The Difference Between The Song And Record Of The Year Grammys Is Smaller Than You Think

One way or another, January makes dilettantes of the best of us.

As the calendar flips from one year to the next, we invariably encounter a scenario that demands we dredge up some momentarily significant minutiae to understand what’s happening around us, some tidbit we’ve survived for twelve months without but now desperately need. Maybe you only watch football, for instance, when the playoffs come, so you find yourself asking aloud, like clockwork, how encroachment and offsides differ. Perhaps you ponder what distinguishes the Golden Globes from the Oscars, or you wonder why, if you’ve again made dieting a resolution, why keto and paleo are distinct. In all three cases, the answer is — debatably, but only if we’re being generous — not a lot.

For the last 60 years, the music industry has supplied its own new-year brainteaser: As the Grammys near, we wonder again what differentiates Song Of The Year from Record Of The Year, dual and dueling prizes that have existed since the inaugural ceremony at the Beverly Hilton in 1959. The question is so consistent that the Recording Academy itself now posts primers about the confusion, as have Vox and CNN, Business Insider and even Cosmo. But is the actual answer, yet again, not much at all? And has time come to do away with what’s essentially an industry-driven distinction?

At least conceptually, Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year are very different. The easiest way to remember it without an annual Google pilgrimage is this — “Record,” in this case, is short for recording. That award goes to the confederation of artists, producers, and engineers who ideally make the best or most interesting sounding single. It can even be an instrumental, which it was exactly once. But the “Song” is reserved for the words and the music, or how they fit together in the most fundamental way.

Think of a tune you love like a mountain in the distance: The “song” is the granite rising from the surface of the earth, the bedrock that allows the mountain to exist at all. But time and water and weather have slowly shaped it into something more intricate than a monolith, producing a complex topography of ravines and ridges, saddles and slopes — that is the “recording,” the thing you perceive as the finished work.

For example, this year, Lizzo’s ubiquitous “Truth Hurts” is nominated for both Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year. If she wins both trophies (which, as you’ll soon see, happens more often than not), she alone will win two Grammys. The people with whom she wrote the hit will net only one, for Song Of The Year; the team of a half-dozen producers and engineers that recorded it will win the other, for Record Of The Year. Lizzo aside, none of those people are the same — Song and Record Of The Year reward different sides of the song-making industry. This is their most vital, lasting distinction.

But those are only the rules, as codified by the official “category description guide,” not necessarily the reality. The math suggests that, for the last six decades, the Recording Academy has also been asking itself about the meaning of Song and Record Of The Year and coming up with little more than a shrug of tired shoulders.

In 61 contests, the Song and Record winner has been the exact same tune 31 times. If you’re wondering if there’s a difference between Song and Record Of The Year, statistically, you might as well wonder if there’s a difference between the heads and tails of the coin you are about to flip.

More telling, though, are the overlapping nominees in both fields, represented perhaps by a Venn diagram where the two circles have been pushed together until the chart looks like a particularly rotund face flanked by aggressive sideburns. Despite music’s stylistic shape-shifting, the fields have not expanded with it; they’ve only blended. During the last half-century, at least half of the songs nominated in one field during any given year have also been nominated in the other field 60% of the time. The Song Of The Year winner has been nominated for Record Of The Year 79% of the time; vice versa, about 75%.

In the ’90s, at the purported height of the music industry’s mythical largesse, the categories merged toward a singularity. During those ten years, one song won both awards seven times. Sometimes, these consensus winners felt like properly big events — Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole singing “Unforgettable” across the great mortal divide, or Celine Dion saluting love’s immortality from the bow of that big sinking loveboat. But Shawn Colvin’s “Sunny Came Home”? Eric Clapton’s “Change The World”? As the years pass, those choices feel increasingly lazy, byproducts of big money and shallow listening.

During that hidebound decade, the fields shared 70% of their nominees. For the first and only time, the nominees across the two categories were identical in 1993, the year that no song or recording was apparently better than Eric Clapton’s straight-to-adult-contemporary-radio standard, “Tears In Heaven.” Every Song Of The Year winner was nominated for Record Of The Year in the ’90s; the reverse isn’t true only because Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” is a Dolly Parton cover. While hip-hop, rock, pop, and country were exploding in ecstatic new directions, the Recording Academy regarded music with blinders — five or six songs, all the music that must have mattered in a year.

A respite came: With the music industry scrambling to redefine itself in the wake of digital piracy and slumping physical sales after the turn of the millennium, the two fields actually diverged throughout the ’00s. During a three-year span in the middle of the decade, from 2004 to 2006, the winners in these two categories never matched, the first time that had happened since the late ’70s. And for the only time in Grammy history, the fields shared no nominees at all in 2005 and only one each in 2004 and 2006 — no other moment in Grammy history starts to come close to such differentiation, making it a mathematical anomaly so flagrant you wonder if someone had called foul. Or perhaps the disarray in the industry truly pulled more chairs to the typically uncrowded table.

Alas, the subsequent decade has been a gradual backslide into overlapping pools. While the two fields had less in common during the 2010s than in any decade since the 1960s, they still shared their winners half the time and their songs more often than not. For a decade with increasingly unfettered access to the entire world of sound, when more music was being released than ever before, you’d expect a wealth of options, not a regression into old habits.

The Grammys have always been playing a game of catch-up. The first rap song to secure a Record Of The Year nomination was MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” in 1991. Unless you count Bruno Mars’ old-school élan on “Uptown Funk” or “24K Magic” (hey, live your life), Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” became the first rap song to win, only last year. The same holds for Song Of The Year. Now that is America.

Bob Dylan has never earned a nod as a songwriter, and, as the rising tide of psychedelics and civil unrest drifted through rock ’n’ roll half a century ago, the Recording Academy was doling out gold-gilded Gramophones to Olivia Newton-John for “I Honestly Love You” and O.C. Smith for “Little Green Apples” — fine baubles both, but not exactly generational anthems.

For the 2019 Grammys, the Recording Academy increased the number of nominees for their four crossover categories — Song, Record, Album, and Artist Of The Year — from five to eight, in an attempt to create “more opportunities for a wider-range of recognition.” Last year, three-quarters of the nominees for Song and Record Of The Year were still identical. But the expansion rightfully allowed Cardi B and Brandi Carlile, Kendrick Lamar and Lady Gaga to commingle in categories.

This year, the picture is even better — Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year share just three nominees, and they collectively encompass Taylor Swift and Tanya Tucker, Lil Nas X and H.E.R., Lana Del Rey and Ariana Grande. It’s the biggest collective field of tunes in Grammy history.

That’s a move toward honesty, toward reshaping the Grammys to suggest the actual scope of what’s happening in music. So, Recording Academy, make the next step: Ditch the separate awards that so often net the same set of songs, anyway, or at least radically reinvent them. As is, these dovetailing categories mostly reward different people for the same product, selected from an anachronistically limited field. The situation raises an existential question for the Recording Academy: Do the Grammys serve the industry or the audience? Can’t it be both?

Aside from maintaining an expired status quo, there are three options: Limit the number of nominated songs the two fields can share, forcing them to expand by virtue of opening up more slots. Or create a third category that feels like an actual reflection of the year’s most vital hits, and hand out an award for “Anthem Of The Year” or whatever, the song that feels like it spoke most directly to our cultural moment.

Or, better yet, do away with the two awards altogether and merge them into one, which is the de facto result most of the time, anyway. Create a super category that treats the recorded song — that is, the lyrics, the music, and the way they fit together on tape — as one holistic piece of art, which is the way most listeners perceive it. It’s a more accurate reflection of how people carry music into their lives, if that is ever who the Grammys hope to serve.