It's Grammy time again, as the world's most bizarre awards affair lurches toward its 53rd presentation on Sunday night. There are tackier award-giving groups, to be sure—like the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Golden Globes. There are more corrupt ones, too—like, um, like the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Golden Globes. But no group matches the goofiness of the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences and its annual Grammy awards: the arcane categories, the corrupt process, and the studied out-of-it-ness.
Sure, the Grammys can, once in a while, surprise. Who doesn't think the awards a few years ago to Amy Winehouse—a spectacular, if troubled, artist—were deserved? But such events occur with the frequency of Halley's Comet.
The biggest scandal about the Grammys is the ruling cadre's secret manipulation of its membership's nominations. This is almost never noted in reporting on the awards. The recording academy, like the motion picture academy, has a putative raison d'être that's secondary to the needs of presenting a worldwide TV broadcast. The awards show is an ATM of bovine proportions, funding the group's activities for the rest of the year.
The problem: What do you do when your membership is so out of touch with popular culture that it affects the ratings? Over in Hollywood, the troubles arrive because the academy's tastes have become too rarified. The membership is actually giving nominations and awards to the best movies of the year—even when they are fine films that don't make much money.
The Grammys' problem is that the membership is sentimental, schmaltzy, and stuffy. The Oscars dealt with the problem by upping the best-picture nominations to 10 from five. This way, audience-friendly blockbusters like Avatar and Inception get best-picture nominations—and their fans, presumably, tune in to the show, even if it's unlikely their favorite films will get a statuette.
The Grammys, back in the 1990s, took a different tack. To its credit, the group had spent a decade concertedly trying to create a more youthful and vibrant membership, this after Lionel Richie's Can't Slow Down won record of the year over Born in the U.S.A. and Purple Rain. But that didn't work. In 1995, for example, Tony Bennett's Unplugged album won record of the year over a markedly undistinguished slate that included a Three Tenors album, a novelty outing whose nomination enraged the academy's classical membership. The youthful reformers lost out—and the nefarious Michael Greene, the longtime president of the academy, put Plan B into place.
Plan B established a committee whose members' names are not made public, supposedly to protect them from record-industry pressure. The group is allowed to overrule the membership's nominations for its four biggest awards: album of the year, record of the year, song of the year, and best new artist. They take out nominations that might embarrass the academy—one official has hinted that "Macarena" might otherwise have been nominated one year—and replace them with artists they think are more deserving or, more importantly, who will bring in more viewers to the TV show.
The implementation of Plan B came in the mid-1990s, but didn't get much attention. Four years later, the Los Angeles Times's formidable Robert Hilburn got one of the secret committee members to talk about the group's duties off the record. But in the years since, this is almost never mentioned in coverage of the Grammys. This year, for example, I found one passing reference to the process in an L.A. Times blog. If the Oscars tried to pull off something like this, Hollywood would be up in arms.
But the members of the recording academy have been surprisingly compliant. Looking at recent nominations, its pretty easy to see the secret committee's hand at work: The Lil Wayne nomination for album of the year a couple of years ago, along with a record-of-the-year nod to M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes"; or the nomination for record of the year, this time, for Cee Lo's Internet sensation "Fuck You." Presumably, fans think the artists have a chance to win and will tune in. (As with the Oscars, since the voting membership didn't even nominate them, the chances of any of the interlopers' actually winning are fairly low.)
This process is toxic on many levels. No. 1, it shouldn't be forgotten that it's fundamentally dishonest. The manipulation is not discussed on the organization's Web site. NARAS president Neil Portnow will blather on about music piracy on TV Sunday night, but he won't mention that he and some unnamed pals fiddled with the membership's nominations.
While Grammy officials have talked with me about this in the past, it's not clear that the organization is always candid when asked directly about the procedure. I called one of the NARAS publicists for comment this week. She responded to my fairly simple questions about the process with enough vagueness and obfuscation that I couldn't tell if it was deliberate on her part.
"The nominations are the nominations," she said repeatedly, seemingly denying there was an interim step between the nominations and the voting. I asked her to confirm the answer with Grammy officials. She responded the next day with this e-mail:
The following Fields go through this process: General (top 4), Country, R&B, Latin, Gospel, Jazz, Classical, Music Video.
All appear on first ballot to general voting membership. Deloitte [the accounting firm] then informs The Recording Academy of the top 15-30 (depending on category) selections from the first ballot. We present these selections (in alphabetical order) to the Nominations Review Committees, who meet in person for 1-3 days to listen to all of the selections. The committee members then vote at the end of the meeting via secret ballot. The ballots are collected by Deloitte in the room.
Contrast that answer—which confirms that the membership's nominations are changed behind the scenes—with the Grammy Web site's account: "In craft and other specialized categories, final nominations are determined by national nomination review committees comprised of voting members from all of The Academy's Chapter cities." The official account doesn't reveal the thing most readers would be interested in: The fact that the four top categories are "reviewed."
The process is harmful in other ways, too. It induces cynicism in the membership and among the artists—or would, if the process weren't kept so under wraps. It's particularly unfair to those artists who, nominated by their fellows in the business, are unilaterally eliminated from the lineup by the committee.
And, finally, of course, the motivations for the procedure are plain: Sticking some controversial and megapopular names in the top categories to increase ratings for the group's annual TV show/cash cow.
There is one timeless, classic aspect of the Grammys. They are predictably unpredictable—in the sense that you never know in quite what way the membership is going to make a bad decision. In very broad terms, it should be noted that the academy has been quite good with black artists. Leaving aside, say, Public Enemy, stars like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, Lauryn Hill, and Outkast have generally been appropriately recognized.
In the rock world, the precise opposite is the case. To cite one crude measure, the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop critics poll rarely coincides with the Grammy for album of the year, and in the vast majority of cases, the Grammy winner is barely mentioned. In other words, the Grammy designation of what a great record is has little to do with what an actual critic would say. But that's the membership's right, of course. So let's look at its track record.
Artists like the Rolling Stones, the Who, Elvis Costello, Prince, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, the Clash, the Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, and Sly Stone never won a major award during their formative recording periods, and most weren't even nominated for one. (It should be noted that for a time in the mid-1970s, the awards opened a bit with acts like Elton John, the Eagles, and Paul McCartney garnering nominations. The Stones even got an 1978 album-of-the-year nomination for Some Girls.)
A few, like Steely Dan or Bob Dylan, were given awards late in their careers. And once in a while, when newfangled sounds are coming up, the organization covers its ass by sticking things like Nevermind in a "best alternative album" category. What Grammy likes best is a PR angle. Any hackneyed all-star collection—Santana's guest-heavy Supernatural, Quincy Jones utterly forgettable Back on the Block, Ray Charles' Genius Loves Company—is practically guaranteed an album-of-the-year trophy. Just two years ago, Herbie Hancock—once a vibrant artist—won record of the year for a quickly forgotten collection of Joni Mitchell covers with a raft of guest stars.
Last year, of course, Taylor Swift, the speedboat-eyed, insubstantial country artist, was alleged to have recorded the album of the year. That's reminiscent of the best-new-artist category, in which Grammy invariably awards comely and pliant young female artists—19 in the last 30 years. (It helps if you have just one name, as recent nominees Ciara, Feist, Duffy, Adele, and Ledisi will testify.) Recently, this tendency has gotten worse: In 2008, four female artists were nominated, along with Paramore, a punk-lite outfit headed by a female lead singer. (Amy Winehouse, definitely not pliant, was again a major exception.) And, historically, of course, the best-new-artist awardees is strewn with novelty acts, industry roadkill, and mediocrities: The Starland Vocal Band and A Taste of Honey, Arrested Development and Shelby Lynne, Evanescence and Hootie & the Blowfish.
One thing NARAS has never been able to do is keep a lid on the number of categories. Right now there are about 110. This allows the members of more than 1,000 acts per decade to go around saying they're a Grammy-winning artist—and five times as many, or 10,000-plus people, to brag they were nominated.
This seems a bit much.
It is probably hugely unfair to the artists involved to say this, but do we need a "Hard Rock Performance" category and a "Metal Performance"? Are there really five great New Age, Hawaiian, or Native American albums a year? And then how about the bloat in the religious category (which, by the way, includes both white and black music): gospel performance; gospel song; rock or rap gospel album; pop/contemporary gospel album; Southern, country, or bluegrass gospel album; traditional gospel album; or contemporary R&B gospel album.
NARAS finally jettisoned the polka category a couple of years ago; there were less than two dozen qualifying albums, making the nomination chances for any guy armed with an accordion and a recording contract about one in four.
And the process for determining eligibility is bizarre as well. Dylan won a folk Grammy for World Gone Wrong, back in the 1990s. It was a collection of acoustic folk and blues songs, and the award seemed appropriate. Since then, his last three normal (by his standards) rock albums were nominated—and won—in the category of contemporary folk. This is unfair to actual practitioners of the genre, who will never win over such a big name in the category, which he doesn't belong in.
Finally, the Grammys have always had the most wrong of eligibility periods. Traditionally, the period ended at the end of September. This created a big disconnect, particularly since a lot of important albums generally get released to coincide with the Christmas season. It also allowed the record companies to game the system, releasing an album or advance single just before the eligibility period ended to qualify for one year and then going for a second round of awards the following year.
That's why when you look at this year's record of the year nominations you see 18-month-old songs like Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind." Folks have complained about the eligibility period for decades. Recently, the recording academy did something about it. In 2009, it pushed the eligibility period back another month, to Aug. 31. A year later, it reversed the decision, and now we're back to the Sept. 30 cutoff date. It could have pushed the period up to Dec. 1, catching most of the Christmas releases in that year's nominations and adding just a little bit of sanity and sense to the group's undertaking. But at the recording academy—where nominations aren't nominations, Bob Dylan is still a folk artist, and a cute young thing from Nashville is the artist of the year—moving ahead invariably puts you right back where you were before.