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Understanding the Failures of the Grammys’ Best Dance Recording Category

From its inception in 1998, the category dedicated to dance songs has been a confounding mess on a year-to-year basis.
February 12, 2016, 9:00pm

Seventeen years after the Grammys awarded the first prize for Best Dance Recording to a saccharine, mid-tier disco cut by Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder, the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences is only just now figuring out what to do with electronic music. Across the three categories under which electronic artists are traditionally cloistered—the aforementioned Best Dance Recording, as well as Best Dance/Electronic Album, and Best Remixed Recording, Non-Classical—this year's nominations are encouragingly diverse, giving nods to more underground acts (Flying Lotus and CFCF) and glowstick-stained stadium-fillers (Skrillex, Diplo, and Kaskade) alike. The list is devoid of anything austere or chinstroke-y, but it does represent a wide sampling of the genre's most visible forms.

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This is a first for the Academy. Nearly two decades have elapsed since the Grammys first started handing out awards for what they deem to be "dance" recordings, and aside from a few paeans to the underground—a Frankie Knuckles win here, a trophy for Aphex Twin there—these newly instituted categories have mostly functioned as a means of giving additional awards away to pop stars who were already winning in other categories.

The rich always get richer at the Grammys, and complaining about establishment voters not keeping up with a culture whose roots lie with queer people of color is undoubtedly a futile exercise. Still, the Grammys' historical willingness to award Justin Timberlake still another trophy—as they did for Best Dance Recording, in both 2007 and 2008—feels particularly egregious, suggesting a seeming ignorance of the fact that dance music is music people dance to at clubs. So let's take a look at the winners of the Best Dance Recording category through the years and the usually better songs they beat out, as a way of tracing how far the Academy has come in understanding the genre, and just how far they have to go.

1998

Who Won: Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder, "Carry On" Who Should Have Won: Daft Punk, "Da Funk"

The category started with what should have been a no-brainer. Though originally released in 1995, Daft Punk's earth-shattering "Da Funk" was eligible for the category that year on the merits of its inclusion on 1997's Homework. The juddering robo-funk may still be most inventive and most dancefloor-oriented of any track nominated in the course of the award's history. Instead, Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer—godheads though they may be—walked away with a trophy for a serviceable imitation of the sugary material they'd started making 20 years prior. It was just the first of many cases of a familiar name beating out undeniable ecstasy.

1999

Who Won: Madonna, "Ray of Light" Who Should Have Won: Daft Punk, "Around the World"

A late-period Madonna track beats out a track from the masked marauders that hit darkened clubs with the dramatic electron transfer of a Zeus-ian lightning bolt. Was Madonna taking cues from the post-trip-hop vagaries that everyone wanted to call Electronica? Sure, but that only makes the sunny-eyed burble of "Ray of Light" feel more dated in retrospect. Second verse: same as the first.

2000

Who Won: Cher, "Believe" Who Should Have Won: Fatboy Slim, "Praise You"

Cher's "Believe" lost out to Santana's slinking horndog anthem "Smooth" in the Record of the Year category this year, but managed to eke out a win in Best Dance Recording on the merit of…Cher being an early adopter of Auto-Tune? Her Inclusion of an insistent kick drum? Being Cher? It's sort of the same story as the award's first two years, but there wasn't even really a more deserving candidate in 2000. Norman Cook's second biggest hit—a pianos-clashing approximation of pure bliss—was up for the award, and though it was surely getting played in clubs somewhere, even it feels like a safe pick weighed against the stuff emanating from the underground in the same period.

2001

Who Won: Baha Men, "Who Let the Dogs Out?" Who Should Have Won: Moby, "Natural Blues"

Moby said it best when interviewed in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 Grammys. "Last year I lost to Beck and Santana, and that actually hurt a little bit more," he said, referring to Play's nomination for best Alternative album the previous year. "But losing to the Baha Men—you can't help but laugh, you know?"

2002

Who Won: Janet Jackson, "All for You" Who Should Have Won: Daft Punk, "One More Time"

Grammy categories that aren't Album of the Year often end up playing out like local elections: the incumbent wins, because that's the name the average voter recognize. Even a legendary dance track that goes to No. 1 in France, No. 2 in the UK, and a still-respectable No. 61 in the US is going to lose to a Jam and Lewis chart-buster every single time.

2003

Who Won: Dirty Vegas, "Days Go By" Who Should Have Won: Dirty Vegas, "Days Go By"

2003 marks another year with a paucity of options for this category, but this was actually the first year that it was recategorized from the "Pop" umbrella to it's own "Dance" field; as such, the voters were gently guided to not hand to another pop star slumming it in a new-ish category. British electronic act Dirty Vegas came away with the award, and honestly it's not the worst selection they've ever made, even if it is a hair obvious. The song's still a pretty flaccid house track that got its biggest publicity boost in a car commercial, but hey, at least something that's loosely a dance track wins.

2004

Who Won: Kylie Minogue, "Come Into My World" Who Should Have Won: Groove Armada, "Easy"

Just one year later, the voters appear to have completely forgotten what dance music is once again. Groove Armada's x'ed-out ragga smash "Superstylin'" had lost out the previous year to Dirty Vegas. And while it's not a travesty that "Easy" got snubbed here, a win for that track would have helped to cement future voters understanding of what this category could and should be. Minogue's is the better song, no doubt, but a filtered synth does not a dance song make

2005

Who Won: Britney Spears, "Toxic" Who Should Have Won: Chemical Brothers, "Get Yourself High"

"Toxic" could very well be the best song to ever win this award. That still doesn't mean that it should have. This is a curious case because there are, in fact, two remixes of the In the Zone hit that are actually club tracks. But neither the Armand Van Helden version nor Felix Da Housecat's loopy, inspired rework were nominated, so instead another synthy pop song won, this time over a legitimately great Chemical Brothers deep cut—that also incidentally received a Felix Da Housecat mix the same year.

2006

Who Won: Chemical Brothers, "Galvanize" Who Should Have Won: LCD Soundsystem, "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House"

Vindication came the following year for Chemical Brothers, thanks to a trophy for "Galvanize" and a no-doubt lucrative Anheuser-Busch sync deal for the same track. It's huge, strings-sweeping stuff that more than deserves this award, except for the fact that another great song, "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House," also got the nomination that year. Two out of five great nominees is, at least at this point, fairly impressive. Batting .400 is an incredible figure in baseball, but an immense failure when judging artistic and commercial significance. Still, you have to imagine that with shattered club hits getting nominated, things would be on the upswing.

2007

Who Won: Justin Timberlake, "Sexyback" Who Should Have Won: Pet Shop Boys, "I'm With Stupid"

But any left feeling optimistic from previous years would've been immediately let down sorely disappointed. Timberlake wins, obviously.

2008

Who Won: Justin Timberlake, "Lovestoned" Who Should Have Won: Chemical Brothers, "Do It Again"

Maybe by this point, after a full decade of disappointments and two straight Justin Timberlake wins, people expecting anything different are actually in the wrong. But then why keep nominating Chemical Brothers songs? How do you even compare an electro-house track to that song your Dad plays in the car all the time? It's absurd to try to find a scale that would measure both, and it's an issue the Grammys had long setled in other categories.

2009

Who Won: Daft Punk, "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" Who Should Have Won: Daft Punk, "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger"

In 2009, sweet relief. It may be a live version, its reputation buoyed by a Kanye West sample, but after the "One More Time" snub nearly a decade before, you'll kinda take it. Daft Punk wasn't exactly at the vanguard of youth culture, but recognizing Alive 2007, an album battling few contenders for the most important live electronic album of all-time, is a worthy step in the right direction.

2010

Who Won: Lady Gaga, "Poker Face" Who Should Have Won: David Guetta, "When Love Takes Over"

The relative victory of 2009, of course, was followed by two steps back. Meat dress-era Lady Gaga swept 2010's electronic categories and David Guetta was the only dancefloor-geared nom in this field. When David Guetta seems like the nod to the real heads, there's still something kind of amiss.

2011

Who Won: Rihanna, "Only Girl (In the World)" Who Should Have Won: Robyn, "Dancing on My Own"

Then, in 2011, Rihanna wins and not a single track from the club world is nominated. Robyn's song is great and has "dancing" in the title. Let's go with that.

2012

Who Won: Skrillex, "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" Who Should Have Won: Skrillex, "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites"

For no seemingly reason—though Atlantic Records' promotional budget couldn't have hurt—the Grammys get their head straight for a couple of years and Skrillex dominates. The then-rising producer snagged wins in 2012 in both this category and Best Dance/Electronic Album for Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites and it's title track, as well as Best Remixed Recording, Non-Classical, for a Benny Benassi rework.

2013

Who Won: Skrillex, "Bangarang" Who Should Have Won: Skrillex, "Bangarang"

ibid.

Skrillex sweeps again with "Bangarang," the EP of the same name, and a Nero flip. That's six awards in two years for a producer making recordings that sound beamed in from another dimension. There is, of course, the matter that Skrillex was still critically maligned at that moment, but mark this one a win.

2014

Who Won: Zedd, "Clarity" Who Should Have Won: Zedd, "Clarity"

Then EDM took over—for better or for worse. "Clarity"'s not the song you're going to drop at 2 am on Friday night, but hey, it is a dance song and it's fun, and that's more than you can say about most of these winners.

2015

Who Won: Clean Bandit, "Rather Be" Who Should Have Won: Zhu, "Faded"

Last year's winner marked another slight misstep, but was still largely encouraging. British act Clean Bandit marked what seemed a return to the electro-pop winners of the mid-aughts, but all the rest of the nominees—Disclosure, Duke Dumont, Basement Jaxx, and Zhu, however populist—represented what can be broadly understood as dance music.

2016

Who Should Win: Flying Lotus, "Never Catch Me" Who Will Probably Win: Jack Ü, "Where Are U Now"

After a decade-plus lost in the wilderness, the Best Dance Recording's yo-yoing identity has finally started to stabilize over the last five years. That gradual transition obviously dovetails with the mainstreaming of EDM—it makes sense that establishment figures are understanding electronic music at the same speed that it's become a hitmaking and festival-headlining enterprise. This year sees the nomination of Flying Lotus' interstellar Kendrick Lamar collab "Never Catch Me, the siren-squalls of Skrillex and Diplo's Justin Bieber vehicle "Where Are Ü Now," the neon stutters of Galantis' "Runaway," the Chemical Brothers retro-leaning Q-Tip feature "Go," and Above and Beyond's stadium-smashing "We're All We Need." They're not all great but they are at least representative of a number of disparate threads in the dance world, which is a first.

Even in a worst-case scenario this year, Galantis walks away with a trophy, but it is conceivable that an L.A. weirdo who makes DMT-referencing records and whose latest album was inspired by near-death experiences will take home the trophy. Skrillex and Diplo and Justin Bieber will, no doubt, win the day, but that someone like Flying Lotus is in contention feels like a victory. It's taken almost 20 years, but there's reason to be optimistic about the Grammys understanding of what a "dance recording" can be. And that's never been the case before.