On Sunday, in a full-page “open letter” in The New York Times, marketing executive and music-industry veteran Steve Stoute took the Grammys ; the awards show’s parent organization, the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences; and NARAS president Neil Portnow to task for their “fundamental disrespect of cultural shifts as being viable and artistic,” an outburst that stemmed from the events of the 53rd Grammy Awards.
At last Sunday’s awards show, widely perceived favorites such as Eminem and Justin Bieber were upset by lesser-known acts like Arcade Fire and Esperanza Spalding.
“Over the course of my 20-year history as an executive in the music business and as the owner of a firm that specializes in in-culture advertising, I have come to the conclusion that the Grammy Awards have clearly lost touch with contemporary popular culture,” Stoute wrote, in part. “As an institution that celebrates artistic works of musicians, singers, songwriters, producers and technical specialists, we have come to expect that the Grammys uphold all of the values that reflect the very best in music that is born from our culture. Unfortunately, the awards show has become a series of hypocrisies and contradictions, leaving me to question why any contemporary popular artist would even participate.”
Stoute wondered how it was possible for the Grammys to use the images of Eminem, Bieber and Kanye West to promote the show — and invite them to perform — while, at the same time, snubbing them when it came time to hand out the hardware, and called into question the very legitimacy of the Recording Academy’s “peer” voting system, which is used to determine winners … or, shroud the show in an additional veil of secrecy.
“[Do] the Grammys intentionally use artists for their celebrity, popularity and cultural appeal when they already know the winners and then program a show against this expectation?” he wrote. “Meanwhile, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences hides behind the ’peer’ voting system to escape culpability for not even rethinking its approach.”
On Tuesday (February 22), in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Stoute said that he was inspired to write the letter after hearing some artists voice their complaints about the transparency of the show, complaints that — to him, at least — seemed well-founded, especially considering the fact that, moments after besting Eminem to win Album of the Year, the Arcade Fire seamlessly stepped into a show-closing performance number.
“What … triggered it was sitting with some really big, credible artists after the show, and hearing them complain that, ’This is crazy,’ ’We need to start our own show,’ or ’This doesn’t make any sense,’ ” Stoute said. “For me, it wasn’t Arcade Fire winning that was the problem, it was them performing twice. After the backstage moment, the production was set for them to perform again. But if Eminem had won, would he have performed again? That’s when it was, like, ’This is fake now.’ ”
And that sentiment was echoed by MTV.com readers, who flocked to our original story about Stoute’s open letter to let their frustrations be known. To them, the Grammys “killed any respect they had left” by ignoring Eminem and Bieber in favor of less-popular acts like the Arcade Fire and Spalding.
“We define the artists we love by actually buying — and not pirating — the music they offer,” one reader wrote.
“The Recovery album … was able to capture the appeal of a widespread audience unlike any other artist nominated,” another wrote. “In order to receive the biggest award of the night, [an artist] should have made a true impact on the music industry.”
But do Stoute — and our readers — have a point? Do the Grammys need an overhaul? Have they lost their cultural relevance? Well, it’s certainly worth wondering why it took everyone so long to have this discussion. After all, complaining about the awards (and the voting of the Recording Academy) is a tradition nearly as old as the Grammys themselves: The list of snubs is long and puzzling, though some of our favorites include the New Vaudeville Band besting the Beatles and the Beach Boys to win Best Rock & Roll Recording in 1966, Elvis Costello losing Best New Artist to A Taste of Honey in 1978, Jethro Tull trumping Metallica in the 1988 Best Metal Performance category and, of course, Steely Dan triumphing over Em’s The Marshall Mathers LP in 2000’s Album of the Year race.
And building off that last one, it truly seems, particularly when it comes to the biggest categories, that Recording Academy voters have always had a difficult time discerning between “Best” and “Most Popular.” When Taylor Swift’s Fearless took home Album of the Year last year, detractors howled that voters gave the award to Swift only because she had sold more albums than anyone else (you know, the same reason most think Em should’ve won this year). In 2008 and 2009, those same voters took the opposite tact, giving Album of the Year to Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand, respectively, while ignoring higher-selling albums by West, Amy Winehouse, Coldplay and Lil Wayne.
In fact, if you look back at the past decade of AOTY winners, you’ll see that they’re pretty evenly split between best-sellers (the Dixie Chicks’ Taking the Long Way, U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/ The Love Below) and critically acclaimed releases (Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature, Ray Charles’ Come Away With Me). Occasionally, they handed the award to an album that managed to be both commercially successful and critically lauded — the “O, Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me — but more often than not, voters either sided with the record-buying public, or the folks that write about the music itself. And that divide could be what’s driving fans (and Stoute) crazy.
Of course, it could also have something to do with the Grammys’ failure to recognize hip-hop as both the commercial and cultural force that it is today. The show famously didn’t create Best Rap Performance categories (either solo or group) until 1991, or a Best Rap Album award until 1995 and, in the 30-plus year history of the genre, only two true hip-hop releases have ever won Album of the Year: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1999, and Speakerboxxx in 2004. And, most certainly, that is a trend that anyone who considers themselves a fan of music would find puzzling, if not slightly troubling.
So will things change? Well, Stoute told the Hollywood Reporter that, as a result of his open letter, he was promised a “let’s-talk-behind-the-scenes” meeting with members of the Recording Academy, and added that he hopes “this ignites the conversation so artists can use it as a platform to move forward and not tolerate things as they are any longer.”
Does that mean that the Recording Academy might be forced to change their voting process — or, at least, open it up to a wider spectrum of voters — lest they be faced with a potential mutiny? Given the silence coming from Academy president Portnow (and the tradition of the Grammys themselves) we wouldn’t bet on it. Still, it bears mentioning that for the first time in a long time, music fans are actually talking about the awards, which, given their long history of befuddling, counter-intuitive and downright frustrating decisions, is certainly a step, not to mention proof that there is definite interest in seeing things repaired. And all it took was an open letter. Who knows what’ll happen next?
Do you agree with Steve Stoute? Are the Grammy Awards are out of touch? Sound off in the comments!