The Grammys suffer from a severe case of disociative awards identity disorder (DAID). The recording academy’s mindset when determining the winners jumps around. Over its 54-year history, it has displayed six different and very distinct personalities.
Identity #1: Cranky, old, white guy
What: Someone afraid of change and in love with mediocrity.
When: Record of the Year
Remember 2004 when “Clocks” by Coldplay took the honor over Beyonce (“Crazy in Love”), Eminem (“Lose Yourself”), the Black-Eyed Peas with Justin Timberlake (“Where is the Love?”) and Outkast (“Hey Ya!”)?
Another instance with almost duplicate results was in 2011 when “Need You Now” by Lady Antebellum took home the trophy for top record. They beat out B.O.B. featuring Bruno Mars (“Nothin’ on You”), Eminem featuring Rhianna (“Love the Way You Lie”), Jay-Z and Alicia Keys (“Empire State of Mind”) and Cee-Lo Green (“F*** You”).
In both those instances a mediocre top-40 friendly song (one pop-rock and the other pop-country) won the day over four nominees that had their fitting in the R&B or rap genre. The four losing contenders were much more iconic in reflecting the popular music of the year that was being honored and continue hold those distinctions, which makes their losses still sting.
Identity #2: Hipster music critic
What: Someone who believes they know everything that should be popular and also liked that stuff before it became mainstream.
When: Album of the Year; New Artist
In 2011, the Canadian alternative rock band Arcade Fire took the top honor for “The Suburbs”, which had been a staple of almost every music critics top-10 list of the previous year. The group beat out more conventional fare by Eminem (“Recovery”), Lady Gaga (“The Fame Monster”), Lady Antebellum (“Need You Now”) and Katy Perry (“Teenage Dream”).
Earlier that evening, Best New Artist category went to Esperanza Spaulding, a jazz bassist/vocalist who was the least known of the bunch. She prevailed over Justin Bieber, Drake, Florence + the Machine and Mumford & Sons.
This identity also resulted in such nominations as Radiohead for Album of the Year in 1998 (“OK Computer”), Garbage in Album of the Year in 1999 (“Version 2.0”) and M.I.A. in Record of the Year in 2009 (“Paper Planes”).
Identity #3: Weak-kneed populist
What: Someone who will reward whatever is popular in the hopes that younger people will become interested in them.
When: Wins by Taylor Swift for Album of the Year and Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody” for Record of the Year in 2010.
An unfortunate part of this identity is that by the time they actually present the award to what is deemed popular, the act has been thoroughly worn out and everyone on the planet is usually tired of them by that point.
We saw this in the Record and Song of the Year category in 1999 when Celine Dion‘s “My Heart Will Go On” took both of those prizes. It was also seen in 1994 when Whitney Houston won Record of the Year for “I Will Always Love You”, even though most music listeners were ready to strangle someone if they ever had to hear that song played again on the radio.
Identity #4: Soft-spoken
What: Someone who embraces simplicity above anything else.
When: Big upsets.
A perfect example of this was the Album of the Year contest in 2003. Bruce Springsteen was the front-runner throughout the whole contest with his 9/11 inspired album, “The Rising”. The rocker was overdue in the album category and the timely album, which also brought his first studio recording with the E Street Band in over a decade, seemed to be the perfect candidate for the honor. But Grammy had other plans and the honor instead went to jazz-pop crooner Norah Jones for “Come Away With Me”, which sweeped the ceremony that year.
Another instance of this identity was in 2008 in the same category. Amy Winehouse had dominated that whole evening despite a huge press debacle over whether she would actually make it to LA for the ceremony, which she ultimately didn’t. But Grammy certainly didn’t seem to mind when they awarded her Best Pop Vocal Album (“Back to Black”), Best New Artist, Female Pop Vocal Performance, Song and Record of the Year for “Rehab”. Her producer Mark Ronson took the Producer of the Year honor and even stage hog Kanye West even said it would be okay with him if Amy beat him for the top prize. But for Album of the Year, Grammy decided to go with Herbie Hancock’s jazz tribute to Joni Mitchell, “River: The Joni Letters” which had only peaked on the Billboard 200 at #118.
Identity #5: Overdue fan
What: Someone who realizes that certain people who should have been recognized by the Recording Academy have not been given their proper level of recognition.
When: Comebacks by veterans
By 1998, Bob Dylan had won four Grammys by that point, including an Album of the Year trophy in 1973 for “The Concert for Bangladesh” but had never prevailed in the General Field on his own. In 1997 when Dylan released his first album in seven years with “Time Out of Mind” to rave reviews, the Academy jumped at the chance and finally gave Dylan his due in the top album field as well as two other Grammys for his work that year.
Two years later this identity was on full swing with Santana, who had only one prior Grammy win to his credit for Rock Instrumental Performance for “Blues for Salvador” in 1989. When the album “Supernatural” came into stores ten years later, it proved to be an unbelievable success in both the critical realm and the commercial realm. The Grammys seized the moment and rewarded Santana beyond his wildest dreams by taking home eight trophies including Album and Record of the Year.
In 2001, Steely Dan released their first studio album in 20 years, “Two Against Nature,” to very positive reviews. Despite being a defining album-oriented band, Steely Dan had never taken home a Grammy during their career. Grammy saw those previous overlookings as a huge mistake and the Dan took the top prize for Album of the Year over the year’s more hot-button nominee, Eminem for “The Marshall Mathers LP”.
Identity #6: The Purist
What: Someone who truly recognizes outstanding achievement in music and singles it out by rewarding it with the music industry’s highest honor.
When: Not often enough.
This is what the Grammys always should should strive to be. Instances of this identity seem to be more and more rare but it does present itself every now and then. In 1999, Lauryn Hill’s album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” became one of the most defining R&B albums of all time. Grammy took notice and rewarded it justly with five trophies including the coveted Album of the Year prize.
There are also two examples of this from the Best New Artist category. In 2000, the conventional wisdom from many people was that Britney Spears would most likely win the prize against competitors Kid Rock, Macy Gray, Christina Aguilera and Susan Tedeschi. None was more surprised that the winner herself when Aguilera ended up taking the prize. Nine years later, the Jonas Brothers seemed to be the heavy favorite to win the Best New Artist trophy but Adele ended up taking that prize instead. In both of those instances, artists with amazing voices who would go on to win more honors from the Academy throughout their career.