Beyoncé at the 55th Grammy Awards, February 10, 2013. Whether or not the singer wins Album of the Year for 'Lemonade' is being seen as a litmus test for the Grammy Awards' relevance. (Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)
Ah, February. We've barely had time to catch our breath after the acrobatic, drone-assisted ode to America and Pepsi and whichever poor soul has the job of helping Lady Gaga in and out of her leotards that was the Super Bowl Halftime Show -- and already it's time to turn our attention to another stiffly scripted, expensively produced television spectacle that might get political but probably won't. Where does the time go?
Which is to say: The 59th annual Grammy Awards take place this Sunday, Feb. 12 at 5pm, and I'm going to go out on a limb and speak for a lot of youngish people here when I say, "Who cares?"
This is no slight, mind you, to the more deserving nominees -- many of whom hail from the Bay Area, like Oakland's Fantastic Negrito (whose excellent The Last Days of Oaklandis nominated for Best Contemporary Blues Album).
But it's undeniable that the Grammys -- which have always rewarded popularity and record sales over artistry -- have in recent years grown increasingly out of step with not only the way fans listen to music but with how artists themselves measure value, how they mark and celebrate their own contributions to the cultural canon.
Big stars drop out
Need proof? Frank Ocean, a two-time Grammy winner himself, told the New York Times in November that he wouldn't be submitting his long-anticipated 2016 records Blond and Endless (both of which dotted many a critic's best-of-the-year list) for the Recording Academy's consideration.
"That institution certainly has nostalgic importance," he said. "It just doesn’t seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from, and hold down what I hold down."
Ocean continued: "I think the infrastructure of the awarding system and the nomination system and screening system is dated. I'd rather this be my Colin Kaepernick moment for the Grammys than sit there in the audience."
Not long after, TMZ reported that Drake, Justin Bieber and Kanye West -- all of whom are up for awards in major categories -- would follow suit in their own way, skipping the show entirely.
Ocean is maybe the first artist of his stature to share that sentiment, in those words, with a publication like the New York Times. But he's far from the first person to criticize the Grammys for being out of touch, particularly with the music currently being released by artists who are young, black, or both. Much like the Oscars, the recipients of Grammy recognition (nominees and awardees alike) tend to skew disproportionately whiter and older when compared to the artists who are actually selling the most records, topping the charts, and affecting the cultural zeitgeist in meaningful ways.
The demographics behind the snubs
You can look at cases of this from recent memory: In 2014, Macklemore took home the Grammy for Best Rap Album over Kendrick Lamar's critically acclaimed Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, leading to the fake-apology-text-message heard round the world. At the 2015 awards, Beyoncé's self-titled record -- which marked both a turn in the singer's sound as well as a groundbreaking use of media (the surprise release; the music video in a long format as "visual album") -- lost Album of the Year to Beck's sweet, sleepy Morning Phase.
Or you could take it back much further: In 1989, right after the Best Heavy Metal Performance category was created, Metallica was nominated but lost that award to Jethro Tull -- yes, Jethro Tull, the prog dudes prone to flute solos -- and people in the audience started laughing. It's hard to imagine now, but Metallica hadn't quite achieved mainstream commercial success then. To the voters, they were some young scrappy punks. Whereas Jethro Tull had been around since the '60s, and in many voters' minds were likely overdue for Grammy recognition.
To get to the heart of this, you must first look at -- much like with the Oscars -- the requirements for becoming a voting member of the Recording Academy. They're actually pretty simple: You must have credits on six or 12 tracks of recorded material (depending on whether you're dealing with a physical or online-only release). You can be a performer, producer, engineer, or the person who writes the liner notes. And then you have to pay $100 a year.
That's about it. It's my understanding that the largest group of voting members within the Recording Academy is the producers and engineers wing -- that's a group that's something like 6,000 people strong, out of a group of about 13,000. Even without hard demographics from the Recording Academy (they've declined to release stats on age, race or gender), it's pretty easy to deduce based on industry reports that a disproportionate number of those professionals are older men. That's slowly changing, thanks to organizations like Women's Audio Mission -- but very slowly.
Giving Chance a chance
Then, perhaps more importantly, you have the voting process. As a voting member you're asked to vote on the Big Four -- Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist -- as well as up to nine other genre-based categories. Voters are supposedly discouraged from voting on genres in which they have little expertise, but there's really nothing structural to prevent them from doing that. So what happens -- and Grammy voters have confirmed this -- is a lot of people vote in areas they really know nothing about. That's when you get people voting based on name recognition alone, or popularity, or album sales, or (who knows?) something they know their kids like. And that's how you get Macklemore winning Best Rap Album over Kendrick Lamar.
Real change isn't going to happen without the Academy fundamentally changing the membership, nominations and voting processes. There are encouraging signs, however, that the Academy knows it needs to adapt if it's going to keep up. One of the most interesting stories in this year's awards is that of Chance the Rapper, whose star has (rightfully) risen exponentially over the past half-decade, despite his steadfast refusal to sign to a label, or sell his work commercially.
Up until last year, Grammy rules stated that an artist's work had to be for sale and distributed through a label to be considered for nomination. The Academy was effectively forced to change these rules thanks to pressure from critics and fans to recognize Coloring Book, Chance's online-only 2016 mixtape. He's up for seven awards on Sunday night, and will perform live as well (no word on whether or not muppets will be involved).
Adele vs. Beyoncé
If the Recording Academy wants to take an easy step toward earning back younger Grammy viewers' trust, however, there's one really simple choice it can make during Sunday night's program: award Album of the Year to Lemonade.
Beyoncé's 2016 opus -- a grand-scale, unapologetic and intensely personal meditation on racism, infidelity, black culture, the South, and female sexuality -- without question deserves this title. It's aesthetically adventurous, the result of impressive collaboration; topically, it represents a savvy wielding of iconic pop superstardom in the name of a political statement. A win would also represent a corrective steer for Beyoncé's loss to Beck in 2015.
Whether the Academy executes this correctly depends on how safe they want to play it -- and, much like the buzz surrounding whether or not Lady Gaga would use the Super Bowl Halftime Show as a platform for protest, you can bet CBS executives are having conversations about how political they can let this thing get. The safe choice in this instance would be Adele, who is a wonderful singer who sells a ton of records. That's about it, though -- and as the Chronicle's Aidin Vaziri noted in our conversation yesterday on Forum, 25 isn't even her best record.
We'll have to wait another day to find out whether I'm giving Grammy voters too much or too little credit here. In the meantime, a couple other stray observations:
I have a feeling Song of the Year is going to everyone's favorite rehabilitated snot-nosed punk, Justin Bieber -- if only because Ed Sheeran co-wrote "Love Yourself," and man, the Grammys love that guy.
Definitely looking forward to tributes to both Prince and George Michael.
How long will it take for James Corden's "British Jimmy Fallon" thing to wear thin? Are we there yet?
Other first-time-nominated locals to root for include Panamanian hip-hop duo Los Rakas (whose self-titled LP is up for best Latin Urban, Alternative or Contemporary Album), Sunset District resident Frances England (whose Explorer of the World is up for Best Children's Album) and San Francisco electronic mainstay Tycho (Epoch, Best Electronic or Dance Album)
Lady Gaga and Metallica will perform a tribute to the Bee Gees. "Looking forward to it" isn't the right expression for how I feel, but I'll watch it.
The 59th Grammy Awards air on CBS on Sunday, Feb. 12, at 5pm.
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