The Grammys Will Always Let You Down If You Let Them

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Grammy nominations won’t be announced until Friday, but I already know what’s going to happen.

In the Album of the Year category, there will be several nominees nobody cares about, and two albums that suck up all of the attention. One of them is an Album That Should Win, as determined by the people in your Twitter feed who loudly care about such things. (For the sake of argument, let’s say it’s Ariana Grande’s Sweetener.) And the other is an Album That Probably Will Win. (Again, a semi-educated guess: The Greatest Showman soundtrack.)

For the next few months, there will be thinkpieces about what it will be mean for The Culture if the Album That Should Win actually manages to snake a Grammy, as well as the dire consequences (widespread stasis, backward ignorance, dogs and cats living together) if the Album That Probably Will Win gets that inevitable Grammy.

And then, at the award show, when the Album That Probably Will Win actually does win, there will be an instant and overwhelming backlash so powerful that the award recipients will feel compelled to apologize from the stage for this gross injustice. But that won’t be as bad as the following Monday, the post-Grammy Monday, the single worst day on the annual social media calendar, when the apocalyptic recaps, postmortems, and grand summations sternly recount for us What It All Means.

You don’t have to be some visionary sage to predict this. All you need is a casual knowledge of recent Grammy history. The narratives that have come to define the music-industry top award show in the 2010s always boil down to the Album That Should Win vs. the Album That Probably Will Win. Remember Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange vs. Mumford & Sons’ Babel? Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly vs. Taylor Swift’s 1989? Beyoncé’s Beyoncé vs. Beck’s Morning Phase? Beyoncé’s Lemonade vs. Adele’s 25? Kendrick’s DAMN. vs. Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic? (The Grammys clearly have even less competitive parity than the NBA.)

This pattern repeats itself with numbing regularity every year now — the names (slightly) change, but the core argument over what the Grammys should be and what they actually are stays the same. There are people who insist that the Grammys ought to both reflect the current state of pop music and act as a progressive force affirming the rise of exciting, diverse voices driving out the conservative old guard. And then there’s reality. Cold, hard, lame reality. The reality of an award show that since 1959 has always served to forward the extremely basic tastes of corporate insiders and their corny-ass ideas about “quality.”

It’s like a live-action version of Wile E. Coyote vs. the Road Runner. You would think Wile E. would learn his lesson by now. But here we are again, standing under an anvil while the Road Runner speeds off into the distance.

Never forget: The Grammys will always let you down if you let them.

Here’s a parable: A person walks into a darkened room. She reaches out to the nearest switch, expecting to turn on the light. Instead, she turns on the garbage disposal. She flips the switch off, and then turns it back on, hoping that this time it will turn on the light. But, again, it turns on the garbage disposal. She flips the switch again, hoping that after the third time, the light will come on. But flipping that switch always turns on that gross, grating, metallic sound.

Is it the fault of the switch that it only works for the garbage disposal, or the fault of the person for expecting it to turn on a light, in spite of abundant evidence that this will never work?

What a lot of people don’t seem to understand about the Grammys is that they’re not really a barometer for the current state of pop music — not now, not ever. It has occasionally been that accidentally, in the manner of all stopped clocks, but it was never designed to be that on purpose. It’s neither a pure popularity contest, nor a reflection of critical preferences. It’s an industry honor, a mutually beneficial back-scratch intended to reinforce the status-quo. For nearly 60 years, it’s the one thing about the music business that’s been preserved exactly as it once was. Myopic mediocrity is intrinsic to the institution. And yet, somehow, we expect it not to be so.

But why? Two things are generally true about the Grammys. First, in the short-term, winning a Grammy leads to an increase in sales/streams/interest for a particular artist or album. That’s the point — it’s a commercial for the most privileged artists in the world. And, giving credit where it’s due, it’s a pretty effective commercial. Second, in the long-term, losing a Grammy (or not even being nominated) has virtually no impact on how that artist is ultimately remembered. Neither does winning a Grammy. This is important and, again, often forgotten: In terms of pop music history, the Grammys are as influential as your grandparents.

When we remember the early ’80s — a time when hip-hop first approached the mainstream and punk and new wave influenced emerging American indie culture — nobody talks about Grammy-endorsed albums like Billy Joel’s 52nd Street, Christopher Cross’ self-titled debut, or Toto’s IV. (Actually, that last one was weirdly prominent in 2018.) To cite a more recent example, the most important music of the ’00s according to the Grammys includes Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me, Ray Charles’ Genius Loves Company, and U2’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. The only place you’ll find those albums today is amid the rubble of shuttered used-CD stores.

Of course, while the imprimatur of the Grammys has barely mattered in the past, it’s possible that it matters even less right now. Ratings cratered last year, especially among young people, and given the overall trend of declining viewership for traditional TV, this slip will likely only get worse. In terms of the music industry, younger listeners raised on streaming platforms are increasingly removed from the big-ticket behemoths that the Grammys lavish attention on. The debate over whether Kendrick Lamar deserves an Album of the Year Grammy hardly seems relevant to a kid born in 2005 (the year Ray Charles and Norah Jones won Record of the Year) who loves Soundcloud rap. Even if that kid also loves Kendrick, an institutional gold star obviously has diminished value for those who came of age in an era of diminished old media institutions.

If we know the Grammys are not a light, we should also recognize that a garbage disposal has its purposes. In his great memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), Jeff Tweedy wryly notes that winning the Grammy gave him legitimacy among the people in his small midwestern hometown who don’t follow indie rock bands like Wilco. In other words, it made him slightly more famous for an audience that doesn’t care about music.

That’s what the Grammys are — prom for celebrities. We come to gape at those standing at the vortex of money and power. It’s not meant to be important or profound. It was made for us to rate the red carpet looks and mock the performances. It deserves our snark, not our indignation and certainly not our respect. If that’s all you expect from the Grammys, you’ll never be disappointed.