The 57th Grammy Awards Stay on Message

Sam Posner (PKA Sammy Bananas) is a producer and DJ living in Brooklyn, NY. In addition to his celebrated bootlegs, remixes, and original dance music for Fool's Gold Records, he founded and organizes DJs for Climate Action, an initiative dedicated to helping traveling musicians offset their carbon emissions and raise awareness about climate change.


To me, the Grammy awards have never been as interesting as the Grammy show. As a working musician and producer, I've always watched the broadcast as a way to take the temperature of mainstream culture and popular music in America. Over the past fifteen years, the Recording Industry has crumbled and the show's producers have turned and tacked in an effort to best represent the shifting landscape. The Grammys have always favored established acts and “classy” artists, but this year's show entirely abandoned the idea of a democratic approach, and focused instead on crafting a distinct narrative.


The narrative of the 57th Awards was two-pronged, telling intertwining stories that "Live Music Still Matters" and "Music Has Transformative Power."  AC/DC kicked off the whopping 23 live performances, many teaming seasoned veterans with relative newcomers in a tried and true Grammy practice. With record sales dwindling, concert tickets are the linchpin in many artist's careers—and some labels too, by way of increasingly common “360 contracts”—a growth area in the industry that can’t (yet) be replicated digitally. “Go see a show,” the Grammys tells it’s viewers, “because we know you’re streaming the album.”


At many points the live acts seemed hand selected to remind us of the powerful force music plays in our lives. Beyonce was tapped to perform a moving spiritual, Katy Perry did the somber tale of her marriage's dissolution, Usher paid tribute Stevie Wonder and then surprised the audience with Stevie guesting on harmonica. These moments are designed to remind us that music binds us together, makes us feel, and get fired up more than any other art form. The show played to the Grammys’ old-school strengths: heartfelt ballads and white British soul singers rather than dance music and Hip-Hop.  


In keeping with this lack of balance, the rap and electronic music awards were excluded from the broadcast entirely. With Gaga and Perry delivering introspective performances, the still-exploding dance music scene was represented solely by a Madonna extravaganza that looked and sounded 20 years old, save for the track's more modern sounding EDM "drop."  It’s a shocking departure from last year, when Daft Punk, the forefathers of contemporary electronic music, cleaned up... until you remember that they won for a throwback 70s soft-rock, proto-disco album.


For the first time in 25 years, rap's top award was not aired live. Perhaps the show’s producers dropped it following Macklemore's controversial win over Kendrick Lamar last year—a moment worsened when, only minutes after the show, the awkward winner tweeted a personal text to Kendrick writing “It’s weird and sucks that I robbed you.” It ended up being a prudent move, as Eminem took home the rap album prize this year… At least he snubbed Iggy Azalea. There’s a whole other editorial—if not a book—to be written on the Grammys and Race.


With Pharrell so "Happy" and Kanye going full emo/country in his 2 appearances, the only actual rapping at the Grammys was in the finale: Common's socially-charged, Selma-inspired invocation of the ongoing "Black Lives Matter" movement. The political nature of his performance was fully in keeping with the carefully sculpted narrative: “We only want rap that’s uplifting and transformative.” It was moving and powerful (except in the way it tacitly implies that all the other music in this genre is purely violent and misogynistic.)


Viewed through a lens that takes into account the full spectrum of popular music, the show is suspicious and problematic.  But narrowing to the Recording Academy’s wheelhouse, the Grammy producers seem the savviest they've been in years. To be clear: I enjoyed the broadcast! However, what they showed us only represents about 25% of what is actually relevant and popular in music right now. Dance and rap dominate the charts, airwaves, and internets even if their primary beneficiaries are festival promoters, Vegas, and YouTube, not record labels and the established Recording Industry.


This brings me to the most important point of all, and a trend that this broadcast’s narrative implies by omission. The Grammys can't represent Mainstream Musical Culture even if they tried because it is fast fracturing into distinct, barely overlapping feeds. Billboard may have been able to approximate the influence of some of these newer lanes by incorporating avenues like YouTube and Spotify streams into its metrics, but much more goes under the radar. Musical virality and memes create items of cultural relevance and influence, but “art” that is hardly around long enough to ever be awarded.


I'm a bit nostalgic for the days when the Grammys could be a wider panorama, but the Internet's overall democratization of music seems well worth this loss. The relevance of an industry-wide popularity contest holds less sway when large swaths of rap, electronic and indie music thrive entirely outside of the traditional industry.

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