’Tis the season for Grammy nominations, and the subsequent kvetching that follows their announcement. This year’s darlings are the odd couple of Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar, who will undoubtedly be performing their hit “Bad Blood” from Swift’s 1989 at this year’s ceremony. Lamar scored a stunning 11 nominations, with a nod in every rap category, plus Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and even Best Dance Recording, for his feature on Flying Lotus’ “Never Catch Me.”
The Grammys as an institution are ill suited to telling us much about the best music of the year. The nomination and voting process is done by people who rarely listen to enough music to consider their perspective anywhere near comprehensive, and who gets nominated has less to do with the best music of the year and more to do with networking, marketing, and the status quo.
But what does the Grammys tell us? It tells us that the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences formula seems to be a mix of critical acclaim and pop relevance; massive hits from Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift, The Weeknd, and Ed Sheeran make up much of the nominations in the big pop categories, though critical darlings like Courtney Barnett and D’Angelo also manage to sneak in. But the Academy’s critical ear is suspect; they stiff-arm massive bubblegum pop stars like Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, and One Direction, but it’s not like they’re giving indies a shot — almost every single nominee across all the major categories is on a major label.
The Academy also has an interesting relationship with Kendrick Lamar; they nominated him for seven awards the year that good kid m.A.A.d City dropped, and sent him home with exactly zero trophies. They attempted to rectify that embarrassment last year, awarding him two trophies for his uplifting single “i” in 2014, and nominating him for 11 awards this year — just one shy of Michael Jackson’s all-time record of 12 (1984), and ahead of Eminem (2001), Beyoncé (2010), Kanye West (2005), and Lauryn Hill (1999), who all had ten.
Despite all the love shown Kendrick, it’s clear that the Academy still thinks of hip-hop as its own thing, as if it hasn’t already been assimilated into pop. When a classic record like To Pimp a Butterfly dominates the critical zeitgeist, it’s easy for a voting member to just check that box and feel like they’ve filled their diversity quota. How else do you explain TPAB as the lone hip-hop record in the big three pop categories? Does D’Angelo fill their “urban” obligation? Is Dr. Dre’s Compton too bubblegum? Drake’s If You’re Reading This Its Too Late too underground? It would be laughable, if people didn’t take these things so seriously. As they should, considering the fiscal rewards that big winners stand to reap: The Grammy bump is real, and real profitable.
The Grammys could be so much more than it is; the music industry is as large as its ever been, but the recording industry, which the Grammys specifically is meant to celebrate, is receding. It brings several questions to mind, questions we’d love to ask the collective entity that is the Academy: Wouldn’t we all be better served by an awards show that gives equal footing to both commercial behemoths and the recordings that not enough people heard? Wouldn’t that be more useful than the suits patting themselves on the back for the profits made off of the few remaining commercially viable recording artists? When will the Academy finally acknowledge the way that many people (and most young people) prefer to listen to records (streaming, and probably on their phones)? As usual, when the Grammy noms drop, there are far more questions than answers.