As music evolves, the Grammys fall behind


Carina Liu

By failing to represent the diversity in modern music, the Grammys have begun to lose their prestige

Tanvi Rao, Arts and Entertainment Editor

As they approach their 64th ceremony, the Grammys are starting to show their age. Music is ever-changing as the years pass by, but the highly-regarded awards show just can’t seem to keep up.

In March of 2020, The Weeknd released “After Hours,” and with it came his critically-acclaimed hit single “Blinding Lights.” An addictive 80s synthpop masterpiece, the song broke record after record, charting an unprecedented 90 weeks on the Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Two years, countless radio plays and nearly three billion Spotify streams later, the song is still as impressive as the day it was first released. 

When the Grammys rolled around the following year, “Blinding Lights” did not receive a single nomination.

The Weeknd isn’t the first important artist to be ignored by the Grammys, nor will he be the last. The incident brings up one question: Why? Why was a song so highly regarded completely overlooked by the Grammys — an institution that prides itself on recognizing the absolute best of music?

The truth is that through its history, the Grammys has tended to shy away from diversity.

In 2018, Recording Academy president Neil Portnow expressed his views on women in the music industry. “Women who have the creativity in their hearts and souls, who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, producers, and want to be part of the industry on the executive level… [Need] to step up,” he said, sparking a wave of backlash that immediately spread through social media. 

That year, Alessia Cara was the only woman to win her own award on stage, for Best New Artist.

The truth is that through its history, the Grammys has tended to shy away from diversity.

Though Portnow has since stepped down, his attitudes don’t seem to be an outlier in the Recording Academy — a fact that is made even more evident from studies done by Dr. Stacy Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, taking into account data from 2013 to 2020. 

Though the proportion of female Grammy nominees has surged significantly over that seven-year interval, there is still a massive gender gap. The percentage of female Grammy nominees in total was found to be only 11.7%, especially in comparison to the 88.3% of nominees who were male. 

And while the “Best New Artist” category does seem to be making progress, with 42% of nominees between 2013 and 2020 being women, this trend isn’t reflected across other major categories. 564 nominees for “Album of the Year” were men, while only 46 were women. In the “Producer of the Year” category during that time frame, there was only one female nominee.

It isn’t just an issue of gender, but race and ethnicity as well. The last Black artist to take album of the year was Herbie Hancock in 2008, and the last Black woman was Lauryn Hill nine years before that. 

Black artists are not underrepresented at the Grammys, John Vilanova, professor of communications and Africana studies at Lehigh University, found. But more often than not, their wins are confined to genre-specific categories like rap and R&B that are often characterized as “Black” music. In 2017, for example, Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” album lost to Adele in every major category, and a pattern became evident as many other Black artists were passed over for white ones. 

The Grammys do have a diversity problem, and artists and fans alike are starting to realize it. A growing list of musicians have already been boycotting the show, speaking out and refusing to submit their music for consideration. By proving themselves to be so slow to change, the Grammys are pushing away a large portion of the artists crucial to modern music.

The lack of transparency on the part of the Recording Academy only feeds into the issues and uncertainty around the Grammys. Millions of people tune into the Grammys every year, but the majority of them most likely have no idea how the awards are actually decided. 

 “As the only peer-recognized music award,” says the official Grammys website, “the GRAMMY is the music industry’s highest honor.” This indicates that Grammys are awarded to musicians by other musicians, but not much else is actually disclosed to the general public.

The problem is perhaps best exemplified by the words of Deborah Dugan, who was president of the Recording Academy for only a year. “Rather than promoting a transparent nomination process, the Board [of Trustees] has decided to shroud the process in secrecy, and ultimately controls, in large part, who is nominated for Grammy Awards,” she said in a legal complaint, charging the Grammys of corruption and misconduct.

In the past, the voting and nomination process was done by anonymous councils: groups of musicians, producers, and other music experts who are members of the Recording Academy. For the Academy, this was a measure taken to preserve the integrity and elite nature of the Grammys. But for both artists and viewers, these “secret committees” were suspicious, and unaccountable at the very least — after all, how can the Grammys be considered “distinguished” at all, when the awards feel completely arbitrary?

The Recording Academy has, however, attempted to solve this problem by getting rid of the small committees for 2022. Now, “to help ensure the quality of the voting, members are directed to vote only in their areas of expertise; they may vote in up to ten categories across up to three genre fields,” the Grammys website states. This is consistent for both nominations as well as final voting. Still, this only peels back one layer of the still-highly confusing Grammy process. The inner workings of the Grammy are left up to anyone’s imagination, but in our world today, this secrecy speaks less of “exclusivity” than it does “untrustworthiness.”

Repeated urging for change comes from both inside and outside the institution, and to their credit,. the Recording Academy has certainly taken some steps in the right direction. This includes the hiring of a diversity officer and implementing a Diversity & Inclusion Task Force led by Time’s Up CEO and lawyer Tina Tchen. But the fruits of these actions are slow to ripen, and simultaneously, the Grammys grow less and less meaningful.

By being unable to award artists who deserve recognition, the purpose of the show becomes increasingly unclear. Not only are the Grammys unable to accurately represent the diversity found in music, they also haven’t been able to strike the correct balance between rewarding success and recognizing music that industry professionals value most highly. In the end, the Grammys are losing their grip on the slippery slope of relevancy, and only thorough reform can stop the steady erosion of their prestige