It’s Hard to Even Get Mad at the Grammys Anymore

There's that famous quote about doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.
February 13, 2017, 10:46pm
The Chainsmokers accepting David Bowie's award for Best Rock Song which is a real thing that actually happened. Photo via YouTube.

The 2017 Grammys began with a man most famous for doing uncomfortable singalongs with celebrities falling down a set of stairs—twice. It was a choreographed tumble, but still the sort of metaphor critics dream of happening upon in the dawning moments of this sort of event. In a year that saw some of the music world's biggest celebrities decline to attend—as Frank Ocean, Drake, Kanye West, and Justin Bieber all did—it would have been tempting to read host James Corden's slapstick pratfall as a metaphor for the state of the award show. But that would imply that the Recording Academy's Biggest Night had somewhere to fall from. Pretty much since their inception, the Recording Academy's Grammy awards have been a celebration of industry rather than artistry, and 2017 is the year where I've decided to stop being surprised.


Yes, four hours after Corden's fall, Adele won basically everything. She was nominated in five categories and took home the trophy in all five, including wins in all three of the event's biggest categories: Record of the Year and Song of the Year for "Hello," and Album of the Year for 25, her third LP of technically brilliant, consciously classicist and subdued pop songs. From the moment the nominations came out, this seemed like an inevitability.

The battle for the big awards—especially between Adele and Beyoncé for Album of the Year—felt like the latest manifestation of the Recording Academy's obvious biases. Grammy voters have a long history of shorting visionary albums by black artists in favor of safer records by their white counterparts. Adele's sweeping of the show was upsetting, but certainly not unexpected. Even her proclamation that her "life is Beyoncé" and that she just "[couldn't] possibly accept this award"—then doing so, and then later breaking it in half in protest—had a darkly cyclical feeling to it. It was, after all, just three years after Macklemore publicly apologized to Kendrick Lamar after beating him for Best Rap Album. Quoth the Mack, "It's weird and sucks." And how.

The dance music categories featured a strange grab-bag of nominees, just as they have pretty much every year since Best Dance Recording was introduced in 1998. You had house master Louie Vega, synth pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre, graphic designer and post-rock composer Tycho, and Underworld up against the EDM-adjacent experimentalist Flume in the goofily named Dance/Electronic Album category. Flume somehow managed to eke out a win for his 2016 album Skin—a surprisingly brilliant inversion of mainstage electronic music's maximalist flash-bulb production—in that category. Pop music's favorite tech bro types the Chainsmokers took home a trophy in Best Dance Recording for "Don't Let Me Down," which was always going to happen, because that strange category has traditionally gone to a legitimate pop hit.

Both of those wins felt fairly satisfying, relative to some of the strange winners that the electronic categories have produced in their brief lifespan (Britney Spears! Kylie Minogue! The Baha Men!). That's a wild thing to say, but such is the state of these awards—that two Billboard-charting records coming away with wins in their respective genre categories can feel like something of a coup.

But as I suffered through Corden's pointless Carpool Karaoke schtick, headline-baiting outfits, and music journalists making snipey jokes on Twitter (great job again this year, pals!), the whole exercise started to feel a bit masochistic. There's that famous quote about doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result, but for some reason we tune in every year, praying for a miracle.

The world outside the strange microcosm of the music industry continues to gets more upsetting by the day. That didn't go unremarked upon, thanks to—among others—A Tribe Called Quest's incendiary performance, Paris Jackson's nod to #NoDAPL, and Laverne Cox's reference to Gavin Grimm, a Virginia teenager at the center of the nation's legal battle over discriminatory bathroom laws. But especially in this trying chapter of American history, there's a danger in overinvesting in ultimately meaningless musical moments. Some viewers imbue this gamified version of pop music success with a significance beyond the exchange of several dozen gold-plated trophies. Like the spiritual battle football fans face during the Super Bowl, the Grammys can become a metaphor—you see the battles between your favorite artists as representing progress versus stagnancy, past versus future, good versus evil. Every year, we all lose.