Can the Grammys Be Trusted?

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So: several of the most inventive, meaningful and popular musicians of the decade, all expressing dismay with the Grammys. These aren’t mere celebrity quibbles; this is a flaming cross-generational blind spot. Broadly speaking, nonwhite artists, female artists, and artists who come from the worlds of hip-hop and R&B are consistently marginalized, honored in genre categories but shut out in the four major categories (album, song and record of the year, and best new artist). Add it all up, and you get impending irrelevance.

This is bolstered by the peculiar Grammy microphenomenon in which little-heralded artists get nominated in the biggest categories, but typically for music that harks back to the past rather than blazes a path to tomorrow. It can feel that the only way for a newish artist to truly break through is to look backward. (The nominations this year point to a kind of progress: Lizzo, Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X lead the way in the major categories.)

And yet the Grammys remain the most meaningful and respected of the music-industry awards shows, though admittedly there is not much competition. The American Music Awards are based on fan votes, the Billboard Music Awards are doled out based on sales, and the MTV Video Music Awards celebrate artists who still believe MTV is a relevant music medium. (Around 20 million people watch the Grammys ceremony on television, though the last two have had the lowest viewership ever in the coveted 18-49 demographic.)

From the outside looking in, the Grammys are understood to be a meritocracy, the night on which the industry honors its leading lights and passes the torch to deserving newcomers. But the truth has always been more complicated, and more unseemly.

Grammy nominations are shaped by a number of committees — for the major categories, and some genre-specific ones — whose composition remains secret. They effectively have override power, and can cherry-pick nominees. It is, in essence, a cabal, Dugan alleges — a system that can be scammed by people with the right connections. (The Grammys deny this.)

The Recording Academy only recently made an aggressive push to invite younger artists to become Grammy voters. That was part of a broader initiative undertaken in the wake of the Portnow “step up” kerfuffle, when the organization hired Tina Tchen of Time’s Up to lead a diversity and inclusion task force. Its final report, released last month, was harsh in its assessment of the academy’s historical lack of commitment to diversity.

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