Believe it or not, there have only been “rock” categories at the Grammy Awards since the 1980s. There was a three-year dalliance with rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1960s with a Best Contemporary Performance, but there wasn’t a distinction made for rock until the introduction of Grammys for Best Male and Best Female Rock Vocal Performance and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, all introduced in 1980. (Best Rock Instrumental Performance was also introduced in 1980, and ran all the way until 2011! It seems like that award may have been retired because they were sick of giving it to Jeff Beck.)
In their current incarnation, the Grammy Award for Best Rock Song has only existed since 1992, and the Grammy for Best Rock Album was created in 1995. There are also Grammys for Best Rock Performance (the conjoined version of all the rock performance categories that preceded it) and Best Metal Performance, although that one comes with its own can of worms. Weirdly, the award for Best Alternative Music Album is more established than the current Rock Grammys, as it was introduced in 1991. (It remains the only award the Grammys ever created for “alternative music,” and there’s always been plenty of overlap with the rock categories, as you might expect.)
If you look back through the winners in these “rock” categories over the years (particularly since they were given their current names in the 1990s), you’ll see a very strange pattern: These awards tend to go Lless to acts that you’d think of as “rock,” and more to who you’d tend to think of as “adult contemporary.” Or maybe “dudes your mom loves.” Or pretty much anything that wouldn’t feel out of place in a dentist’s waiting room. This makes for a strange legacy in a genre of music meant to push the boundaries of what the squares can tolerate; a genre where the very name is a slang term for doing the nasty.
Perhaps this is just to be expected: Institutions (like the Recording Academy) tend to bristle at anything that upsets the status quo, and thus tend to take the path of least resistance whenever possible. Companies, governing bodies, corporations, and the like will continue along performing business as usual until a new paradigm forces its hand, and when those entities’ hands are forced, they’ll acknowledge this new paradigm, but continue to try and make that paradigm conform to their own idea of what it should be (or what the preceding paradigm dictated).
For example, even back in 1968, when the Grammys last experimented with the “contemporary” category to try and highlight and distinguish rock ‘n’ roll from the rest of its popular music categories, Best Male Vocal performance went to Glen Campbell for “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” And while, yes, this is an exceptional vocal performance, it sure doesn’t resemble what “contemporary” rock ‘n’ roll looked like in 1968… the same year The Beatles won Best Contemporary Album for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Also winning a pair of Contemporary awards in 1968 was “Up Up and Away” by the 5th Dimension, which is maybe the least rock song that’s ever been recorded. Those 1960s Contemporary categories were lousy with country and adult contemporary artists. Roger Miller’s “King Of The Road” won a pair of awards in 1966, and other nominees during the three-year Contemporary Awards span included the Statler Brothers, the Supremes, Tom Jones, Bobby Darin, Frankie Valli, Bobbie Gentry, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick.
It’s no surprise that the Grammys scrapped any attempt to distinguish between types of popular music after 1968 and didn’t try again for over a decade. The 1960s were arguably the most transformative decade for popular music in history, and when an entire art form is shifting that drastically and that rapidly, there are very few institutions or governing bodies who wouldn’t say, “You know what? Let’s not even bother with this until it makes sense to us.”
In the 1980s, it started to make sense to the Recording Academy: They knew they liked established singer-songwriters, and thanks to MTV, they could at least look at the television and understand which artists might be considered “rock.” Best of all, they didn’t really have to think too hard about it for that first decade. Of the first ten Grammys handed out for Best Female Rock Performance, four went to Pat Benatar and four went to Tina Turner. Just take the rest of the day off, guys. You’re nailing it. Meanwhile, over in the Best Male Rock Performance category, the first ten awards read like a f*cked-up Mount Rushmore of all-timer establishment Dad Rock: Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Rick Springfield, John Mellencamp, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley (twice), and Robert Palmer (twice).
At that point, the Grammys pretty much settled in, and old, established white dudes were the kings of rock, and there were none higher — even when their output didn’t resemble the rock genre very much. Over in Best Male, Eric Clapton would win back-to-back awards, Springsteen grabbed another two, Dylan snagged another, Tom Petty got one, and Dave Matthews won the final Best Male award — in 2004, for “Gravedigger,” a song you definitely don’t remember, and a win that smacks of an old white guy who hung around long enough to be recognized as a safe and established enough choice for the Academy. the outliers here are a four-year run for Lenny Kravitz, and Beck winning for “Where It’s At” in 1997. (It should be noted that the other nominees Beck beat out that year were Springsteen, Clapton, Bryan Adams, and John Hiatt.)
Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, which became Best Rock Performance in 2012, has definitely fared better in the “what does rock actually look and sound like” department, as the early days of the award saw wins for The Police, Prince, Dire Straits, Eurhythmics, and U2, but then again, “rock band” has always been a lot easier to discern than the genre itself. In the 1990s, though, the establishment turned to the safe choices more often than not, given 20-plus-year-old Aerosmith a trio of awards in the category during the decade (including for “Pink” in 1999, if you can believe it). The concept of “rock” continued to be elusive in the 1990s, however (especially with the awards running parallel to the new Alternative category), as Dave Matthews, Blues Traveller (a band with “Blues” in the name), and Bonnie Raitt won awards in the category. (Raitt has always been a strange case, straddling four genres or more at all times. We’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.)
Best Rock Album, meanwhile, has always been a haven of Old Man Rock since its inception in 1995, the inaugural award bestowed on the Rolling Stones. Alanis Morissette won the following year, beating out the inscrutable other nominees Chris Isaak, Tom Petty, Neil Young, and Pearl Jam — two Old Man Rock stalwarts, an actual Rock Band, and Chris Isaak. Subsequent winners included John Fogerty, Santana, Bruce Springsteen, and two-time winner Sheryl Crow, who is always welcome, but pretty inarguably Old Man Rock.
By the 2000s, the Academy figured out they could just give Foo Fighters and U2 the award any time they dropped a new album. Both are rock bands, but continue to be the safe choice. And your mom probably knows a lot of those songs. Since 2001, Foo Fighters have won Best Rock Album four times and Best Rock Performance once, and U2 have won Best Rock Album twice and Best Rock Performance four times.
Things have gotten better in recent years, as The White Stripes, Beck, and Muse (although by now all old and established), and Alabama Shakes and the Black Keys have been recognized, but Old Man Rock continues to hold much more sway with nominees than it probably should. In 2014, Led Zeppelin won Best Rock Album, and the other nominees that year included Black Sabbath, David Bowie, and Neil Young. (David Bowie, for the record, one of the most celebrated, influential, and groundbreaking rock artists of all time, has won a total of five competitive Grammys: Best Music Video in 1985, and four posthumous awards for “Blackstar” — Rock Song, Rock Performance, Engineered Album, and Alternative Music Album. If anyone could ever be both establishment-approved Rock and Alternative at the same time, it was Bowie.)
There’s a surprising lack of Old Man Rock in this year’s Rock categories, but there’s also Greta Van Fleet, a stand-in for every Old Man everything that’s ever existed. And the Grammys shouldn’t be too fearful of this year’s nominees; Bruce and U2 will probably put out new albums soon enough.