Why People Fight More Than Ever About The Album Of The Year Category At The Grammys

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As is the case every year at the Grammys, there are five nominees for Album Of The Year. But, really, for the sake of conversation, you might as well set Jay Z’s 4:44, Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic, and Childish Gambino’s “Awaken My Love” off to the side. In the minds of the public (and presumably the voters), it all comes down to two records: Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. and Lorde’s Melodrama. Both albums ranked among the most critically acclaimed albums of 2017, and they reign as presumptive favorites in the most prestigious of Grammy categories. They also conform to a familiar “us vs. them” narrative that’s been embedded in media coverage of the record industry’s top award ceremony for at least the past five years.

The narrative goes like this: If Kendrick wins the top award, it will register as “an obvious, positive attempt by the music academy to make up for its history of overlooking work by black artists.” If Lorde wins, it will confirm that “the Academy seems to have a bias toward artists of a paler complexion.” (If Jay Z, Bruno Mars, or Childish Gambino somehow pull of the upset, Kendrick and Lorde might as well fire their publicists.)

For several years now, the Album Of The Year category has been a lightning rod for the Grammys. While the ceremony has a long history of dubious value judgements in all of the major categories — from designating Jethro Tull as a metal band to awarding Milli Vanilli Best New Artist to choosing Macklemore and Ryan Lewis over Lamar for Best Rap Album — the annual morning-after rancor in the 2010s has largely centered on the “wrong” person taking home the climactic trophy of the night. Inevitably, these “incorrect” choices are immediately freighted with cultural significance beyond the mere aesthetic preferences of a middlebrow industry organization. This “us vs. them” narrative has become so pronounced that it is barely subtext anymore. The performers themselves have referenced it from the stage — see Adele’s apologetic victory speech when she “wrongly” won Album Of The Year for 25 in 2017 over the “right” nominee, Beyonce’s Lemonade.

You might remember a similar scenario unfolding in 2013, when “wrong choice” Mumford & Sons took home Album Of The Year for Babel instead of “right choice” Frank Ocean for Channel Orange. Or 2014, when Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories won out over Kendrick Lamar’s commercial and critical smash good kid m.A.A.d city. It happened again, most egregiously, in 2015, when Beck’s middle-aged comeback album Morning Phase bested Beyonce’s beloved self-titled LP. And then again in 2016, when Taylor Swift’s 1989 got the nod over Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly.

In each instance, the Grammys were lambasted not just for a supposed lapse in taste, but also for a failure of proper representation — for black and LGBTQ artists, for hip-hop, for “progressive” music culture over the usual “safe” and “white” choices of old. No doubt this conversation has been emboldened by the rise of social media, which has also put the Academy Awards under the same microscope. But it’s also related to changes that have been made this decade to improve the Grammys’ historically stodgy reputation. Oddly, raising audience expectations for what the Grammys are capable of has in some ways actually hurt the Grammys’ PR.

The irony is the Grammys have never been better when it comes to at least nominating a more diverse array of artists in the Album Of The Year category — not to mention honoring albums that are actually good, or even great. Seriously, take a look at what was nominated back when the Grammys started. Pick any memorably great music year form the past 60 years — 1967, 1971, 1977, 1984, 1991, 1997, 2007 — and look at some of the hokey records that received Grammy nods. On balance, the nominees in the 2010s are more consistent than any other decade. And yet Grammy viewers seem even more dissatisfied with the winners.

This is the paradox of the recent run of Album Of The Year controversies — by getting a little better, the Grammys appear to be much worse.

You might think that these conversations have always been a part of the Grammys — and they have, though not quite as regularly as they are now. There were loud grumbles in 2001 when Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature won out against Radiohead, Eminem, and Beck, and in 2005 when Ray Charles was honored posthumously for Genius Loves Company over landmark releases by Kanye West and Green Day. If you look back at the 20th century, there were those who rolled their eyes in 1985 when Lionel Richie’s easy-listening pop-soul blockbuster Can’t Slow Down beat out Prince’s Purple Rain and Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A. Or when Christopher Cross’ sleepy self-titled album — forever known as “the one with ‘Sailing’ on it” — was deemed superior to Pink Floyd’s The Wall in 1981.

But the nature of these complaints were typically related to the perception of the Grammys being biased toward older, establishment artists adored by older, establishment voters. Even at their best, the Grammys in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s were reliably, almost proudly, staid. The focus was always on big, popular albums that were emblematic of an uncomplicated concept of “quality,” similar to the prestige pictures that seem expressly made to win Oscars.

Occasionally, that meant honoring “nice,” inoffensive works by the likes of Richie and Cross. But it also rewarded genuinely great, populist artists such as Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Michael Jackson, U2, and George Michael, all of whom won Album Of The Year trophies in the ’70s and ’80s for records that were commercially successful, critically acclaimed, and “safe” in the best possible sense of the word. Who could argue, even in the moment, against the impact of Songs In The Key Of Life, Thriller, or The Joshua Tree? It was almost self-evident that they deserved to win Album Of The Year, even as imminently cooler music emerged on the fringes of the mainstream.

The Album Of The Year back then was a coronation, not a provocation. Picking those records wasn’t going to offend anyone, and therefore the award barely registered as a statement.

By the ’90s and ’00s, however, the Grammys’ pro-mainstream leanings started to seem irredeemably lame, in part because culture was becoming less stratified. If you were an underground rock fan in the ’80s who loved, say, R.E.M., you had no reasonable expectation that the Grammys would ever nominate Murmur or Lifes Rich Pageant for Album Of The Year. However, in the ’90s, when R.E.M. lost twice in the Album Of The Year category (in 1992 to Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable and in 1994 to The Bodyguard soundtrack), it was the beginning of alt-rock competing in the same arena as establishment pop. Ditto for credible hip-hop in 1997 when the Fugees’ classic LP The Score lost (along with alt-rock classics like Beck’s Odelay and Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness) to Celine Dion’s square Falling Into You.

Before then, the Grammys had seemingly little use for the people who liked slightly edgy rock or somewhat below-the-radar rap. And those audiences, in turn, had little use for the Grammys. After all, the Grammys were always gonna Grammy, so why get upset about it? Consider the Album Of The Year nominees in 1995: Tony Bennett, The Three Tenors, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Riatt, and Seal. Even 23 years ago, that was a pretty milquetoast group of artists. Factor in all of the iconic, forward-thinking records that came out of alt-rock and hip-hop at the time, and it’s downright laughable. But how does one even begin to write a socially minded thinkpiece about that lineup of nominees? You can’t project cultural meaning on to an institution that seems to resist any connection to contemporary culture.

At the dawn of the current decade, however, the Grammys took a dramatic turn toward recognizing a younger generation of artists. In 2011, Arcade Fire won Album Of The Year for The Suburbs over far more famous stars such as Eminem, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry. But this stab for credibility was itself controversial — record executive Steve Stoute took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to slam the Grammys for having “clearly lost touch with contemporary culture,” represented by rappers such as Eminem and Kanye West and pop-R&B singers such as Justin Bieber.

While Stoute’s implication that the Grammys had somehow been more in touch with youth culture two decades earlier is patently untrue, his points nevertheless struck a chord. The Grammys have pushed to make their nominees hipper and more of the moment with each passing year. In 2018, instead of honoring someone of Tony Bennett’s vintage (he was 69 when he won Album Of The Year for MTV Unplugged), the oldest Album Of The Year nominee is Jay-Z, who turned 48 in December. All of the other nominees are under 35.

But can a cooler-than-ever Grammys ever be cool enough? Actually, in the case of Kendrick Lamar, I suspect Grammy critics will be happy this year. While DAMN. might be a touch weaker than its two predecessor albums that failed to win Album Of The Year awards, I predict that 2018 will finally be Kendrick’s year. Not only is DAMN. the “right” choice in the view of the most vocal sections of the social-media hive mind, it’s also a platinum-selling hit by a superstar who just performed during the halftime show of the college football National Championship. Which is to say: Lorde might be famous, but she’s not nearly as famous as Kendrick right now. And fame, of course, still matters at the Grammys, as do obvious signifiers of quality. Kendrick is the closest thing that modern pop has to a universally acclaimed Stevie Wonder figure — DAMN.seems like both the “progressive” choice and the “safest” establishment bet. Finally, maybe, the Grammys can finally please everyone this year.