How to Make the Stale Grammy Awards Relevant Again

To be sure, bitching about the Grammy Awards from one angle or another is as much a January tradition as the State Of the Union. Piling on Musics Biggest Night has for many years been like shooting ducks in a barrel. But in a way, The Recording Academy has itself to blame for being such an easy targetmusic fans (and journalists) make for a cruel mistress, and when youve got 84 awards in 30 fields and a three-and-a-half-hour show stuffed with 20 performances across multiple genres, youre bound to catch flak on a few fronts.

And credit where its due: the Grammys have made slow and steady strides toward relevance in recent years, both in term of who gets nominated and wins, and who gets time on stagenever more so than this year, when at long last The Recording Academy seems to have realized that hip-hop defines pop culture, as it has for at least a quarter century.

Still, theres room for improvementboth in terms of the broadcast and the awards themselves. The only way the Grammys will continue to improve is if we look at them as a glass half empty. So on the eve of its 60th Anniversary, a few modest proposals on how Musics Biggest Night might make strides toward becoming musics most important one.

1. RUFFLE SOME FEATHERS

Why, oh why, is Stephen Colbert not hosting the Grammy Awards? The most trenchant man in late night has had a banner year thanks to the inspired ferocity of his opposition to President Donald Trump. I love me some James Corden as much as the next personhe knows music, hes been known to speak his mind on occasion, and he was a welcome presence when he took the reins in 2017 after five straight years of the utterly anodyne LL Cool J. But right now what this show needs is sharp elbows, and CBS has the man in its ranks to deliver them.

On the performance front, we know that Kendrick Lamar will open tomorrows show, and thats excitingno rapper has opened the Grammys since Jay-Z joined Beyonc on her Drunk In Love in 2014. But hell be joined for the opener by U2, presumably for a mash-up of the Grammy-nominated DAMNs XXX which features the Irishmen, and American Soul from U2s Songs of Experience, which opens with Lamars words, Blessed are the bullies, for one day they will have to stand up for themselves. The TV in the White House may want to have the mute button at the ready. All respect to Bono and the gents, and God knows theyre longtime Grammy favorites, but something about this feels like four white guys being added to the opening to mollify those viewers who might be put off by Kendrick on his own, doing DNA or Humble. The Grammys would no doubt call it unity, but its also having it both ways.

The Grammys reflexively go for the familiar, like a moth to a flameCBS, the shows broadcaster and the fustiest of networks, no doubt has a hand in that.

Likewise, hallelujah that as the Grammys return to New York for the first time in fifteen years, Bronx native-made-good Cardi B has a performance slot. But again, its with the more mainstream-palatable Bruno Mars, for the New Jack-styled remix of Finesse from his 24K Magic. A very current choice, to be surethe remix was only released earlier this monthbut also a less edgy one than allowing Cardi to do her own Bodak Yellow, No Limit and Motor Sportthe singles that put her in the Billboard Top 10 and made her one of the best breakthrough stories of 2017.

One of tomorrow nights most somber moments will come when country stars Eric Church, Maren Morris and Brothers Osborne play a tribute to the victims of the Route 91 Harvest music festival massacre in Las Vegas on October 1. Its an important, touching gesture. Also important would be a moment to address why this obscene mass killing was allowed to occurand continues to with horrifying regularity in America. Bruce Springsteens 41 Shots, Vic Mensas 16 Shots and even the four-decade-old I Dont Like Mondays by The Boomtown Rats all got it. But dont hold your breath for the Grammys to, in unison, take a stand against guns.

2. FOLLOW THROUGH ON YOUR HIP-HOP PROGRESS

The Grammys got deserved kudos when nominations were announced in November and rap more than ever got its due: Jay-Z led the field with eight nods coming from 4:44, his mid-life contemplation of life, career, family and fidelity, the sort of record that is rare in hip-hop, still mostly a young mans game; and Lamar was just behind with seven nominations. They were joined in the rap categories by such of-the-moment names as Migos and Lil Uzi Vertwho even landed a surprise nod for Best New Artist. Tyler, The Creators adventurous Flower Boy, too, is in the running for Best Rap Album.

But the Grammys cant be said to have fully embraced hip-hop until the genre breaks the awards de facto glass ceiling of winning in its most prestigious Big Four categories: Album, Record, and Song Of the Year, and Best New Artist. The stat cant be repeated enough: its been fourteen years since Outkast was the last hip-hop record to win Album of the Year, a span in which albums by Drake, Lil Wayne, Eminem, Kanye West (3) and Kendrick (2) all were nominated for the top prize, but lost to the likes of Adele, Taylor Swift, and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Will Kendrick or Jay-Z break the drought and be standing at the podium at the end of the night tomorrow? Maybe.

And while theyre at it, it wouldnt hurt to have some hip-hop figures as Grammy presenters either. The last time a rapper presented? Queen Latifah introducing Macklemore and Ryan Lewis performance in 2014, and before that, Drake and Common presented in 2012. Presenters matterits a way of saying who you are as a show.

3. DO SOMETHING ABOUT THOSE ROCK AWARDS, PLEASE

Youve gotten betterway betterabout hip-hop. Now how about doing the same with rock? Granted, its a genre whose relevance has long been in decline, but that doesnt mean the rock categories have to, every year, be so lazily populated with household-name veterans whove been at it for decades. To be sure, there is the occasional current breakthroughThe War on Drugs acclaimed A Deeper Understanding landed a Best Rock Album nomination this year, but it has to be considered a long shot in a category with Metallica and Mastodon. The biggest shock is that Foo Fighters werent nominated for that same award for their Concrete and Gold, as they seem to have a reserved spot in the category with every album.

The Best Alternative Music Album categorya dated name that needs to be changedis equally predictable. All this years five nominees have previously been up for Grammysand one, Arcade Fire, won Album of the Year in 2011. This time though, theyre up for the poorly-reviewed Everything Now, while lesser-known indie artists including Julien Baker, Perfume Genius, Mount Eerie, Waxahatchee and Algiers, all of whom delivered excellent work, were overlooked. Relevance and credibility arent only qualities to aspire to in the rap categories.

Rock doesnt have to be 40+ white dudes. Even Green Days Billie Joe Armstronga 40+ white dude himselfhas bemoaned the lack of love for under-30 rock bands, from awards show and radio programmers alike. There are plenty of young bands playing exciting and vital rockthe UKs Shame have one of the best-reviewed albums of a still-young 2018. Does this exhilarating post-punk outfit have a prayer of registering on the Grammys radar come next years awards? Id love to say yes, but Ill believe it when I see it.

4. LOOK FORWARD, NOT BACK

What the hell was that Pentatonix cover of The Jackson Fives ABC in last years show all about? It was as random as it gets, and felt like nothing more than an excuse to wedge in another familiar blast-from-the-past into to an already long show. The Grammys reflexively go for the familiar, like a moth to a flameCBS, the shows broadcaster and the fustiest of networks, no doubt has a hand in that. Tributes to music legends, dead or alive, are a given, and in recent years theyve gotten out of control: Bob Marley, Levon Helm, Dave Brubeck, Adam Yauch, Phil Everly, The Beach Boys, Prince and George Michael are among the artists whove received tributes on the show since 2013. And in 2016? Whoa, was it stuffed. In one show alone, we got tributes to Lionel Richie, Glenn Frey, Maurice White, Michael Jackson, B.B. King, Lemmy and David Bowie (a 10-song medley by Lady Gaga and Nile Rodgers). This years tributes havent been announced, but its hard to imagine that after a year in which we lost Tom Petty, Fats Domino, Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, that they wont each get remembered, and not just as part of an In Memoriam.

Those are all giants and deserving of recognition but, dear God, thats a lot of time devoted to oldies, even in a three-hour show. The conceit here seems to be: we know our audience skews older, so as long as you deliver a familiar old chestnut at regular intervals throughout the night, you can keep reeling them in. That thinkingpeppering the young with the oldis what led to the Grammys tried and true gimmick of cross-generational artists performing together. Sir Paul McCartney has played with an eclectic bunch: Rihanna and Kanye West in 2015 and Jay-Z and Linkin Park in 2006. Only one such pairing has been announced so far for this year: Elton John with Miley Cyrustimely for the Rocket Man, whos just announced an upcoming farewell tour, and a way on the show for the newly family-friendly Miley, who wasnt nominated. If that were the only one, it would be fine with me, as the vets-with-youngsters thing feels played out. Look forward once in a while, Grammys! Matter of fact, feature performances from artists with upcoming albumsvets Madonna, Jack White and Christina Aguilera would fit the bill nicely this year, as would young guns Rae Sremmurd and Troye Sivan. Now that would be a forward look.

5. IN CONCLUSION

Nineteen-year-old R&B sensation Khalidup for five Grammys tomorrow, including Best New Artisttold Billboard earlier this week that his whole life is going to change if he wins even one. While Im not sure thats trueKhalids life has changed and will continue to change if he keeps making records as good his debut LP American Teen, Grammy or notits clear that winning a Grammy still means something to many. But heres a tip, Academy: let other people say that, unprompted. As weve seen with our presidents insistence on telling us how smart he is, sometimes its best to say nothing, and let your significance speak for itself. Musics Biggest Night has been a trademarked phrase since the mid-2000s. Let that sink in. The Grammys felt it important enough that no one else use the phrase that they now own it. That is some Super Bowl and Olympics-level behavior. Likewise, annual segments on the Grammy site touting previous winners First Grammy Memory or fondest Grammy moment are self-congratulatory to the point of feeling defensive. We get it: theres a ton of televised music awards shows out there, something the Oscars dont have to contend with. You feel like you need to assert preeminence, set yourself apart. But really, relax. We know youre special, so stop reminding us.

How about handing out a few more trophies in your now three-and-a-half-hour broadcast? I realize the awards themselves may mean more to those of us in the Fourth Estate than others in the audience, but they also mean something to the nominees, and more than ten ought to be given a moment on national television, including some genre categorieselectronic, alternative, roots, perhapsthat just might expand your image ever so slightly. So knock the performances down to say, 18, and let a couple more winners shine.

Finally, Grammys, you know, youve created this perennial whining from observers because a long time ago you decided to try and be all things to all peopleyoung and old, staid but cool, populist but credible, and now 84 categories84!from Liner Notes to Instrumental or A Cappella Arrangements, American Roots to Tropical Latin, World Music, Spoken Word, Contemporary Christian, ad infinitum. Ambitious doesnt begin to describe it, and thats a lot of masters to serve. Its all predicated on the idea that, to paraphrase seven-time Grammy winner Madonna, music makes the people come together. Andit kind of doesnt. Not only are the rebel and the bourgeoisie more divided than ever, but our musical lives are self-curated playlists we share with balkanized, like-minded listeners. The musical monoculture is no morewe only have brief glimmers of it in the form of songs as ubiquitous as Despacito, which has the inside track to win Song or Record of the Year, or both.

So the challenge is bigto get disparate groups of people, from those who need that Tom Petty tribute to those whod rather hear Lil Pumps Gucci Gangto care. And then you get us in the peanut gallery moaning about it all. But we appreciate the progress. If your evolution on hip-hop is any indication, youre on the right track. Its not that we dont love you, Grammys. But we could love you a heck of a lot more.

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