At the heart of every awards show is a lie. Art isn’t sport, and there’s no such thing as a best song, record, album, or artist. Any choice is arbitrary. But even though it’s arbitrary, that doesn’t mean it lacks value. The value is in what happens afterward: The controversies and conversations that are provoked. And the Grammy Awards, through sheer ineptitude, have produced some of the most vital artistic discussions of our time.
This is a relatively recent phenomenon, made possible by a large and diverse national media. Back in the 1960s, for example, the Grammys could still be blindingly incompetent, but there weren’t many people in a position to tell them so. At a time of only three television networks, the Grammys had consistently ignored all rock music that wasn’t by the Beatles. The absurdity reached its peak in 1969. While Jimi Hendrix’s first album Are You Experienced? was the best-selling album in the country, with rave reviews from critics, he wasn’t even nominated for “Best New Artist.”
That’s shameful for a number of reasons, but in 1969 the national media wasn’t mature enough to properly shame Academy voters. There wouldn’t be a Grammy for Rock Performance until 1980, by which time cable television had been born. MTV came along in 1981. By 1988 music magazines were nearing their pre-internet peak, with Rolling Stone covering the mainstream while Spin and The Source dived into alternative sounds. And in this new media environment, the Grammys were as hopeless as ever.