By Maximus Watkins, Third Year Mechanical Engineering
Over the last 40 years, music award shows have become a mainstay in how we celebrate some of the best the music industry has to offer. But do these events hold much significance besides culturally? Do they suggest a bright future for music?
Social media lights up with lists of nominees. Vindictive stans infest with tweets and posts – “[blank] was robbed”, apparently – and the comments get shut off. Clips are posted that will be remembered as moments in pop culture for years to come. Then, the cycle repeats. But do these music award shows really accomplish what they were set out to do: give recognition to those who have contributed most to modern music (at least, according to some committee or another)?
Award Show Categories – do they mean anything?
The BRIT awards took great strides this year towards inclusive recognition of the music industry’s best talents by introducing gender-neutral categories. While this is an amazing step - with hopefully other award shows following suit (looking at you, Oscars) – the question of whether the categories themselves hold much meaning is still very much at the forefront.
A prime example of this is being awarded as a ‘Best New Artist’. Just this year there have been artists such as Little Simz and Glass Animals nominated for these categories - in the BRITs and Grammys, respectively - despite having made music for the best part of a decade. While these musicians certainly deserve to be recognised for their incredible work (definitely listen to Sometimes I Might Be Introvert if you haven’t already), it suggests that the category title could be reconsidered altogether.
The Recording Academy recently overturned a rule which originally restricted ‘Best New Artist’ Grammy nominees to those only with fewer than 30 songs or 3 albums. This of course has led to a significant increase in the number of established artists put forward for this category. Do newcomers to the industry stand a chance against giants like FINNEAS, among other acts already nominated for this year’s ceremony?
Award Shows as Platforms for Exposure
While “entry-level” categories are partially dominated by those with immense industry experience, the amount of fame needed to even step foot on the red carpet is already high. Award shows are undoubtedly great exposure for up-and-coming artists, but the argument remains that a lot of musicians will have already received a chunk of their fanbase through other means before getting the chance to appear on television screens. All it takes is a look at the cult-following of popular reviewers such as The Needle Drop to see that those actively seeking out new music will likely have already found an artist from the internet or radio - way before the cold glass of a BRIT is even within reach. So, does winning a category accomplish much aside from being able to shove an extra sticker on your LP?
It can also be argued that becoming a meme, at least for the evening, can create a bigger career buzz than winning a category ever would. Keith Caulfield, associate director of charts at Billboard, spoke about the Grammys when it comes to giving artists exposure: "…it's not necessarily about who's going to be the biggest winner of the night, it’s going to be about those moments on TV that you won't see anywhere else that will resonate with the public and move them to go stream or buy a song or an album."
An example of this phenomenon was the 2013 MTV VMAs, a potentially huge year for artists like Justin Timberlake who won the ‘Video Vanguard Award’ along with the biggest category of ‘Video of the Year’. However, most of the chatter surrounding the ceremony was about Miley Cyrus’ very memorable live performance, despite the singer not winning any awards that night. Not a joke, just a fact.
The Award Show Red Carpet
Giving an unforgettable performance isn’t the only way an artist may aim to give themselves a career boost – what you wear can have a major impact on the public aftermath of any awards show. Red carpets act as cultural breeding grounds for designers and musicians to collaborate, generating fame for those involved for (hopefully) the right reasons. In some cases, the clothes on your skin are gawked at far more than the number of trophies you’re holding at the end of the night.
An infamous example of this comes from the 2010 MTV VMAs. That year, Lady Gaga swept 8 out of the 13 categories she was nominated for. An amazing achievement in award show history. However, what a lot of people instead remember about Lady Gaga that year was what she wore on the red carpet – a dress made entirely out of cuts of meat.
If the impact of winning an award – let alone almost three-quarters of the ones you were nominated for – isn’t enough to be particularly remembered alongside your outfit, how much power do these awards really have? Should musicians be investing more in pushing fashion boundaries rather than within their craft? Did they have to push meat through a sewing machine for that dress?
Traditionalism within Category Decision-Making
Those artists who choose to dedicate their time to exploring their talents and push the musical-envelope have usually been snubbed when it comes to award recognition. The Recording Academy have been known to select “safe” winners when it comes to some of their bigger Grammy categories, nominating those with rule-bending and experimental projects mostly for brownie points with the fans.
At the 60th Annual Grammy Awards, Lorde’s Melodrama lost ‘Album of the Year’ to Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic, despite the former receiving much more all-around positive critical reception. While reviews are not everything, Melodrama’s experimental and cinematic instrumentation compared to 24K Magic’s largely popular funk sound acts as a key indicator to the Academy’s decision, in spite of the general consensus reached by a lot of music journalists. The result – a lot of indignant Lorde fans – led to further discussion surrounding the integrity of the Grammys themselves on social media. This controversy was combined with the New Zealand singer being the only nominee, let alone woman, in that major category to not be allowed a live performance slot during the ceremony. (I shall neither confirm nor deny whether I am an indignant Lorde fan).
If these award shows are not willing to uplift successful artists blurring musical boundaries in the mainstream, what else are they except for a chance for executives to pat themselves on the back?
Have award shows become more about advertising and garnering social media attention than celebrating that year of music in itself? If artists feel the need to “play it safe” musically in order to be commercially successful and receive an award, is this really the future of music we want?
Featured image: Uwe Conrad
Do you think music award shows should be abolished?