In a time where a plethora of music is released every month, it is a wonder that the winners for the Grammys are still chosen each year. With so much music to digest, how can we pick just one album, artist, or song for categories like “Album of the Year” or “Song of the Year?” Furthermore, are the chosen winners an accurate representation of our listening habits and preferences as a society, or just an opinion determined by a select few? Despite the extent of people that watch the Grammys each year, many may not know the specifics on its system of selection.
On its website, the Grammy Awards details the process of submission, nomination, and selection of entries considered for the awards. First, record companies and Recording Academy members, who are musicians and music professionals, submit entries from the year. Experts then ensure whether those pieces have been entered into the correct categories, but are not evaluated or judged. Then, music writers, producers, and engineers called “voting members” pick their preferences but are only permitted to vote in the general categories and 15 categories that they have knowledge in. Finally, the second and last round of ballots are sent to the voting members. Since 2017, artists have been able to vote online because of complaints from musicians on tour about the impracticality of mailing ballots while on tour. After the votes are in Deloitte (an accounting firm) tallies the results and delivers the envelope to the Recording Academy, which are opened and announced during the award ceremony. Though the public is not involved, we embrace the opinions of some as objective fact. With all the decisions being made by professionals in the music industry, it is expected that the winners are carefully chosen, but maybe not that they are reflective of what the public thinks.
It is no surprise that Childish Gambino triumphed in four different categories for his song and music video that became a viral social commentary on race and gun violence in the United States, “This is America.” Neither was it shocking that Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper won Best Pop Duo/Group Performance with their poignant song “Shallow” that stunned movie theater audiences in “A Star is Born.”
The winner of the most esteemed award, however, was Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves, a Country-pop singer-songwriter from Texas. Musgraves won two Country related awards in the 2014 Grammys, but this year she achieved “Album of the Year,” among three other honors. Compared to her competitors, Kacey Musgraves is not what I would consider “mainstream” in this period of music history and in the culture of the United States. Aside from the various questions along the lines of “Who is that?” that I heard in response to her overwhelming achievements at the award show, a glance at YouTube plays and record sales confirm that Musgraves is truly an underdog, but is this title deserved?
The most listened to song on Golden Hour is “Butterflies,” and its music video has 5.5 million views on her YouTube channel. “God’s Plan” off of Drake’s album Scorpion has 954 million views. Similarly, “I Like It” from Invasion of Privacy by Cardi B has 869 million, and “Psycho” on Beerbongs & Bentleys by Post Malone has 525 million. Checking their Spotify profiles resulted in the same large disparity in plays. Still, since Country music may appeal more to people who don’t use streaming services, the sales themselves are an important factor when evaluating the popularity of an album. Golden Hour peaked at number four on the Billboard 200. Invasion of Privacy debuted at number one, both Black Panther: The Album, Music From and Inspired By and Beerbongs & Bentleys were number one for three weeks, and Scorpion was number one for five weeks! Billboard 200 measures the sales of albums through album-equivalent units, a calculation of music sales that balances albums with songs and streams. One physical album sale is equivalent to ten song downloads or 1,500 song streams through services like Spotify or Apple Music. Golden Hour had 49 thousand album-equivalent units its first week while Scorpion had 732 thousand. Clearly, Kacey’s opponents had a greater number of sales and popularity. So, why was her work granted the title “Album of the Year?”
Perhaps the reasoning lies in that other musicians choose the victors. When analyzing the different selections, these artists may be thinking about stylistic choices, music theory, or their individuality in their respective genres. Yet, this might not be how the general consumer thinks about music. Instead, they contemplate the lyrics, appreciate the beat, or sway to the harmony; it boils down to “this is (or is not) a bop.” They may consider the album’s sound as a whole, or just view each song as a separate creation packaged together.
If we assume that in general the public doesn’t analyze music the way that professional musicians do, is it fair for professional musicians to establish what the song, album, artist, and more of the year are? I’m not saying that we should base the winners off of record sales or streams off of Spotify, but would it not be a better reflection of our music culture if the decision was made by audience that these musicians cater to through a public vote? Furthermore, what do the Grammys say about American society? Despite Kacey Musgraves’s success, Country music is not the prevailing genre in America. In fact, Nielsen Music stated in a report at the end of 2017 that rap music has become the most popular genre in the United States. So, the implication that her album is our “Album of the Year” carries no weight to our actual American musical culture.
Lastly, I think that defining one album, song, or artist—even if they are separated by genres—as the most notable one of the entire year is a courageous statement for anyone to make with our abundance of music. Whether or not Kacey Musgraves’s Golden Hour deserves the title “Album of the Year” is not up to me, but with the interpretation and listening habits of music being so diverse among not only cultures but individuals, how could it be decided without the acknowledgement of the audience? It is constricting to have a small committee of “elite” musicians speak for the general population when the stakes are so high. Instead, there should be a dialogue between the two. Regardless of how it’s done, in the future, the Grammy committee and committees of other awards shows need to incorporate the opinions of the general public in order to better represent the people, and think of a better way to represent “the best” music.