Writing in 1981, the New York Times’ Robert Palmer critiqued that year’s Grammy Awards for overlooking efforts from Elvis Costello and The Talking Heads in favour of more commercially valiant acts like Blondie and The Pretenders. “These choices,” Palmer wrote, “make one wonder whether the Grammy Awards recognize artistic merit or commercial clout.”
Fast-forward 34 years: Palmer’s despairing declaration finds new life in the eccentric lamentations of one Kanye West, who, as The Guardian reports, blasted Sunday’s Grammys for bestowing the coveted Album of the Year award upon Beck’s “Morning Phase.”
In a now widely-circulated rant, West blasted the decision for “diminishing art” and “not respecting the craft.” He urged that the award be transferred to Beyoncé for her self-titled opus, in order to “respect artistry.”
But obsessive-narcissistic tendencies aside, what is truly troubling about West’s absurd comments, is that they aren’t absurd at all.
Since their inception in the 1950s, the Grammy Awards have purported to “honor excellence in the recording arts and sciences.” As explained on the official website, this “excellence” is determined by a voting panel of National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) members, each of whom is “involved in the creative and technical processes of recording.”
As the New York Times notes, contributing vocals or lyrics, writing liner notes or helping design an album cover can constitute ‘involvement.’
But what constitutes “excellence?”
The question was explored in a 2004 study published by the Academy of Management Journal, the world’s largest management research organization. Authors Mary R. Watson and Narasimhan Anand note that the first Grammy awarded in the 1950s was indeed “with the explicit mandate of recognizing artistic merit rather than commercial appeal.”
But a 1984 agreement between NARAS and the National Association of Records Merchandisers shifted the emphasis from artistic ability to marketability. Retailers were now obligated to promote Grammy nominees, which resulted in a “huge widening gap” between nominees and winners, the AMJ says.
This meant that, for the first time, having a Grammy-winning album equalled record sales. Whereas before it wasn’t uncommon for a nominee to sit out the ceremony altogether (The Eagles never collected their 1978 Record of the Year award for “Hotel California,” Watson notes) Grammy winners were now quadrupling nominees in annual sales.
The sudden economic incentive caught artists’ attention and pressure for the addition of new categories began to mount. There were 47 in 1975, Watson notes. In 1994, there were 79. In 2004, there were 108.
No genre has benefited more from this broadening artistic recognition than rap. Long ignored by the Academy–the first rap Grammy, the African American Registry notes, was awarded in 1988 to Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff for “Parents Just Don’t Understand,”–rap artists are now recognized in 4 distinct categories. And since rap is, as Watson notes, “the country’s most commercially popular genre,” the Grammys’ embracing of urban America’s artform has resulted in Kanye West, Eminem and Jay-Z each earning more Grammys than Elvis, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined.
On the upside, the increasing inclusivity has allowed seminal works like The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill–the first hip-hop record to win Album of the Year–to receive their rightful praise. But rewarding based on commercial viability means that the very definition of “excellent” will always be determined not by the voter, artist, or even the listener, but, as always, by the consumer.
And that’s why Kanye was…right.
Whatever it meant in the 1950s, by the 80s “artistic merit” came to mean “commercial appeal.” What is “art” is what is “popular,” and according to Billboard, what is “popular” is, well, Beyoncé.
Even with zero promotion, Mrs. Carter’s top-secret 2013 self-titled album sold 617,000 copies in its first week–more than double the total sales of Beck’s “Morning Phase.” The album went on to sell more than 2.2 million copies in the US.
It wasn’t its popularity but the meager commercial success of “Morning Phase” that landed the singer in the Billboard headlines, for “lowest-selling Grammy Album of the Year since 2008.”
Does Beck’s Album of the Year win constitute a gaff on the behalf of Grammy voters? Or will his win usher in a new Grammy era, in which voters reward originality, creativity and musicality, like that which he exhibited in writing Morning Phase‘s 13 tracks himself, in addition to playing 15 live instruments? That, only time will tell.
In either case, now would be a really good time for Beck to start rapping again.
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