This morning I woke up only to learn that two of my favorite NYC mainstays had taken home golden gramophones last night at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards. Gave them a shout on Facebook, texted one to let them know how elated I was to hear that they’d been honored by The Recording Academy for their work on one of the year’s most important independent albums. Had I actually watched the awards show, I’d have been more timely with my response.
It’s a moment young underexposed musicians typically relish. The “mama we made it” crown that validates the couch-diving, subway-busking and dues-paying they gleefully suffer. But the crown is not their own, just a token to their family or community signifying that all of this amounted something. They’ve long understood The Grammys basically told those musicians, the very same ones that grew up revering that little-gilded statuette, that they never had a fuck to give. And that, until this year, they’re not bending.
For the last 12-15 years straight I’ve devoted one Sunday of every February to a big or small screen for this perpetual shit-show of an industry circle-jerk, well before I understood the politics behind the beast. About half this time was spent operating under the assumption that Good Music always wins.
Forgive my ignorant bliss.
The music world equivalent to a Royal Rumble shares the inherent biases and faults of its ringside counterpart: platforms forged with the blood, sweat, and tears of people of color and refuse to acknowledge it, throwing themselves barely exclusive soirees with money earned off the excellence of brown people the world over (white-washing the narrative for an overwhelmingly white audience all the while.) Truth is, The Grammys won’t be relevant until the music matters more than the platform.
The Recording Academy knows this too well. On Saturday, Rolling Stone went live with a podcast interview of Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich and writer David Wild, offering two higher-ups a chance to sound off on a landmark amendment that granted consideration to streaming-only projects. This push was almost entirely spearheaded by Chance The Rapper, undoubtedly the world’s most acclaimed independent artist regardless of genre. Instead, Ehrlich and Wild decided they’d come out of pocket and address Frank Ocean’s lackluster, riddled-with-tech-issues 2013 performance, coming off like a pair of desperate and woefully misguided hosts overselling the scale and exclusivity of their event. I mean, dude’s basically like “yeah, Drake was supposed to come through, but he had to bounce to Europe for a bit.” Meanwhile, nobody except for stakes-holding performers even turned up for this thing.
Frank Ocean, clapped back with some of the sharpest commentaries on Grammys culture I’ve ever read:
“1989 GETTING ALBUM OF THE YEAR OVER TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY. HANDS DOWN ONE OF THE MOST ‘FAULTY’ TV MOMENTS I’VE SEEN. BELIEVE THE PEOPLE. BELIEVE THE ONES WHO’D RATHER WATCH SELECT PERFORMANCES FROM YOUR PROGRAM ON YOUTUBE THE DAY AFTER BECAUSE YOUR SHOW PUTS THEM TO SLEEP. USE THE OLD GRAMOPHONE TO ACTUALLY LISTEN BRO”
All of which is to say that a year’s worth of brilliance cannot ever be reduced to a criminally-overextended 3-hour-stretch of “TV Moments.” For fuck’s sake, we’re not even talking about the same medium here. If you’re looking at The Grammys as an opportunity to put your spin on the work of tireless, detail-heavy creatives, you’re not only compromising their vision but that of generations that have fought diligently to reclaim their narrative from propaganda machines similar to the one you’re helming.
Ehrlich and Wild would rather sell short each and every musician that graces that stage in the name of well-intentioned ambition than be the loudspeaker a platform of that size is obligated to be. I’m not saying there haven’t been memorable “TV moments” that amplified and emboldened the records they were inspired by — this year alone Beyoncé and Chance The Rapper did the impossible and made a room full of self-important folks realize they’re not the most revered demo in the room — but if Adele, the unanimously beloved stadium ballad specialist, bows to the Queen and refuses to accept the Grammys fool’s gold tiara, there’s something deeply miscalculated in the approach.
That the “Album of the Year” Grammy broke in half was perfect symbolism. The Recording Academy has had the nearly 60 years to get this right. And it may be 60 more until we finally tune out.