Why The GRAMMY Awards are a Social and Cultural Problem

In a few hours, millions of music lovers will tune in to the broadcast of the 61st GRAMMY Awards. 

Those who follow the Grammy awards know that the show is dominated by Western artists. Specifically, these are artists who sell the most records in the West, receive the most streams on Western streaming platforms, and hit the most “number ones” on Western music charts. Occasionally, the Recording Academy might bestow an award to an artist who inspired social change or simply impressed with technique – but both of these exceptions to the typical formula are also determined by a committee of Western music experts.

This might come as surprise to those familiar with the Recording Academy, as the organization takes pride in assessing music regardless of sales and charting positions. However, recent trends show us otherwise, indicating that the Grammys, like most Western award shows, run on popularity. 

For the Recording Academy, the criteria for judging music is entirely based on Western music standards. The Western music industry is essentially a closed-off, internal manufacturing system: Western artists get signed to labels that have direct contracts with streaming services, their music makes it to the top of the Western charts that follow those specific streaming platforms, they appear on the radar of award show committees, and finally they receive nominations for “prestigious” awards. The Grammys are no different, and most “experts” on the committee for the Grammys are, indeed, Westerners. Therefore, their standards and familiarly with music is limited to Western music. This internal award show system, however, is not unique to the West – many countries have their own award shows that essential follow the same formula.

Despite the presence of multiple musical award shows, The Grammy Awards are labeled as being the most prestigious of all. Winning a Grammy Award has become a way of validating a musician’s talent, a sort of certification that informs the public that that musician should be taken seriously. In the past, it has dramatically changed artists’ careers, as the award show has given them attention and opportunities that they might not have received before.

But why? Why are the Grammy Awards so prestigious?

In attempt to answer this question, I found myself falling down a deep hole of social and cultural theory, and the answer is more complex than what I had initially expected.

This idea of “prestige” and how it is assigned relates to some of the basic observations made by early Anthropologists. Initially, the general assumption among Anthropology scholars was that certain societies and cultures are superior to others, and there is an evolutionary progression that societies travel through – societies start out with people focused simply on basic needs of survival, and they gradually progress towards an industrialized, technology-driven civilization. Tribal groups and nomadic communities are associated with the lowest rank of society while the highest rank belongs to Western civilization. This philosophy, known as the Social Evolutionary Theory developed by E.B Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan, put Western society on a pedestal and suggested that all societies in the world are trying to reach Western lifestyle – only then has a society actually succeeded.

This concept has become ingrained in every aspect of our culture today. We refer to industrialized, Western nations as “developed” and less-industrialized countries as “developing or “underdeveloped.” Speaking English is a sign of being more educated and intelligent. Western technology is considered to be the most advanced, Western healthcare is labeled the best in the world, and Western legal systems are assumed to be the fairest – despite all the research that may say otherwise.

This theory was, in fact, developed by Western scholars, and ultimately, it became a way by which Western society validated its position at the top. It was a product of ethnocentrism, as Western scholars used it to ratify claims that their civilization was indeed more “correct” and superior to that of others. And as history shows, it justified the main interest of the West: Colonization. If Western society was the correct way of living, then the West had every right to colonize inferior societies to help them reach the top and achieve their goal of being “Western.”

The Grammy Awards are a direct reflection of this ideology. As a Western award show with predominantly Western artists and winners, this award show has become a way of validating the superiority of Western music. Early on, many of the world’s most famous musicians happened to be Westerners due to the financial and cultural dominance of Western society, and as they continued to win Grammy Awards, the awards became a way of making sense of the artist’s success. Today, few will question the talent of musicians who receive the award as it is assumed that having a Grammy is indeed a sign of artistic superiority. History has resulted in the notion that Western society is the universal civilization, the English language is the universal language, and Western music is the universal music. Anything different from these norms is unnatural, strange, abnormal – and ultimately – inferior to what the West is doing.

This mindset has made it difficult for international artists, especially Asian artists, to receive nominations at the Grammys. While Latin music has crossed over successfully into the Western sphere, Asian music continues to struggle – this is largely because Latin society and culture is more familiar and compatible with Western standards than Asian society and culture is. The farther away a society is from Western standards, the more abnormal it is; therefore, Asian pop music is often met with skepticism and considered to be nothing more than an inferior version of Western popular music. And as a result, Asian music continues to carry a connotation of being less innovative than Western music.

The other major issue with the Grammy awards is their so-called “Best World Music Album” category. This category was only formed in 2012 – before that, there were two different world music categories: “Best Contemporary World Music Album” and “Best Traditional World Music Album.” The Recording Academy seemed to think that two categories for international artists was one too many, and consequently decided to merge the two. The Grammys have streamlined their approach to world music by essentially ignoring the massive force of world pop music – now, world music has adopted the connotation of having traditional, “tribal,” or “ethnic” sounds that are distinct from what we hear in the West. Therefore, the Grammys present Western music as being broad, diverse, and complicated enough to have dozens of categories devoted to it, while world music remains primitive, unorganized, and not nearly as interesting or advanced – therefore, one category is plenty.

It is indisputable that Korean pop group BTS has achieved unprecedented success around the world in the past few years. Not just within the realm of Asian pop, but their performance in the music industry has challenged even prominent Western artists. However, as Korean artists with music predominantly in the Korean language, there is little room for them – if any at all – at the Grammys. Without a Contemporary World Music category, the only other place BTS could be nominated is along with general Western music artists in the other pop categories – something the West will be highly reluctant to do. This is one of the reasons why BTS has yet to be nominated for their music in other prominent Western award shows, as the music industry still struggles where to place the Korean pop group. However, BTS’ presence cannot be ignored anymore, and the Western industry can choose to either acknowledge them or simply cast them aside – either action, however, will be noticed by their millions of fans.   

Therefore, BTS’ success must be driven by fan power. The current system is unlikely to reward artists like BTS due to the fact that they are not part of the Western industry. And the only place where artists are on the same level, regardless of ethnicity and language, is social media. Despite the negative connotations that social media popularity carries, it is essential in bringing international artists to the forefront of the Western music system.

While many BTS fans do wish to see them win a Grammy award, I believe that unless the Grammy awards do implement serious changes and diversity initiatives, the “prestige” of the show should not be taken too seriously. There are hundreds of artists who deserve to receive a certification or award that validates their talent, yet most of them never will due to the bureaucracy of the Western music industry. The Grammy awards will always be held to a high standard as their reputation has been ingrained and passed down for years, yet as global music fans, we have every right to question this superiority and challenge the standards by which the Recording Academy judges music.

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