Are the Grammys becoming irrelevant?

Rumor has it that a number of big stars may skip the show this year … is it a sign of the times?

Justin Bieber performs onstage during the 58th Annual Grammy music Awards in Los Angeles February 2016. Robyn Beck | AFP Photo. Frank Ocean performs during the 2014 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival on June 2014 in Tennessee. Jason Merritt | Getty Images | AFP

As a kid, I used to wonder what it would be like to accept a Grammy. I’d think about how cool it would be to attend, dressed to the nines, surrounded by red carpet and glitter and hairspray. (Hey, it was the ’80s.) I practiced my “stunned and slightly sheepish” look in the mirror—the face I’d use when my name was called—and considered whether I’d be disingenuously gracious and thank my annoying little sister from the podium, or rightly chastise her for always barging into my room while practicing my acceptance speeches.

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Never mind that I quit piano lessons when I was 11 and was too shy to even sing in the shower. Getting a Grammy was still a nice fantasy. Many of us—most of us, maybe—have fantasized what it would be like to be invited to a major awards show, and now we may be in luck: Turns out, a few extra seats may be available at the Grammys this Sunday.

Rumor has it that some of music’s megawatt stars may skip the event. According to gossip site TMZ, Kanye West, Drake and Justin Bieber may all be no-shows for what used to be music’s biggest night. And while they could eventually show up—everyone but Drake, that is, who’s on tour in Europe—the rumors we’re hearing may be indicative of some troubling trends in the music industry.

…when it came time to submit the album for Grammy consideration, [Frank] Ocean took a pass.”

It all began with singer Frank Ocean and his concept album Blond, hailed as one of the best albums of the year. Rolling Stone critic Jonah Weiner called it a “marvel of digital-age psychedelic pop.” But when it came time to submit the album for Grammy consideration, Ocean took a pass.

Blonde, Frank Ocean, 2016.

“That institution certainly has nostalgic importance,” he told The New York Times of the Grammys. “It just doesn’t seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from, and hold down what I hold down.”

He went on to tell the Times that he felt compelled to take a stand by taking a walk. “I think the infrastructure of the awarding system and the nomination system and screening system is dated,” he said. “I’d rather this be my Colin Kaepernick moment (referencing the kneel-down protests during the National Anthem by the San Francisco 49er quarterback) for the Grammys than sit there in the audience.”

But in some ways, Bieber’s reticence to attend the ceremony may be the most interesting of all.”

Rapper Kanye West has received plenty of love from the Grammys over the years, winning a staggering 21 awards. But he’s long been critical of the music showcase, too—including jumping onstage after Beyoncé lost Album of the Year honors to Beck in 2015. He believes that music’s traditional kingmakers often bypass young, innovative black performers in favor of more establishment-friendly white ones. “We need to see Young Thug at the Grammys,” he tweeted last year, referencing another up-and-coming rapper. “Not just me and Jay (Z) in a suit.” He said later that he’d boycott the ceremony if Ocean wasn’t nominated.

But in some ways, Bieber’s reticence to attend the ceremony may be the most interesting of all. Despite his own album—the Christian-tinged Purpose—being up for major honors, including Album of the Year, TMZ reports that Bieber “doesn’t think the Grammys are relevant or representative, especially when it comes to young singers.”

That the Grammys might not be “representative” is a variation on what West and Ocean have both said—ignoring exciting new artists in favor of more conservative choices. It’s a criticism that industry awards shows often shoulder. The Oscars, the awards daddy of them all, is itself periodically criticized for being too old, too white, and too out of touch.

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But whatever its weaknesses, no one would ever argue that the Oscars aren’t relevant. But are the Grammys?

Entertainment has had to change mightily in the Age of the Internet.”

I wonder how many Justin Bieber fans—primarily listeners in their late teens and early 20s, I’d imagine—care whether their superstar takes home some more hardware? Do Frank Ocean listeners believe that a statuette or two would further validate his album? Just what do the Grammys mean anymore?

Entertainment has had to change mightily in the Age of the Internet. Movies and television have seen their worlds rocked. But the musical world hasn’t just been shaken by technology: It’s been shattered. Twenty years ago, most of us still bought physical CDs of our favorite artists, feeding the industry our cash. Today, many music lovers don’t even own a CD player. Artists are less reliant on big music labels. More new acts are taking their music directly to the public. The “music industry,” it seems, is less a gate keeper and more hanging on for dear life.

The Grammys are part of that industry. Even as the showcase has, as Ocean says, a certain “nostalgic importance,” it’s possible that more artists are questioning whether winning a Grammy makes any difference at all.

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It’s possible, of course, that the nay-sayers will be there. Ken Ehrlich, the Grammys’ executive producer, told ABC News that they’ve actually been talking with the Bieber camp about attending. “Kanye, it’s probably going to be a question of—if it will happen, it will or won’t happen closer to the show.”

Regardless who eventually shows up, it will be interesting to watch this year’s Grammys unfold. For the first time ever, perhaps, there’ll be less interest in who’s on stage and more in who’s not even in the seats.

 

Paul Asay
Paul Asay

Paul Asay is a movie critic for Plugged In and has written for a variety of websites and publications, including Time, The Washington Post and Beliefnet.com. He’s authored or co-authored several books, including most recently Burning Bush 2.0: How Pop Culture Replaced the Prophet.

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