The Grammys' Electronic Music Awards Came So Close to Being Great this Year—What Happened?

Skrillex and Diplo deserved to clean up at the Grammys, but it was still disappointing.

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Feb 16 2016, 8:15pm

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Skrillex and Diplo—under the collaborative banner of Jack Ü—scooped up the two Grammy Awards available to dance and electronic music artists last night. "Where Are Ü Now", their Billboard-charting single featuring Justin Bieber, won Best Dance Recording, and Skrillex And Diplo Present Jack Ü won Best Dance/Electronic Album. This year's wins were a first for both Bieber and Diplo, who have both been nominated in previous years but never winners, while making it Skrillex's eighth Grammy.

Not that we're wholly surprised. THUMP named "Where Are Ü Now" as our number two-track of 2015, arguing that it marked "the moment where any remaining boundaries between EDM and pop hits officially collapsed." And Skrillex And Diplo Present Jack Ü was layered, polished, and undeniably fun—which is what dance music really is about anyway. But Jack Ü's accolades at the 58th Grammys Awards did, in our view, represent something of a missed opportunity. Our hopes had been higher this year, because the list of nominees had, for once, been actually pretty good.

This year's list of nominees—in both the album and single categories—was a well-rounded mix of genre-spanning artists. In the Best Dance Recording category, Skrillex and Diplo were up against The Chemical Brothers (featuring Q-Tip), Above and Beyond, Flying Lotus (featuring Kendrick Lamar), and Galantis. For the Best Dance/Electronic Album, competition came from The Chemical Brothers again, Disclosure, Caribou, and Jamie xx. It was a list that saluted house music, touched hip-hop crossovers, and winked to UK garage, in a really impressive way.

Both categories—but especially, the album category, given the shoe-in status of "Where Are Ü Now"—offered a glimmer of hope that maybe this year the academy would go ever so slightly left-field and pick someone not only deserving, but genuinely representative of the broadness of the genre. Maybe an album that stood out on its own. Someone like Caribou, perhaps, with his glazed Our Love, which itself plays out like an exercise in dissecting what dance music is. Even Jamie xx's In Colour—the divisive but artful debut album from the British producer—would have still been a "safe" but admirable choice. But in an awards ceremony that offers relatively few options for recognition for electronic musicians, the two artists that swept the board didn't come from the vast genre's most intriguing corners, but instead smack in the very middle of it.

Of course, as THUMP recently explained in our own history of dance music at the ceremony, the Grammys have a long history of under-representing the dance and electronic music world in their awards categories. For one thing, the academy dedicates only two out the 83 awards categories to the genre. The Best Dance/Electronic Album category has only been around since 2005, with Basement Jaxx's Kish Kash winning in its first year. The Best Dance Recording category has been around for a little longer—1998 saw the inaugural award go to Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder for "Carry On."

Electronic artists can, however, find themselves in other categories, such as Producer (Non Classical) of the Year or Remix (Non Classical) of the Year. This year, those other two categories were both awarded in the shadows of "Uptown Funk," Mark Ronson's Bruno Mars collaboration that won Record of the Year. Jeff Bhasker, who produced "Uptown Funk," took Producer of the Year, and Dave Audé's remix of the track was named Best Remix. That this year's producer and remixer awards were dependent on a catchy pop track that achieved global commercial success, highlights how the Grammys will couch awards for dance/electronic music in terms most people can understand—that isn't even really dance music.

Of course an electronic artist could win, say, Album of the Year. But that's only happened once in the Grammys' history, when Random Access Memories—Daft Punk's runaway album that no one, not even the Grammys, could ignore—took it in 2014.

As Michaelangelo Matos wrote in an essay for Vulture, the academy's tendency is to err on the safe side when selecting the winners in the two dance/electronic categories. However, the Grammys lack of forward-thinking taste isn't just prevalent in the dance and electronic categories—even when the academy has had its finger on the pulse, that pulse has been arrhythmic at best. And save for the electric performances from Kendrick Lamar and the cast of Broadway musical Hamilton, that safeness coursed through the veins of entire ceremony last night, from the downtempo performances from artists few real people actually care about, to the awards themselves—Taylor Swift for Album of the Year could not have been a more pedestrian choice.

And so there is little that's surprising about this year's electronic wins. What is disappointing is that the Grammys teased a possibility, as minuscule as it was, that this year might be different.

That feeling of missed opportunity was perhaps best encapsulated by Skrillex, Diplo and Bieber's live performance, which seemed to sum up the Grammys' attitude towards dance and electronic music to an absolute tee. Bieber opened with an acoustic version of his "Love Yourself" track, and was then joined by Skrillex on guitar and Diplo on keyboard and drums, in a flat performance of "Where Are Ü Now" that looked like a provincial college's battle of the bands show. An electronic track had to be refashioned on "traditional" instruments for it to make sense for the Grammys. The very fact the performance of the best dance record had to be rock-n-rollified said everything you need to know about the Grammys's relationship to dance and electronic music.

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