As a University of Texas grad student, my colleagues studied film or television and I focused on recording industry research. After attending numerous Oscars parties, I invited grad school friends over to watch the Grammys. A few moments into the broadcast, I regretted my decision. Unlike the festive atmosphere of the Oscars, watching the Grammys was an ordeal.
Of the three biggest award shows – The Oscars, The Emmys, and the Grammys – the Grammys debuted last. Without the Oscars’ glitz, the Grammys rely on performances and personalities above all. Who wants to celebrate the recording industry, anyway?
In his essay, “The Industrialization of Popular Music,” Simon Frith critiqued the “music as self-expression” vs. “music as commodity” dichotomy. The immediacy of music makes us suspicious of a music industry, Frith argues. Might my own residual distaste for the Grammys be tied to its role as gaudy symbol of music as commodity?
Not exactly. My problem has to do with the recording industry’s inability to represent the breadth of its output. This is likely an unrealistic desire. The recording industry’s low barrier to entry has meant that the trends shift at breakneck speed. The Grammys have struggled to keep pace. Having missed Disco’s meteoric rise, Grammy voters sought to catch up in 1978, when A Taste of Honey (“Boogie Oogie Oogie”) was named Best New Artist over Elvis Costello, The Cars, and others. This made the Grammys late to New Wave, having missed Punk altogether. In cyberspace, people still debate whether A Taste of Honey deserved the award, while leaving the show’s formula for odd couples – in this case, Eubie Blake and John Denver – to speak for itself.
Second-guessing award shows is crucial to their reception, and the Grammys are no different. This year’s major revision of Grammy Award categories led to protests. This year’s Grammys were also controversial for awarding lesser-known artists, as fans debated Esperanza Spalding beating Justin Bieber for Best New Artist or the Arcade Fire’s Album of the Year win. While I imagine a Grammys that could better represent the scope of the recording industry’s output, these debates underline the award show’s continued importance. The Grammys still matter.