from the ceremony. The Grammys derive much of their power from stars’ participation–and given the way Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift, Beyoncé have all recently opted out, it’s increasingly difficult for them to declare themselves “Music’s Biggest Night.” (This year, Swift will perform but Beyoncé seems like she will sit out; most of the other major nominated artists, including Bad Bunny, Megan Thee Stallion and Harry Styles, have been announced as performers.)
A Globalizing Music Industry
The rest of the nominations revealed several ways in which the Grammys lag far behind a new era of the music industry, which has been fundamentally changed by streaming. The academy’s longstanding iciness toward hip-hop is even more pronounced given that the genre now sits at the center of the pop world. 2020’s best-selling album, Lil Baby’s My Turn, failed to receive a nod for Rap Album much less Album of the Year, while Cardi B says she didn’t even bother submitting her risqué single with Megan Thee Stallion, “WAP,” for consideration despite the fact that it would go on to hit No. 1 both on worldwide charts and on many critics’ year-end lists.
The Grammys’ U.S.-centric approach to recognition also looks outdated in an era in which superstars are rising across continents, in cities from Seoul to Lagos. While the Grammys have microcategories for all sorts of American subgenres—Contemporary Blues, Regional Roots—they still lump virtually all non-Latin music into one Global Music Album category, forcing the Afrobeats superstar Burna Boy to improbably battle it out with the British-Indian classical sitar player Anoushka Shankar.
Last march, Spotify recognized this global shift when it kickstarted its own awards show in Mexico, paying tribute to the fast-rising icons of Latin America like Bad Bunny and Karol G. And in December, Apple Music planted a flag for a younger generation with its own awards show, giving Lil Baby the top award and featuring glossy, high-production performances from Megan Thee Stallion and Roddy Ricch that racked up millions of views on YouTube.
Not only are the Grammys not only the only gig in town anymore, but it’s unclear how much top-down awards shows even matter in a new era of fandom. Twitter has served as a leveling force for ardent fanbases of pop stars; these “stan armies” use their reach and enthusiasm to lift their idols up the charts through vociferous streaming campaigns. As they rally around Billboard and Spotify numbers, turning music into a math-driven competition, an award that they can’t control that is given by gatekeepers they no longer trust becomes a much less important part of the equation.
And other numbers say that even in a year of extreme home-bound isolation, interest in awards shows has cratered. In the past year, the Emmys, Billboard Music Awards, CMA Awards and the recent Golden Globes all hit all-time lows in ratings. The Grammys themselves hit a 12-year low last January, and all signs point to that downward trend continuing this year.
The one artist most equipped to buoy the ceremonies this year might be the Weeknd. After delivering an eye-popping Super Bowl performance last month, the singer saw an enormous streaming bonanza of his music. But he wasn’t nominated for a single Grammy this year—so he won’t be showing up for the ceremonies. “I have three Grammys, which mean nothing to me now,” he told Billboard. A rising number of people around the world would agree.