Why the Grammys Don't Matter
About this time five years ago, I was driving around with the radio tuned to a classic rock station when whatever super-computer Clear Channel uses to program its stations decided it was time for "Heart of Gold." "That was Neil Young," the DJ bantered afterwards. "Congrats to him for winning his first ever Grammy last night."
"Seriously?," I thought. "It's 2009 and Neil Young just got his first Grammy? He didn't get anything for 'Harvest Moon' or 'Rockin' in the Free World' or 'Ohio?' Nothing for Harvest, one of the biggest albums of the '70s?" Clearly, AllMusic.com had to be consulted.
Conveniently, each artist in AllMusic's massive database has all their Billboard chart peaks and Grammy wins listed under a tab on their profile marked "awards." The DJ was correct; until Young's win that winter in a very minor category (Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package), the Grammys had never given anything--not even an award in some genre category for rock or folk--to one of the most prolific and interesting singer/songwriters ever, and someone who didn't exactly fly under the radar. I started typing in other names compulsively.
Young is not the only insanely important and commercially visible artist who went ignored for decades. The Rolling Stones didn't win a Grammy until 1995. Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, the Allman Brothers Band and Pink Floyd all also waited until the '90s. (Floyd and the Allmans both won in the same since-deleted category: Best Rock Instrumental Performance, nothing for either's seminal '70s work.)
David Bowie didn't win until 1985 (and his only Grammy to date is for a music video), Smokey Robinson not until 1988 and John Coltrane not until 1981. Documentaries about The Clash and Lou Reed, respectively, have won Grammys, but neither ever won for their music. Marvin Gaye and Kurt Cobain were both dead before they got a Grammy and John Lennon was deceased before getting one for his solo career. If you were to judge from his wins, Bob Dylan's first noteworthy song wasn't "Blowin' in the Wind" or "Like a Rolling Stone," but "Gotta Serve Somebody," for which he got his first Grammy, in 1980.
Then there is the staggering list of incredible artists who've never won: The Band, the Beach Boys, Bjork, the Byrds, Sam Cooke, Cream, Credence Clearwater Revival, the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield, Notorious B.I.G., Queen, the Ramones, Diana Ross, Run DMC, Sly and the Family Stone, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, 2pac and The Who.
A caveat to these lists: Some of these artists did eventually get a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, despite never getting an award for any of the work that stacked up to make them worthy of a Lifetime Achievement Award--which just proves the point; the Grammys rarely notice monumental music until years after it's obvious. This isn't just failing to catch the Stooges or Hüsker Dü when they were together or not getting Sigur Ros. This is a track record that misses three quarters of the people who matter when they matter.
To Grammys' credit, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, and U2 were winning in major categories when they should have been. R&B, jazz, country and, more recently, alternative rock have been somewhat covered thanks to categories tailored to those genres. And the Grammys didn't miss out on the Beatles (and given their record with everyone else who still makes it onto classic rock radio stations and college dorm walls, they could have), though the band's three awards seem pithy for, you know, the Beatles.
Look back on a major category in a past year and there's usually a major disconnect between what is still blowing minds and what was even nominated. 1975 was an important year for music. Released that year: "Walk This Way," "Kashmir," "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Tangled Up in Blue," and "Born to Run." The Grammy nominees for Record of the Year the following February: "At Seventeen" by Janis Ian, "Lyin' Eyes" by the Eagles, "Mandy" by Barry Manilow, "Rhinestone Cowboy" by Glen Campbell and the winner, "Love Will Keep Us Together" by Captain and Tennille.
Then there is the category that overtly forces the Grammys to make a prediction, Best New Artist, a Hope Diamond of an award that has been bestowed upon Paula Cole, Marc Cohn, Debby Boone, A Taste of Honey, the Starland Vocal Band, and Hootie and the Blowfish.
You have to wonder why the Grammys almost always get it wrong. It could be that the awards were started by executives from major record companies. Their success is measured by chart success and they are paid to have an ear for mass-sellers first and the artists who will be influencing others in a generation second.
It could just be that Grammy voters are incredibly old. They judge the present by the standards of the past and that's why artists with a classic, safe appeal often win and forward-looking ones don't, and why the likes of Dylan and the Stones didn't win until there were Grammy voters whose formative years were filled with their music, and why, in turn, Sinatra was cleaning up when what would become classic rock was in its prime. (Occasionally, the Grammys feel some existential dread over this. They sought younger voters when Lionel Richie's Can't Slow Down beat out Purple Rain and Born in the U.S.A. for Album of the Year in 1985. And they reformed their entire voting process when a Three Tenors album got a nomination in that category.)
A work of art's lasting importance is not impossible to predict; our annual Pazz & Jop polls from years past feature the likes of the Who, Elvis Costello, the Sex Pistols, the Clash and Nirvana winning for the things for which they're still remembered, and the poll even managed to acknowledge formative hip-hop artists like Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash. The Oscars, which largely recruits its voting body from past winners, can be reasonably relied on to pick great films, even if there is a head-scratcher every few years and it develops decades-long blind spots for an important person or two, like famously Martin Scorsese. The Grammys have about 60 Scorseses.
Given that track record, I have to wonder what exactly that DJ was congratulating Neil Young about.
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