Grammys can do better
Awards should reward boundary-pushing artists
The Grammys should echo the zeitgeist. They should reflect how we feel about today and help explain why we feel this way. Sometimes they do: See victories for revolutionary records by Arcade Fire in 2011, the Dixie Chicks in 2007 and Lauryn Hill in 1999.
But as a rule, the Grammys have failed in this mission, living in the boring, artistically conservative past: Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight” picked up three nominations in 1977 while the Clash and Sex Pistols changed music forever and were snubbed. Tracy Chapman’s global smash about poverty — “Fast Car” — lost both Song and Record of the Year in 1989 to Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
This trend of overlooking mature art in favor of teen pop and heritage acts has actually gained momentum in this decade. Beyonce made a mighty statement on black oppression on “Lemonade” and lost Album of the Year to Adele. The more country cliches Kacey Musgraves kicked to the curb, the fewer Grammy nods she’s received. Kendrick Lamar has won a Pulitzer Prize but has been bested at the Grammys by pedestrian pop from Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake.
So what can the Grammys — who announced the contenders for 2019 yesterday — do to change this? I’m so glad you asked.
Janelle Monae needs to win two Grammys
She needs to win a dozen, but she’s only nominated for two. Thankfully, one of those puts “Dirty Computer” up for Album of the Year.
In 2018, Monae championed rebellion over consumerism, called out morally bankrupt politicians, questioned the militarization of the police and spotlighted racial inequities in our justice system over a blend of ’70s funk, ’90s r&b and modern trap beats. She did this all in one song: “Crazy, Classic, Life.” The other 13 tracks on “Dirty Computer” featured equally revolutionary sounds and smart ideas from collaborations with Beach Boy Brian Wilson to fusing buoyant gospel harmonies and synth-heavy disco.
No artist mattered more in 2018. “Being a young, black, queer woman in America, there was something I had to say … a group of people I wanted to celebrate,” she said on “CBS This Morning” yesterday, reacting to her nomination and holding back tears. “I’m happy to be representing them. I hope they feel seen, I hope they feel heard. I hope they feel loved.”
Fully embrace hip-hop by rewarding Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.”
Donald Glover’s alter ego nabbed nominations for Record, Song and Music Video of the Year. As mainstream hip-hop returns to its political roots, the genre has struggled even more than usual at the Grammys. This is why “This is America” needs to win them all.
The song and its video dissect the nasty places where race, racism, violence, capitalism, art and entertainment overlap. It went to No. 1. It racked up 440,000 million YouTube streams. Pairing a hypnotic hook with aggressive thumping beats, the song captured the essence of Trump’s America: candy pop selling millions to teens being gunned down
(Note: Every award Gambino and Monae miss, please give to Lamar — who leads the 2018 field with eight.)
Erase the artificial lines between Americana and country (and folk and rock …)
Sometimes it seems like the Grammys have concocted a clever plan to make sure rootsy music that cuts to the heart and soul plays second fiddle to polished country filled with cliches. This year Brandi Carlile and Musgraves have a chance to change that by bringing earnest, honest country (or rock or whatever you wanna call it) back to the mainstream.
While Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton have helped destroy genre borders at the Grammys, woman have had less success. Well, welcome to 2018, where Carlile grabbed six well-earned nominations (including Album and Record of the Year) and Musgraves nabbed four (including Album and Country Album of the Year). Both women made triumphant albums that draw as much from Bob Dylan and Lucinda Williams as Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton.
With the four main categories — Album, Record and Song of the Year and Best New Artist — expanded from five to eight nominees, women won the majority of nominations in the big four. That represents progress. I like Gambino and Monae for these awards, but Carlile and Musgraves deserve to go home with at least a few golden gramophones each.
HITTING THE RIGHT NOTES: Worthy winners of Grammys this year would be Janelle Monae, Childish Gambino, Kacey Musgraves, Kendrick Lamar and Brandi Carlile, clockwise from above left.