By Daniel Gewertz
After 61 years — and a slew of rule changes and category alterations — the Grammys remain the most philistine of our major shiny statue ceremonies.
The word Grammy is often the first word in a famous musician’s obit. When a performer is introduced on a talk-show, “Grammy winning” is the phrase used to signify artistic legitimacy. This habitual aggrandizing reinforces the lie that a Grammy award is the definition of excellence, the equal to an Oscar, a Tony, a National Book Award. Even our most august newspapers are snookered by the Recording Academy. Two days after an awards broadcast, few of us can recall who won, yet the air of sanctified legitimacy lives on.
After 61 years — and a slew of rule changes and category alterations — the Grammys remain the most philistine of our major shiny statue ceremonies. While other arts awards take into account sales figures as one of several considerations in making their choice of nominees, Grammy remains an absolute slave to the purse. Their telecast is like a giant strobe-lit sign proclaiming, over and over, that there is no difference between significant art and blockbuster popularity in today’s America. That certainly wasn’t the primary intent of the Grammys, but the muddled aesthetics this contest depends on generates a kind of cognitive dissonance.
When Grammy was born in 1959 it was an entirely different animal from today’s grand-scale awards. It was a small, ludicrously insular affair: at first, it wasn’t even televised. Yet the dubious reasons behind Grammy’s inception may have had a longtime perverse influence on what the Recording Academy has wrought in the current era.
The initial awards were a bald attempt to slow both the rise of rock ‘n roll and the concurrent upsurge of small, independent record labels often situated outside the industry loci of New York and Los Angeles. It was an ageist move: the Sinatra generation’s last stand against the onslaught of teens, college kids, hillbillies, rockabilly cats, rhythm & blues singers, Greenwich Village leftwing folkies and, amazingly enough, even beboppers. (Bop and its off-shoots had been well known for a decade-and-a-half by 1960, but, to paraphrase Chuck Berry, the moribund powers-that-be still had “a kick against modern jazz.” All of it.)
The relatively small, inbred group of Grammy members in those early years claimed they were championing the cause of “good music” in an age of cheap, throwaway trends. Rock was enemy #1. In all of the ’60s, only one rock act, the Beatles, won an “Album of the Year” prize: Sgt. Pepper, at the 1968 presentation. Even more absurd, the Beatles were the only rock act even nominated in that main category during the most protean decade rock has ever known. (I’m not counting Simon & Garfunkel’s folk-pop.)
Here are some of the artists who gained best album nominations in the ’60s, when every single non-Beatle rock act went MIA: The Singing Nun, comic Allan Sherman, Ed Ames, Bobbie Gentry, actor Richard Harris, and JFK impersonator Vaughan Meader, who actually won. Even stranger was the early history in the jazz categories. In 1959, the winner was a Count Basie album (Basie) currently so obscure that AllMusic.com has no reviews of it. The 1960 Grammy show covered music released in 1959. That year happened to be among the most astonishing in jazz history: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Duke Ellington’s Anatomy of a Murder, Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, and The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall, just to name five. And on top of those, the best-selling Dave Brubeck classic Time Out, released in ’59, featured a bona fide top 40 hit song, “Take 5.” Apparently, all of those were too way-out for the Recording Academy. The winner of the Grammy for best jazz album of the year? An LP by swing-era trumpeter Jonah Jones entitled I Dig Chicks.
It would be a reach to say the Grammys were racist back then. If you were black and solidly in the old-fashioned pop mainstream (Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis) you could certainly win a nomination. Harry Belafonte even brought a Calypso touch. But the ’60s jazz category definitely appeared racist. From ’61 to ’65, five white guys in succession won jazz Grammys. André Previn won twice in a row! Bill Evans eventually won five times. In fact, until Wynton Marsalis started racking up victories in the mid-’80s, white guys won nearly 3/4 of the time: this in a musical genre dominated — artistically and numerically — by blacks.
By the ’70s, the Grammys began to alter their brand. It was change or die: it couldn’t survive as a perversely staunch activist group for cultural stasis. The Academy membership was no doubt getting a mite younger. But even in 1970, the oldsters put up a fight. Nominated for best album were three discs now known, a half-century later, as classics: the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album, the Beatles’ Abbey Road, and Johnny Cash’s At San Quentin. The winner in 1970? Blood, Sweat & Tears, with singer David Clayton-Thomas. It was the closest the Academy could get to a brassy throwback choice, but remain nominally up-to-date.
In the ’80s, many genre categories joined the ranks, including several for rock. Ultimately, rap and hip-hop were added. The Academy could’ve appropriated the Dylan line: “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” Yet in another sense — by realizing the impossibility of calcifying popular tastes by decree — Grammy had grown up.
But here’s the rub: while Grammy once ignored the will of the marketplace — snubbing newer trends no matter how popular — in recent decades the judges are glorifying popularity above all else. However ill-conceived and unfair their old crusade for “good music” was, carrying a torch for high quality art is an essential part of any legitimate awards presentation. The Oscars are guilty of disregarding truly obscure, low-budget films in their major categories, but from Marty in the ’50s, to Annie Hall in the ’70s, to Moonlight in the current era, some movies of modest budgets and only medium box-office won the biggest prize. Not true with Grammy. Take a musically surprising best album win like the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack in 2002. It topped the Billboard charts at #1, ultimately selling more than 8 million copies in the U.S. alone. If it had sold just reasonably well it wouldn’t have received even a nomination as best album.
There have been some noble exceptions, such as Herbie Hancock’s Joni Mitchell tribute, River, or Alison Krauss & Robert Plant’s Raising Sand. But if Grammy was truly legit, the Best Album category would frequently recognize recordings that cross-pollinate our culture, that reach beyond genres, generations, races, and tastes—that reach beyond the moment. Isn’t it time for more media voices to ask, “What’s going on with Grammy”? (Marvin Gaye’s legendary What’s Going On, by the way, was not nominated for a best album.)
Arts award contests have their limitations. Their choices are not declared by dictum, or discussed by expert committees. All industry contests lack the acumen and expertise of critics’ polls, and, on the other hand, are far less democratic than an open vote among fans. Still, there is a populist appeal to an awards show – like a royal crowning of onetime commoners.
Movies are still, to some degree, centered in Hollywood. There is a community. This is less true of music. And because of the ever-expanding range of genres on today’s far-flung music scene, a category like Best Album — unlike a Best Picture Oscar — is intrinsically awkward. Yet when Grammy was forced to expand their categories in the ’80s, (there are now 84), the tastes of the major Grammy awards in the modern era seemed, increasingly, to take the popular shortcut. The biggest-selling stars typically pick up some hardware one year or another, even those derided as cheesy by the critics. (Every trophy contest thumbs its nose at the critics, as if they’re saying: You know that mega-selling bozo you’re always poking fun at? Now you have to call him Grammy-winning!)
One thing that hasn’t changed in the 61 years of Grammy is a disrespect for small record labels. In obscure categories with no product from the majors, like traditional folk, an indie label artist can easily win a Grammy. But the strange history of the “Contemporary Folk” grouping proves how resistant the Academy can be. The category was born in the midst of what was considered by fans and select media as a small yet discernible resurgence of singer-songwriter folk. (This late 80s/early 90s trend was wildly exaggerated by the Boston Globe and writer Scott Alarik as a boom: a bona fide folk revival. It wasn’t.) The 1986 Contemporary Folk Grammy winner was a Steve Goodman tribute LP on Red Pajama Records. Philo-Rounder garnered a nomination for rising star Nanci Griffith in ’87. But soon the category was dominated by the big corporate labels, despite the fact that small indies produced nearly 100% of the music. Eventually, the category was the reserve of famous pop/rock names putting out (slightly) unplugged albums (Dylan, Springsteen, Cash, Warren Zevon, Steve Earle). When Lucinda Williams, moving from folk toward rock, created the superb Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Mercury Records cannily placed it in the contemporary folk grouping as her one chance to win a Grammy. It did. (Car Wheels was also named as THE album of the year by the Village Voice.) It was just the sort of gem that could never have won a “major” Grammy, for it only rose to #65 on the Billboard charts.
Famous old names in obscure categories always tend to win, for each Grammy member can vote in 15 groups, even with no knowledge of the genre. (The Academy only “suggests” that you limit your votes to genres you know.) Meanwhile, such folk-pop major draws as Dar Williams and the great Bruce Cockburn never received a single nomination, in any category. Neither have such superb folkies as Chris Smither and Geoff Muldaur. Perhaps no one on the modern folk scene was a more brilliant songwriter than Greg Brown in the ’80s and ’90s. His label, Red House, became so tired of Brown being ignored year after year that they decided, in 1997, to place Slant 6 Mind in the trad-folk category, despite the fact that it was a disc of self-penned new songs. The Grammys, never known for coherent knowledge of genre definitions, gladly accepted it as traditional folk. It bagged a nomination. (Contemporary Folk is now a term expunged by Grammy. Folk is now contained in various “roots” groupings.)
Political muscle can always play a role. Gospel garners a ton of categories. Native American, currently, gets none. And it often takes Grammy decades to realize a mistake. Jimmy Sturr won 18 Grammys, and 24 nominations as Best Polka artist before the Academy realized polka was too tiny a genre for its own grouping.
But the major categories, the ones that get on the TV broadcast? Even a work with respectable sales isn’t good enough for the Grammys to consider. It’s as if the Recording Academy fears that American democracy and capitalism may both crumble if the word ever got out that our nation’s greatest art is not necessarily the most profitable. By this point, Grammy won’t die or change. It’s time America gets a new, legitimate music award.
For 30 years, Daniel Gewertz wrote about music, theater and movies for the Boston Herald, among other periodicals. More recently, he’s published personal essays, taught memoir writing, and participated in the local storytelling scene. In the 1970s, at Boston University, he was best known for his Elvis Presley imitation.