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Dispatches from the present


Recording Merit


“I never heard it play in a club… I never heard anyone absentmindedly hum its lyrics,” Doreen St. Felix wrote in the New Yorker in February 2019, after Childish Gambino’s “This is America” won Record of the Year. “The Grammys giving Album of the Year to a release that peaked at No. 86 on the Billboard 200 might seem to call into question the very meaning” of the award, Spencer Kornhaber wrote in The Atlantic, after Jon Batiste’s We Are won the prize in April.

Every year, we’re told the Grammys are “gloriously incoherent,” “slow,” “history-minded,” “sanitized, conservative, corporate by design.” The most popular songs, the story goes, don’t win. Relevant genres are overlooked. Yet, for all the grumbling and griping about the Recording Academy’s aversion to what’s hip, every single Record of the Year trophy in the past decade has gone to a Billboard top-ten hit—six of which charted at number one—and 57 of the category’s 69 nominees since 2014 have landed in the top 40. What’s more, nine of the last ten Album of the Year awards have gone to top ten albums. Only one Album of the Year nominee in the past decade (among the total of 69) didn’t sell enough copies to end up on the Billboard 200.

But there’s another problem with this line of critique. The indignation about the Recording Academy’s alleged disregard for popularity happens to ignore one of the Grammys’ most fundamental precepts. The Academy’s official rules and guidelines expressly forbid its Voting Members from considering a number of factors in their selections, including “sales volume/popularity.” Choices, it says, must be made “solely on the artistic and technical merits of the eligible recordings.”

The stipulation looms especially large in a year packed with releases from some of the world’s best-selling artists. Beyoncé, Adele, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Harry Styles and Bad Bunny all put out albums last year, and the 2023 Grammy Awards, which are being held tonight, predictably feature all of them as nominees in major categories. 

So perhaps it would be particularly edifying to revisit the Academy’s stated mandate against rewarding commercial success, and, on that note, to unravel the intriguing question of what distinguishes “merit” to begin with. Technical and artistic excellence “can be as undeniable as a song that changes the world by celebrating freedom and social change,” Ruby Marchand, the Academy’s Chief Awards and Industry Officer, wrote in an email. “It can be a lyric that stops people in their tracks, whether through poetry or epiphany. It can be a chorus that touches so many lives that the entire world sings along. Ultimately, musical excellence stirs us all.”

Accepting the Grammy for Best Rap Song in 2019, Drake roiled the ceremony by baring the existential angst that had come to cloud the awards: “I wanna let you know we’re playing in an opinion-based sport, not a factual-based sport,” he said. But even if Drake meant it disparagingly, his observation mostly just sounded benign. Isn’t aesthetic judgment supposed to be an opinion-based sport? “Judging beautiful objects to be such requires taste,” Immanuel Kant wrote in 1790, and “there can be no objective rule of taste, no rule of taste that determines by concepts what is beautiful.”

The appraisal of “musical excellence” as a fact-based sport would require statistics, not taste. It would premise itself on ticket sales, Spotify streams and Instagram followers instead of the works’ “relative permanence and even their ultimate immortality,” which Hannah Arendt suggested is the “only authentic criterion for works of culture.” In her 1960 essay, “Society and Culture,” Arendt wrote that a hallmark of mass culture was the impermanence of its cultural objects. She contrasted our voracious modern appetite for entertainment—which produces commodities that are continually consumed, forgotten and recycled—with the superfluous but enduring grandiosity of cathedrals: “While they as buildings certainly served the needs of the community, their elaborate beauty can never be explained by these needs.”

Today’s critical culture and mass culture tend to readily reinforce one another, posing a strange, almost axiomatic embrace of commercialism in the name of relevance. This is raucously evident in the music industry. Since 2013, 96 percent of Best Record nominees and 93 percent of Best Album nominees have been affiliated with one of the country’s “Big Three” record labels—Universal, Sony and Warner. Assembly-line hitmakers, like the 24-time Grammy-nominated producer Max Martin, write eerily interchangeable earworms for their pop superstar clients, scoring hit after hit and earning millions of dollars for songs that also are nearly always distributed by the Big Three. This year, Martin has three Album of the Year nominations, for his respective work with Adele, Lizzo and Coldplay, which gives him a three in ten chance he’ll take home his sixth trophy.

Sometimes, of course, popularity and excellence converge. Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Taylor Swift’s folklore and, this year, Beyoncé’s Renaissance are masterpieces despite their industrial-strength renown. But more often, it is hidden gems like Esperanza Spalding and Black Pumas, not to mention a roster of obscure musicians around the world, that the light of the Grammys have (or could have) more poignantly magnified. In the face of the twin pressures of fan service and industry self-congratulation, the Academy might choose another path: culling the manufactured from the meritorious, honoring songs that stir us, that stop us in our tracks, that are elaborately, superfluously beautiful. 

As far as tonight goes, there’s an unmistakably superior contender among the ten nominees for Album of the Year. Yes, plutocracy aside, it’s time for Beyoncé to return to her $88 million Bel-Air mansion with the night’s biggest prize.