It feels unnatural, nearly sacrilegious, hearing names like Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar uttered in the same breath. A very strong argument could be made that the “award show” is an outdated institution, that programs like the Grammys are occasions for the elite to make haphazard comparisons between artists and ultimately slap the general public on the wrist for valuing the “wrong” kinds of things.
With the opinions of critics now made conveniently available-and broken down by percentage-on websites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, it becomes difficult to see any distinct value in an unsupported, often politically influenced consensus on what was best this year. The reality of the award show, however, is far more troubling than that.
To begin seeing the more sinister implications of the system, we must go beyond the caricature of a bunch of old men making these decisions in a smoke-filled room. Most awards are given out through a system of checks and balances, and while major distribution companies have lobbies built into these deciding institutions, the processes themselves operate-by loose standards-with some established notion of fairness. While a list of the Grammy winners of Album of the Year since the award’s founding in 1959 will give you a very incomplete portrait of the last five decades, it will still likely appeal to what you believe to have happened in music over the last 54 years.
Contrast this with a list of the bestselling albums over the same period, and two things will stand out. The first is the tendency of the general public to occasionally behave in ways we can now hardly imagine-Billy Ray Cyrus did, indeed, have a no. 1 record in 1992. The second item we notice, however, is the strong relationship between the two lists-what appears to be an extraordinary ability of the Grammys to steer the general public.
For decades, it seems like the institution had kept public opinion at bay, at least in my interpretation. But then enters a strange catalyst-it could be defined more broadly, but for the sake of simplicity, I call it the Internet. Leading out of the ’90s, there appears to be a newfound conservatism in the picks of these institutions: resistance. But in time, something wild begins to happen-the elite bow to the general public, if not in how they pick the winners, at least in how they pick the nominees. Expert decisions become defensive maneuvers, and critical opinion becomes clear for what it always was, or at least what it is waiting to be: consensus.
Perhaps in a more accurate showing of the industry, stars would gather in a large performance hall, and crowd around the iTunes homepage, or Youtube’s most-played to see where music is going.
If this is the direction we’re headed, a new history of art ridden of an institutional footprint, the results will be mixed. For one, the award shows themselves will start heading-as I believe they already have-in the direction of MTV’s Video Music Awards, and awards themselves will become secondary to the spectacles surrounding them. Depending on your point of view, a potentially more troubling consequence might be that the artists themselves will begin to see less incentive to create meaningful work.
I’d like to argue, though, that something made for the approval of critics and colleagues is hardly meaningful work, and the leveling of opinions between critics and the public might ultimately have favorable consequences. I am not suggesting the general public is superior in opinion to well-established art institutions, but rather, that they are far less reliable. Any measure of popular opinion is superficial at best, and the Internet has confounded our impulses to trust opinions. We are now in contact with so many lists of “what’s best” that it begins to feel like nothing is. Often the best art is what we can’t agree upon.
How will our music be remembered? Maybe it won’t. There’s something to be said for music that’s made to be made, and not for any legacy.