Why the Grammys’ Committee Voting System Needs an Overhaul (Column)

The secret committees picking nominees often reward low-buzz acts with multiple nods, which risks making the process seem arbitrary when worthy superstars and deserving critical favorites alike get shut out.

Bon Iver - Justin VernonAll Points East Festival, London, UK - 02 Jun 2019
Michal Augustini/Shutterstock

“Committee” is a dirty word, or at least a subject for derisive humor, in most avenues of business. That’s proven true in the awards world, too, where much ire has been directed at the Grammys for using so-called blue-ribbon committees to select the final nominees in most of the 84 categories, including all the major ones. This year, some of the more offbeat or bizarre choices of nominees — and shocking snubs or near-shutouts of popular and deserving artists — are heightening talk that the system has outlived its usefulness and needs an overhaul, or should be tossed out altogether. If the many Democrats in the music biz can kvetch about how the popular vote would be preferable to the electoral college in politics, maybe it’s time for them to step up, as it were, and advocate for majority decision-making in the Grammys too.

Unless, of course, they really do think that the little buzzed-about Bon Iver and H.E.R. albums should have dominated the top categories as much as they did, and were much more important to the world of music in 2019 than Taylor Swift, Tyler, the Creator, Maren Morris, Bruce Springsteen or the many other commercially and critically popular artists that were pushed to the margins or even left out of the nominations altogether. Make no mistake: H.E.R. is absolutely a quality artist, and maybe there is a persuasive argument to be made that, with a recent album that peaked at No. 86, she needed to be up for five awards for the second straight year, including the top three (album, record and song), also for a consecutive year. But it smacks of the same small coterie of influencers being loaded into the same smoke-filled room, where nobody on the outside can know what those arguments were or just how high a dose of THC was in the smoke.

These will be the last Grammys where the process won’t really bear the stamp of the Recording Academy’s recently appointed CEO-president, Deborah Dugan. So if she’s making a to-do list, hey, we’ve got a suggestion.

The thing is, committees served a useful purpose for the Grammys in the ’90s, when they were first instituted as a hedge against the awards being a pure popularity contest, like the American Music Awards, and to eliminate any more cred-diminishing Christopher Cross sweeps. “It’s a committee thing” used to be a phrase with a positive ring to it, when, say, Beck’s “Odelay” got nominated for album of the year in 1996, something that would have been hard to imagine just a few years before. But now “It’s a committee thing” is usually said to connote randomness, like when Bon Iver — which won best new artist in 2012 but had been on the radar of zero prognosticators this year — is suddenly contending for record of the year while a pop smash that seemingly every cynic in the world fell in love with, like the Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker,” is given the bum’s rush as too uncool for the room.

Worthy superstars and the year’s leading critical favorites have a lot in common: they’re often passed over completely in favor of offering multiple recognitions to choices that seem to have been picked out of a hat. And when the record, album and song of the year categories offer rubber-stump repeats of some of the same head-scratcher choices, the least the Academy could do is make sure the same committees aren’t responsible for multiple categories.

The committee system once existed to make sure that oldsters and mainstream pop smashes didn’t completely rule the roost; now it seems to exist to keep veterans and most mega-pop out. Different committees have different peculiarities: Country does favor old-timers like Willie and Reba over the shockingly shunned Maren (who deservedly just won album of the year at the CMAs — and isn’t even up for that award here). The rock committee traditionally shuns any band you’ve ever heard of (sorry, Black Keys and Raconteurs) in favor of making a case for ones you never likely will.

Things came to an internal head at the Grammys in the last couple of years as longtime telecast producer Ken Ehrlich found he had a lot less to work with when the expected stars of his show — Swift and Ed Sheeran among them — got shafted by the nominating committees. This year, he’s lucked out, with commercial and critical favorites Billie Eilish and Lizzo as the top nominees. Before you confer to the committees any credit for this, consider that, in 2019, you could probably have filled a conference room with the proverbial Shakespeare-typing monkeys and they, too, would have eventually delivered Lizzo and Eilish as this year’s no-brainer Grammy queens. The committees do giveth as well as taketh away: The country committee that denied Morris her shot also gave a big profile to Tanya Tucker, and how delightful is that?

But for every happy surprise along those lines this year, there are approximately three WTF ones, as the insiders who decide these things have determined that the Grammys are too high-minded to give even a single nod to Halsey, Pink, Kane Brown, Sam Smith, Sheryl Crow or the other crowd-pleasers the awards once existed to celebrate — and that it’s fine to give Swift her due in mostly consolation categories. Mind you, no one should begrudge Bon Iver a single nod or two, but when it, instead of critically commendable or popular favorites, commands the top categories, it’s comparable to the Oscars deciding to make “Honey Boy” this year’s front-runner. It’s a thing that makes you go hmm.

The Recording Academy has touted — rightly — the inroads it’s made in attracting thousands of younger and more diverse voters. Isn’t it time to trust those voters, then, to choose the final nominations, as well as the ultimate winners? We might lose out on a few of the legitimately cool and underrated picks that the committees come through with, but as a trade for Tyler or Taylor getting their legit due, it might be worth it … and at least we’d be spared wondering if somebody with the loudest voice in a conference room owed a gambling debt.