Every year, folks complain about a Grammy snub. But Steve’s wondering aloud, in an open letter to the New York Times, whether the Grammy voters have consistently snubbed “pop culture” with its selections for major awards. He asks if it even makes sense for “contemporary popular” artists to even participate in future ceremonies.
I’m a Grammy voter, so it’s not the first time I’ve heard criticisms that NARAS has “lost touch” with pop culture. But, you have to look at who’s voting. They’re not the folks who are easily impressed by Justin Bieber. They don’t often pay for albums or concert tickets themselves, so they focus on the artistic merits of each act. They’re creative professionals who want to feel like they can use their votes as a platform to advance a stronger cultural agenda. This year, that actually worked. Hands up: who already owned an Esperanza Spalding track before the Grammycast?
Unlike other major awards voters, we don’t get showered with tons of “screeners.” Heck, we’ve only had online song previews for the past few years. Before that, we had to rely on our own gut instinct to place our votes. It used to be that Grammy voters would work out some very complex, reciprocal alliances: “Hey, Rap Manager! I will totally vote for your act in that category if you vote for my Rock band!” But we now get stern warnings on Astrobrite paper along with the ballots, shaming us into compliance with the rules. That’s how we know things like that don’t happen anymore, right?
In reality, the Grammy voting process is really quite overwhelming. Some voters know exactly who they’re going to vote for as soon as the ballots arrive. Others take the time to research and listen to each nominated artist. Some make their interns do it. Most either pool the opinions of their friends and family for the categories they don’t know too well, or they just don’t vote.
Steve’s certainly on Team Who the Hell Is Arcade Fire? And that underscores the challenge we face in an industry that still focuses heavily on genre-based silos. Personally, I liked Neon Bible a lot more than I liked The Suburbs. However, notice that nearly every piece of press the band got behind The Suburbs highlighted their dedication to the album as a format. It’s no surprise that they won Album of the Year. In the eyes of the Grammy voters, they represent the last bastion of the art form.
Look at the other nominees for Album of the Year: Eminem, Lady Antebellum, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry. Every team on those projects ran a standard-issue, singles-based promotion strategy. All of those albums charted well, and voters called out Lady Antebellum for Record and Song of the Year because we can’t stop humming that damn song. It haunts us.
When The Arcade Fire go on NPR, Win Butler talks about album stucture. When The Arcade Fire talk to the New York Times, Win and Régine Chassagne talk about the process of writing songs that complement each other.
So when the Arcade Fire show up on a list of nominees for Album of the Year, Grammy voters remember them as “those guys talking about albums ALL. THE. TIME.” And they check that box. Done. It’s a triumph of branding yourself to your peers in the creative community.
I completely agree with Steve that NARAS often finds itself painted into a corner when it has to guarantee a high-ratings Grammycast. Talent bookers working on the live telecast have to hedge their bets, lavishing expensive production numbers on artists who either have a major record dropping right now (Lady Gaga) or have great Vegas odds on winning a major award (The Arcade Fire). But you can absolutely tell the difference between the Grammys and other award shows, where presenters and performers won’t even show up unless they’re guaranteed at least one win.
So I think he’s maybe barking up the wrong tree with that—after the decade professional accountants have had, they certainly wouldn’t want to get caught revealing what’s in those briefcases. In addition, the voting really goes down to the wire, and performers get booked way farther in advance. NARAS is the Old School. They would rather disinvite you than deal with your request for a guaranteed award.
Thinking about Best New Artist, Grammy voters often look through the lens of potential, not at chart sales or Ticketmaster numbers. Maroon 5 beat out Kanye West in 2005. Paula Cole beat out Puff Daddy in 1998. And Milli Vanilli beat… everybody… in 1990. It’s not a perfect system. But it’s an opportunity for Grammy voters to place their bets on someone they think has the potential to shift the balance. Justin Bieber already has a platform and an audience. I think most folks who voted on the award would tell you that they thought it was a great year to highlight an artist with proven talent in a genre that’s often commercially overlooked.
If Justin Bieber makes us regret that decision by releasing the most powerful songs of his generation, then the award won’t really matter much, will it?