The Grammys are in crisis. They have been for decades. But right now they’re at a breaking point. The biggest names in music are loudly speaking out against the Recording Academy’s horrible track record of recognizing musicians of color and women. Explosive allegations against the culture and voting process of the Recording Academy paint a sobering picture of the behind-the-scenes goings on of the Grammys. Meanwhile, ratings for the show—specifically in key younger demographics—have been abysmal. Do teens even know what the Grammys are?
In a small, but promising, course correct after a year where the Recording Academy president said women need to “step up” if they want to win Grammys, the 2020 nominations feature a group of talented young musicians—specifically a group that included women and artists of color. With days until the 2020 Grammys are awarded, it’s unclear who will ultimately take home trophies on Sunday (the Recording Academy could ultimately give the major awards to Vampire Weekend and Bon Iver), but where we stand right now, this group of nominees represents a clear path forward for the institution. I’ve written about why, in a perfect world, Lizzo would be the ideal winner for the major categories, so let’s talk about why she, along with Billie Eilish, is the future of the Grammy Awards.
The Grammys are perpetually about seven years behind popular trends. (This is why, to pick one example of many, Herbie Hancock won Album of the Year over Amy Winehouse and Kanye West in 2008.) The Recording Academy was shamefully slow in recognizing hip-hop artists, and is still today struggling with giving rap music actual trophies. The same goes for recognizing female musicians. In 2018, in response to criticism that only 11 of the 84 winners that year were women, Recording Academy president Neil Portnow said women need to “step up” if they want to win Grammys. The comment sparked outrage, and further highlighted the institution’s consistent marginalization of female artists. A year later, the Grammys seemed to be making slow progress, as some of the top awards in 2019 went to women. Portnow stepped down from his position later that summer. Though the Grammys made slow progress in 2019, the Recording Academy is still out of touch, perhaps hopelessly.
The Grammys need to adapt or die. The Grammys need to prove to a younger generation that this is a music institution that actually understands what people are listening to. Recognizing Lizzo with actual awards is an excellent start. But this also means giving Eilish Best New Artist. For once, a Best New Artist contender is actually the “best” and “new.” This is a category that’s often hilariously populated by artists that are in no way actually new. Just look at Lizzo, who is nominated in this category and who released her first album seven years ago.
Musicians now have the platform to create and distribute songs at lighting speed, and listeners have the access to these songs wherever and whenever they want. Billie Eilish is a perfect example of an artist who harnessed these platforms to become seemingly an overnight superstar. She was discovered through Soundcloud recordings she made with her brother in their childhood home. She cultivated a persona that was entirely her own—connected to fans through social media. She represents the future path to music stardom, and the fact that the Grammys identified her so quickly and gave her nominations is somewhat astonishing. Earlier last decade it would take them five to seven years to realize what young people were actually listening to. Of course, there are ways the Grammys can get this wrong, too. Though, I’ll admit I love Lil Nas X for who he is, nominating him for the major awards is baffling—and clearly an example of the Recording Academy trying too hard. His nomination reeks of the Academy trying to look relevant—an extremely “How do you do fellow kids” moment.
But, to see Billie Eilish nominated and performing at the Grammys less than a year after the official release of her debut album is frankly astonishing for the Recording Academy. The last time the Recording Academy reacted this quickly to a breakout star was with recognizing Lorde with the Best Song Grammy in 2013 for her debut single “Royals.” The problem with that was, the Grammys rapidly ruined any goodwill it had with the singer a few years later. In 2018, after the release of Melodrama, Lorde was the only Album of the Year nominee not invited to perform solo at the Grammy Awards. She turned down their offer to perform with Tom Petty. She was the only woman nominated for Album of the Year. And this came at a time when, in the last six Grammy Awards, only 9 percent of the 899 people nominated for trophies were women (in fact, Lorde’s mother highlighted this statistic in a tweet during that controversial year).
If there is a path forward for the Grammys, it’s by paying attention. Nominees like Billie Eilish and Lizzo and H.E.R. represent a path forward for the Grammys. One where they consistently recognize new talent and they nominate acts that represent the incredibly diverse music that is popular today. It’s by maybe replacing some of the old white dude fossils in the Recording Academy with people who might have a clue of what audiences are actually listening to. It’s by cutting out some of the corrupt politics and making this an award show about the music again. Because the sad truth is, no matter how disappointing the Grammys are year-after-year, when an artist dies, the first line of their obituary will still have “Grammy winner” in it. And the Grammys have the capacity to be an institution we’re proud of. All it takes is recognizing artists like Billie consistently alongside other musicians like her. Maybe that can begin on Sunday.