Did the Grammys Ever Matter?

Written by Bill Leebens

Somewhere in the hazy past, I wrote that nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. The cynical part of me thinks that the rosy glow with which we surround many of our memories may be akin to the miasma that rises from a fetid swamp. How’s that for a romantic view?

And yet, and yet: when I conceived of the title of this piece, it was out of a sense that the Grammys have always been a self-righteous popularity contest amongst the lacquered and overdressed, and that music has had very little to do with it. I was happy to compile a litany of the most egregious winners of all time, the memorable mishaps, and so on. But having reviewed the proceedings of some past years—I’m torn. Honest-to-God conflicted.

My memories of the Grammy awards center around the late ’70s and early ’80s, when there was still a little novelty to seeing rock music on TV. In my mind, this was also the era of the treacliest, most annoying major Grammy winners. 1980: The Doobie Brothers win four Grammys for their album Minute by Minute, featuring the champion earworm, “What a Fool Believes”.  1981: FIVE Grammy awards for Christopher Cross?? “Sailing”? “Arthur’s Theme”?

Following that there was a string of years in which Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon dominated—and It’s hard to argue with that.

Looking back a few years to 1967—I don’t know about you, but for me, that was a pretty damned significant year in a significant period in modern music. How badly did they mess things up then?

Song of the Year, Record of the Year: “Up, Up, and Away” by the 5th Dimension? Granted, this was the period during which Jimmy Webb was everywhere, regarded by many as a genius—but this was likely the weakest of his many chart-toppers. And who knew that Johnny Rivers produced it? Sheesh!

Amazingly enough, most of the year’s winners were spot-on: Album of the Year, Best Contemporary Album, Best Engineered Album: Sgt. Pepper. Other winners?  Gentle on my Mind“, for both Glen Campbell and John Hartford. “Respect”, for Aretha. The Mission Impossible theme, Lalo Schifrin. “Ode to Billie Joe”. Some seriously good records.

In more recent history, the screw-ups seem more memorable than the winners. 1998 had two of those moments; when my classmate Shawn Colvin and her producer/writing partner John Leventhal went to accept their Song of the Year award for “Sunny Came Home” and ODB of Wu Tang interrupted with a rambling rant about “Wu Tang for the children”:


…and then a shirtless dancer with “Soy Bomb” painted on his chest appeared during Bob Dylan’s performance of “Love Sick”, As you’d expect/hope, Dylan ignored him:


If you can read this explanation of what, exactly, “Soy Bomb” was supposed to mean without rolling your eyes, you have more self-control than I have.

To be fair, 1998 was also the year that Luciano Pavarotti got sick, and his scheduled performance of “Nessun Dorma” was taken over by…Aretha Franklin? From an operatic performance it may not have been great, but as an act of guts and pure dominance of the stage, it is astonishing. 

Clearly there have been meaningful years and meaningless years at the Grammy Awards. Let’s fast-forward through too many weepy Adele performances, Kanye West channeling ODB, and GaGa in an egg to this year. It’s hard to get prickly when several acquaintances are among the nominees—but then, they all lost. What, then, are we left with?

Jennifer Lopez in a Motown tribute?  How does this make sense? How can a group of people sit around a table discussing this and conclude, “Great idea”?

Best Pop Vocal Album to Willie Nelson’s My Way? I love Willie, and he has produced brilliant, beautiful records. This is not one of them.

How does an annoying Zep-light act like Greta Van Fleet win Best Rock Album? At least they lost the other two categories in which they were nominated. Their performance on Saturday Night Live was the worst I’ve ever seen, next to the baffling slow-motion kabuki theater of Nicki Minaj. And in its 45 years, SNL has hosted some truly dreadful performances.

There’s no accounting for taste—or lack of it. Year after year in recent decades, the Grammy Awards have proven that—just like the Super Bowl halftime show.

At least the Super Bowl usually has decent commercials.

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