At the February 1981 Grammy Awards, something happened that had never happened before and hasn’t happened again since.
At the ceremony where the best musical work of 1980 was being honored, Christopher Cross won in the Best New Artist category. Okay. Fine. Of the nominees that year, The Pretenders would have been the preferred choice of most rock music fans, but otherwise, you couldn’t really argue with Cross and his likable light rock sound.
But then, incredibly, Cross went on to sweep the remaining “Big Four” mainstream categories: Album of the Year (“Christopher Cross”), Record of the Year for his recording of the hit ballad “Sailing,” AND Song of the Year for composing “Sailing.” The competition wasn’t all that steep in 1980 (although Pink Floyd’s seismic opus “The Wall” was a nominee for Best Album), but no one, especially a newcomer, had ever won all four major awards.
It’s one of several head-scratching stories to be found when you comb through the history of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences’ 57 years of awarding Grammys to honor each year’s biggest musical achievements.
For most of its existence since 1959 as one of the many televised awards shows that attract millions of viewers annually, the Grammys have been dismissed, laughed at, scorned and vilified as stodgy, behind the times, biased and self-congratulating. In the Grammys’ defense, pretty much every award show — The Academy Awards, The Emmys, The American Music Awards, The Golden Globes, The People’s Choice Awards, The MTV Video Music Awards — has had its detractors who make fun of and complain about the winners, the nominees, the selection and voting process, the interminable length of the shows, the performance glitches and more. There will always be people who love to be snarky and bitch, no matter what you do.
But The Grammys in particular have been roundly criticized as “always getting it wrong.” While that certainly hasn’t always been the case, there are numerous instances in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when the year’s best work wasn’t even nominated, and the awards went to the safe top sellers instead of the trendsetters pointing the way.
Take, for example, the Best New Artist of 1979: A Taste of Honey. “Who?” you might ask. They were a disco band whose main claim to fame was the #1 single “Boogie Oogie Oogie.” They had one other top five hit three years later, the ballad “Sukiyaki,” before disappearing. But two other far more worthy nominees in their category that year went on to have long, celebrated careers: The Cars and Elvis Costello. Whoops…
Here’s another one: In 1967, Album of the Year honors went to Frank Sinatra’s “A Man and His Music.” No one disputes his towering impact and unparalleled recording career, but his best days were behind him by then. “A Man and His Music” was, in fact, a greatest hits collection, a repackaging of previously released material which, therefore, shouldn’t have even qualified for a nomination. And what other nominee did it beat? Would you believe “Revolver,” viewed by many as The Beatles’ finest, most inventive, most diverse album in their spectacular catalog. A major faux pas…
NARAS originally called the trophies the Gramophones (talk about dating yourself…), and handed out awards in only 34 categories, honoring the best in classical, jazz, folk, comedy, male and female vocal, children’s music, rhythm-and-blues, dance orchestra, Broadway show and country-western genres. Mostly because many of the traditionalists who made up the executive and voting committees had little use for rock and roll, there was no category for it, despite it being the industry’s fastest growing genre. A few entries made it into the “Top 40” category — Elvis Presley’s “A Big Hunk o’ Love” and The Coasters’ “Charlie Brown” — and Bobby Darin’s infectious hit “Mack the Knife,” a hybrid of Big Band and early rock, won Record of the Year. But rock was overlooked for most of the Grammys’ early years.
Throughout the Sixties, as the music scene was undergoing sea changes, tilting toward younger artists who rocked more and more while younger fans began buying their singles and albums by the millions, the Grammys largely remained stuck in the past. Nominees in the ’60s for Best Album included the works of Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Henry Mancini, Jack Jones, Ed Ames, the Singing Nun (!), Herb Alpert, Jose Feliciano, Bobbie Gentry, Vicki Carr and The Sound of Music soundtrack. No Rolling Stones, no Byrds, no Bob Dylan, no Jimi Hendrix, no Yardbirds. Even The Fab Four, the most popular and trailblazing band the world had ever seen, managed only one victory, for the “Sgt. Pepper” LP, although they garnered five nominations. It wasn’t until the 1970 Grammys that there were three rock albums among the five nominated: “Abbey Road,” “Crosby Stills and Nash” and “Blood Sweat and Tears.” The winner? BS&T, the safest of the three.
By the Seventies and Eighties, the Grammy powers saw the writing on the wall, and rock artists began dominating the Best Album nominations. Sometimes they did “get it right” as some truly great works emerged as winners — Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions,” Carole King’s “Tapestry,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours,” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” U2’s “The Joshua Tree” — and nominees included Steely Dan, Billy Joel, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, The Eagles, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell and The Police.
But one of the chief complaints about the Grammys by critics as well as the artists themselves has been what they feel is an undeniable bias toward the commercially successful over the artistically visionary, especially in the Big Four categories. Sometimes you get both in one package, like “Innervisions” or “Thriller.” But too often, the extraordinary modest-seller (“Ziggy Stardust” or “Born to Run”) was ignored in favor of the unremarkable mega-seller (“Even Now” by Barry Manilow or John Williams’ “Star Wars” soundtrack).
NARAS responded in a rather knee-jerk fashion by adding new categories, but they were often a day late and a dollar short. In 1980, they added a Best Disco Album award, but the genre, which had emerged seven years earlier, was in its death throes by then, and the category was deleted after only one year. Over the next two decades, dozens and dozens of categories and sub-categories were created until, by 2000, more than 150 Grammys were awarded, many of them at auxiliary events held at another time and place because there simply wasn’t time to present them all on the telecast, which was already running well over three hours long.
The net effect was to dilute the prestige of winning a trophy or a nomination; hundreds of artists could now put “Grammy winner” on their resume, and thousands boasted of being “Grammy-nominated.” More recently, the number of categories has been dialed back to under 100 by either combining or eliminating some of them.
It’s no secret that watching winners accept their awards by thanking everyone from The Almighty to their publicist is not great television. Even the so-called suspense generated by the “and the winner is…” moments are short-lived and often anti-climactic. So for at least the last 20 years, the televised ceremony has spent less and less time handing out Grammys and instead emphasizing live performances by the biggest, most compelling nominated artists. The revealing, outlandish costumes, the pyrotechnics, the creative staging, the one-time-only pairing of multiple stars — all these things make for much better visuals, which translates to more viewers, higher ratings, and more ad dollars. It might even make a few people more aware of the music being honored. Imagine that.
Perhaps inevitably, the Grammys continue to take heat these days, regardless of who wins awards or who performs on the live telecast. In 2011, when the riveting work of Arcade Fire (critics’ darling but unknown to a large chunk of the mass audience) won Best Album over the pop juggernaut Katy Perry, the Internet exploded in outrage from all the teens who couldn’t fathom how this could’ve happened. Similarly in 2007, plenty of Justin Timberlake fans were plenty pissed off when The Dixie Chicks won the top prize instead. In 2008, fans of Kanye West and Amy Winehouse had the right to be shocked when their albums were passed over in favor of Herbie Hancock’s obscure jazz niche LP, “River: The Joni Letters,” a reinterpreting of a dozen Joni Mitchell songs with a revolving cast of collaborators. A very strange choice, that one (although I personally kind of like it).
The thing that exasperates me is when the artists themselves go public with sour-grapes diatribes against The Grammys when their album (or their favorite) didn’t win, even going so far as to disrespect the artist who did win. It was the height of arrogance and classlessness when West blatantly said to the media that Beck Hanson “didn’t deserve” to win for Best Album in 2015 because Beyonce’s album was “so much better.” Yikes. Whatever happened to being gracious and tactful?
And of course, there are always artists who don’t give a damn about winning awards, finding them “silly” and “demeaning.” Just as top movie industry names like Marlon Brando, George C. Scott and Woody Allen have refused to attend The Oscars or accept awards, many rockers likewise regard The Grammys as a joke and a disgrace. Nick Cave, the Australian iconoclast hard rocker, sent this message to The Grammys in 1995 explaining why he wouldn’t be attending that year’s show: “I am in competition with no one. Any further nominations should be presented to those who feel more comfortable with the competitive nature of these award ceremonies.”
One of The Fallout Boys dismissed the whole idea of the awards by saying, “Some 50-year-old white guy shouldn’t get to decide if we’re relevant or not.” Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder agreed when he was quoted in 1996 saying, “I don’t think this means anything, really. I think it maybe would’ve meant something to my dad if he was still living.”
You can always count on rock and rollers to defy convention and give the finger to authority figures…