The Grammy Awards will never be perfect, and maybe they shouldn’t be. But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter.
After enduring years of dinosaur jokes and slumping ratings, the Recording Academy has successfully recast its showcase event as must-see-TV with an increasingly contemporary cast of nominees. Like the Tonys, the Grammys now serve as an annual advertisement for a struggling industry — with its performances and top awards often serving to jumpstart album sales and generate excitement.
Yet however admirably the Grammys may have shrugged off some their most risible tendencies, this year’s narrative-less nominations display a number of the awards’ continuing bad old habits, for which we offer some humble suggestions going forward.
1. Use the Gregorian calendar
The Grammy eligibility period for this Sunday’s ceremony extends from Oct. 1, 2012, to Sept. 30, 2013. This means chart-topping 2013 albums from Beyonce, Arcade Fire, Lady Gaga, Pearl Jam, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and Eminem will not be eligible until next time around. It also means three of the five nominees for album of the year — Taylor Swift’s “Red,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “The Heist” — were actually released in October 2012.
And it isn’t exactly as if they flew under the radar at the time. “Red” was the second bestselling album of 2012. “Good Kid” finished second on the 2012 Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics’ poll. “The Heist” debuted at No. 2 on the album chart prior to Barack Obama’s re-election. And yet all three are competing to be named 2013’s album of the year at a ceremony in 2014.
It’s hardly surprising to see such high-profile albums miss the eligibility window; the holiday season is a hugely lucrative sales period for the music business. Excluding the final three months of the calendar year from Grammy consideration makes about as much sense as cutting off Oscar eligibility right before the Toronto Film Festival. Of course, extending the Grammy window through December would surely necessitate pushing the kudocast back to allow voters to properly digest the offerings, but considering the ever-accelerating pace of pop music, waiting from one even-numbered year to the next to honor an album may as well be an eternity.
2. Keep the new artists new
During last year’s Grammy kudocast, it’s unlikely anyone outside New Zealand had ever heard of teenage singer-songwriter Lorde. By now, there are few who haven’t, with the young chanteuse’s “Royals” having racked up well over 100 million views on YouTube, sending her to the top of the singles chart and notching four Grammy nominations, including record and song of the year. Lorde was unquestionably the breakout pop star of 2013, though bafflingly she was not nominated for new artist.
Ed Sheeran secured a new artist nod in her place, despite being nominated for song of the year (“The A-Team”) last year and failing to release any solo material during the 2013 eligibility period.
Obviously, musicians can linger in the margins for years before breaking through to wide attention — the best new artist category is not constricted to official debuts, nor should it be — and “newness” has always been a subjective matter. For example, new artist contender Macklemore cut his first self-released record back when Lorde was in grade school, though few would argue that his recent ascendency is unworthy of a nomination. Yet the beauty of a new artist award is that it allows the Recording Academy to take a chance, to go out on a limb for a youngster who may well end up disappointing. This has long been the Grammys’ most unpredictable category, equally filled with prescient hits (the Beatles, Sade, Adele) and gobsmacking misses (Starland Vocal Band, Arrested Development, Milli Vanilli). Which is exactly as it should be. Waiting around to make sure a blossoming artist has what it takes to stick around for the long haul misses the point.
There were plenty of artists aside from Lorde who secured serious attention and chart real estate with actual debut albums over the past year. Critically adored L.A. sister act Haim reached No. 6 on the album chart, while fraternal electronic duo Disclosure scored a Grammy nom for best dance album; rapper A$AP Rocky and pop star Ariana Grande both notched No. 1 albums their first time out; country newcomers Florida Georgia Line claimed the sixth bestselling album of the year; and lower under the radar, new acts like Savages, Chvrches and King Krule were music press darlings for months.
3. Contemporize, even when painful
During its long tenure as one of the biggest and most influential rock bands in the world, Led Zeppelin received exactly one Grammy nomination, for best new artist, which it did not win. This year, it’s up for two, both coming for a live album recorded at a one-off reunion concert in 2007.
The Grammys’ longtime conservative streak has led to a number of embarrassing oversights, particularly during the rock era, and recent decades have seen late-career make-good honors for the underrepresented likes of Eric Clapton, Steely Dan and Bob Dylan. Yet awarding Zeppelin for a 6-year-old recording of a 38-year-old song is hardly the way to atone.
Should Zeppelin win out in the rock album category, for example, it would do so at the expense of fellow nominees Queens of the Stone Age and Kings of Leon, two of the few active rock acts still capable of making splashes on the album chart, possibly requiring yet another future round of make-goods. Grammy voters had a decade to recognize Zeppelin at the height of its popularity, and they neglected to do so. But that long-ago judgment error needn’t burden Grammy voters a generation later.