Similar to the Golden Globes, I found myself wondering during the Grammys why I bother with awards season. The winners are predictable, the performances boring, the show generally forgettable. While there were a few notable standouts, I was overall disappointed with the awards show.
Here’s what I liked:
1) Little Big Town’s performance of “Girl Crush.” The arrangement of string instruments for the performance wasn’t too big of a risk, but it was interesting and differential enough from the original song that it was cool to listen to. It’s also a really great song.
2) Lady Gaga’s David Bowie tribute. Because it was one of two honest performances that took place. It was messy, abstract, and entertaining as only Gaga can do. No one else could have done a Bowie tribute but her.
3) “Uptown Funk” won both of the awards it was nominated for, including Record of the Year. Enough said.
4) Of course, Kendrick Lamar’s performance. it was the only truly notable takeaway from the show itself outside of the winners. It was what everyone was talking about in the days after it. It was in-your-face, theatrical, and powerful — a real callback to the roots of hip hop and rap culture. Although it is worth noting that his performance didn’t (and still hasn’t) caught as much flak as Beyonce’s “Formation” did just a week prior, Lamar’s performance proves that rap is genre that deserves to be taken seriously as an art form.
Which leads me to everything I didn’t like about the show: basically everything else.
One reason I prefer the Grammys to the other shows during award season is because it’s the most diverse. Music is the one art form that you literally can’t keep people of color, particularly black people, out of. But the Grammys over the years has sure as hell tried.
It took them 30 years to add rap as a legitimate category at the award show. The year 1989 was the first year the ward for Best Rap Performance was given. It went to DJ Jazzy Jeff and “The Fresh Prince” Will Smith, but none of the rap categories were televised. Because of this, many of the nominated rappers staged a protest, including DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith.
The 1989 Grammy boycott, including nominees DJ Jazzy Jeff & Will Smith, Salt N Pepa, Public Enemy, and Kid N Play (Photo cred: karmajonezknows.com)
This year unlike the last, the award for Best Rap Album was televised as the first award of the night, but if for no other reason to be able to give Kendrick Lamar at least one award on the main show, consolation for his not taking home Album of the Year. No surprise he didn’t get it, though; only three hip-hop acts have ever won Album of the Year.
But the covert racism extends further than rap. Less than 20 percent of Album of the Year awards have gone to black artists period. This is the second year in a row where a black artist was in contention to win big at the Grammys (remember Beyonce’s album?) but didn’t. Last year, there was considerable criticism and outrage that Beyonce’s self-titled album did not take the top prize. And comparing last year to this one, it is clear that there is no consistency with whom the academy deems deserving of Album of the Year. Last year, people were saying that Beck’s “Morning Phase” took home the top honor because it wasn’t mainstream. People lauded him for playing all of his own instruments and singing his own vocals and belittled Beyonce’s mainstream-ness and “lack of talent” for not solely writing/producing her record.
This year, it was the opposite. The Album of the Year award could not have gone to more of a formulaic, cookie-cutter artist than Taylor Swift. The academy clearly went with the most popular option, despite the production, subject matter, and lyrics of Lamar’s album being superior. Whether it was white man vs. black woman or white woman vs. black man, accounting for all contradictory factors, the only factor that seems to be prevalent is that top awards are reserved for white artists. Beyonce’s self-titled album and Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” were the most politically and socially relevant albums in music in their respective years. Not to mention, Lamar’s “Butterfly” was rated the #1 album of 2015.
The black erasure was also evident in the award show performances (or lack thereof). It struck me that three of the five artists that did the Lionel Richie tribute were white. I can think of at least five other artists that would have been better suited to do a tribute to the soul singer. None of them are white. They could have recruited actual black, modern soul singers, but instead they went with mainstream white artists. While the show had tributes to Richie and late artists David Bowie and Lemmy Kilmister, there was not tribute for late singer and legend Natalie Cole, despite her being a nine-time Grammy winner.
Taylor Swift took home Album of the Year, and as annoying as that is, the singer somehow managed to be even more annoying during her acceptance speech. Although rightfully sniping back at Kanye West for saying he made her famous, Swift’s assertive message came off as very holier-than-thou. I couldn’t imagine being a female singer in the audience listening to Swift almost brag about her being the only woman to win the honor twice while they not be in the privileged position that has made that possible for Swift. Not only this, but her speech seemed almost rehearsed, and was a clever way to shift focus from her undeserving win over Lamar.
Boring and white as always, the Grammys this year were a let down. But artists like Kendrick Lamar and Beyonce give me hope, and prove that even in this day and age, you can still be unapologetically black.