The Real Reason Why the 2015 Grammy Awards Were Awful

The 2015 Grammy Awards happened last night (Feb. 8) and if you were one of the millions of people watching, by the time the show had been on for about an hour, you were likely ready to just turn it off altogether. This was easily one of the most forgettable, most boring, most slow-moving award shows in Grammy history.

But while we can blame the show’s producers, it’s probably better to come to grips with an uncomfortable reality— the past year in popular music has been pitiful. There was a Beyonce album that came out way back at the end of 2013, a Taylor Swift LP that I think was given away for free with the purchase of a Subway sandwich, and well… that’s kinda it.

Well, that’s kinda it as least as far as blockbusters go. And blockbusters are what the music industry is all about, or used to be about, or occasionally still thinks it’s about, or tries to be about, but is actually not really about. And maybe that’s why the Grammy’s weren’t so good this year. It’s an old show built on an old formula that celebrates old metrics of success that just don’t hold up these days. This is not the fault of Grammy Awards, this is just reality.

A few years ago, viewership for the Grammy’s was up. The excitement around the show was high, and the conversation around it— aided by Twitter, for sure— helped make it a live event worth watching. But according to Variety, this year’s edition, compared to last, showed a whopping 11% decline in total viewership. That’s a big decrease.

As a journalist or a critic, you often look to numbers and data to support why something is the way it is. But I think with music, right now, you don’t even need numbers or data to explain something that is painfully obvious. There isn’t the same level of excitement around popular music as there was just a few years ago. This, you can feel.

Ten years ago, it was different. Sure, the decline in CD sales and the switch over to iTunes put the industry in free-fall, but there was also the rise of the independent music scene through music blogs, MySpace, YouTube and little pockets of creative communities that had sprouted up in places like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, among others. The independent scene sort of incubated what would happen at the mainstream level, and there was this weird, oddly interesting thing happening, where if you were an astute observer, you could watch and see how the two sort of fed each other.

This was aided by other developments, as well. The popularity of hip-hop, which had grown long in the tooth, had noticeably waned, and in its wake there was an explosion of interest in fringe genres like indie rock and indie dance. So, too, did the DJ/producer become the rock band of yesteryear, and at this, indie rock and indie dance fused with European-style electronic music, thus making EDM a thing, complete with a palpable level of excitement, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the invention of rap in the late 70s. These were interesting times, for sure.

But, those times are unfortunately over. The electronic music scene is still, largely, a scene unto itself, albeit with its own superstars and acts that just don’t register with a nationwide television audience watching at home on a Sunday night. And while a few years ago the crossover between pop and EDM was easily apparent— artists were liberally cribbing from electronic artists and working with them to boot— now, that wave has crested.

That’s lead to a noticeable dry spell in music, where things are moving back in the other direction. There is no underground anymore, because everything lives on the internet. Hip-hop is popular again, and sung music has become less about complex arrangements and explosive buildups— there’s no more waiting for the drop— and more about stripped-down acoustics paired with great, topical songwriting. Call it the Adele affect. It’s Sam Smith winning a bunch of Grammy Awards for what fifty years ago would have been considered just a basic R&B song. It’s Rihanna cutting a Mumford and Sons-style record with Kanye West and Paul McCartney. It’s Kanye West doing the exact same thing.

Which is all very fine, I suppose, if not particularly interesting. Songwriting and traditional arrangements will never get old; but, popular music is all about what’s new, what’s fresh, what’s exciting. Who are the new artists, what are there new songs and what else do they have going on? That’s the lifeblood of the music industry, and in that sense, the music industry is pretty healthy. There may not be that obvious strain of what everyone is galvanizing themselves around, but there are certainly many artists who have sizable fan-bases who are doing just fine. Although, if you were watching the Grammy’s, you may have not known that.

That’s because the Grammy’s insisted, for whatever reason, on trotting out the same acts we’ve seen on dozens of award shows, year after year, for what has seemed like at least a decade or more. Think about it. A day after the fact, what is everyone talking about— Kanye West almost interrupting Beck over something having to do with Beyonce. Someone pickup the needle up off the record, because it’s definitely skipping. What year is this?

That isn’t to say that there weren’t a few positive moments. There was an oddly-enjoyable Ed Sheeran performance, an Electric Light Orchestra cameo, Usher paying tribute to Stevie Wonder— because it isn’t the Grammy’s without Stevie Wonder— and Kristen Wiig doing some weird but interesting interpretative dance thing to a Sia’s “Chandelier.” There were other performances, too— spoiler alert: some people played instruments and sang songs— and there were a few awards given out, none of which went to Iggy Azalea, which I guess is all anyone cared about anyway.

A lot of great music came out last year and there have been many new artists who have captivated the hearts, minds and ears of listeners the world over. They may not move a ton of records, sell a ton of singles or even get a lot of airplay, but the Grammy’s is still a show that is beholden to the old music industry. That industry has been reshaped dramatically, but is still going head to head with a fractured audience that just doesn’t seem to give a shit about what it wants to sell them. It didn’t help that last year everyone decided to take the year off.

Add it up and you had every reason to watch the Walking Dead instead.

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

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