Did The Grammys Cut Or Gut?

Paul Grein
Stop The Presses!

The Grammys' decision to cut or consolidate 31 categories this year has triggered growing controversy. Critics have charged that the Grammys were insensitive to the needs of artists who populate the less prominent categories, to whom a nomination or award can make a meaningful difference in their careers (in getting publicity and better concert bookings). The critics have a point that Lady Gaga and Katy Perry hardly need Grammy glory, while musicians in specialized categories do. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has called for a meeting with Neil Portnow, the President and CEO of the Recording Academy. The two have agreed to meet before the Grammys are presented on Feb. 12.

Several major Grammy winners have expressed their support of the musicians whose categories were cut or consolidated. These musicians include Carlos Santana, Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt, Herbie Hancock and Alison Krauss.

Critics have suggested that the cuts disproportionately affected ethnic categories. That's not true. The cuts were across-the-board, affecting virtually all fields. The pop and rock fields, for example, each shrunk from seven categories last year to four this year. The classical field shrunk from 11 to seven. (I give you the year-to-year comparison for all fields a little lower in this story.)

Even with the new, leaner-and-meaner Grammys, there are far more categories than there are in the Oscars (24) and the Tonys (26). Only the prime-time Emmys, with 101 categories, have more categories.

And there are far more categories for performers at the Grammys than there are at those other major entertainment award shows.  Recording artists may compete in 54 of the 78 Grammy categories. (Even more if they are able to do other things, such as write songs or produce. This year, for example, Daft Punk broke into the Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media category with its score for Tron Legacy.)

By contrast, there are just four categories for actors at the Oscars. There are eight categories for actors at the Tonys. Even the Emmys, whose nominations list this year ran to 75 pages (!), have just 19 categories reserved for actors and hosts.

I've always felt that one reason the Oscars mean so much is that there are so few categories. They're very, very hard to win. In the 84-year history of the Academy Awards, only one actor or actress, Katharine Hepburn, has won four Oscars. Literally hundreds of recording artists have won four Grammys. Eleven recording artists have won 20 Grammys.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has long resisted calls to have separate categories for comedy and drama. Actually, if they cut their pie into slices as narrow as the Grammys have had in recent years, they would have not only Best Actor in a Comedy and Best Actor in a Drama, but Best Actor In A Romantic Comedy, Best Actor In An Action Comedy, Best Actor In A Family Comedy and so on. At a certain point, it becomes a race with all winners.

The simple fact is that the Grammys were becoming bloated. Between 1991 and 2007, the number of categories ballooned from 80 to 110. This year's cut took the Grammys down to about the same number of categories they had in 1989, when there were 77. (That was the year Bonnie Raitt's Nick Of Time was the surprise Album of the Year winner.)

You may be surprised to learn that there were just 28 categories in 1958, when the Grammys began. The number topped 50 for the first time in 1977. It topped 75 for the first time in 1988. It topped 100 for the first time in 2000. Some of that category expansion was vitally necessary. When the Grammys began, they focused on jazz, classical and what we now call traditional pop. They got serious about country and R&B in the 1960s, but there were no categories devoted to rock until 1979; and none devoted to rap until 1988.

But another part of the category bloat was due to the academy's seeming inability to say no to any reasonable (or semi-reasonable) request for a new category. Until this year, they had separate categories for Best Musical Album for Children and Best Spoken World Album For Children. Children's music is a valid genre, but that's a little much. (This year, the categories were combined into Best Children's Album.)

The cuts were an attempt to bring parity to all major musical fields. This year, the academy has four awards in the pop, rock, R&B, rap, country, jazz and Latin fields. Just three fields have more categories. Classical leads with seven. Two broad fields have five categories each: "Gospel/Contemporary Christian Music" and "American Roots Music," an umbrella field which includes such genres as bluegrass, blues and folk.

As promised, here are all the fields that experienced cuts this year. I first show the number of categories  that were in the field last year, and then then the number that are in the category this year: pop (seven to four), rock (seven to four), R&B (eight to four), rap (five to four), country (seven to four), jazz (six to four), Gospel/Contemporary Christian Music (seven to five), Latin (seven to four), American Roots Music (nine to five), World Music (two to one), children's (two to one), classical (11 to seven).

Some of the cuts and consolidations entailed combining separate "Contemporary" and "Traditional" categories in Blues, Folk and World Music. In doing so, they aren't comparing apples and oranges, just different types of apples. They also combined R&B Album and Contemporary R&B Album. Those aren't so different that they can't be fairly compared. (Mary J. Blige won Best R&B Album for her 2006 album The Breakthrough and Best Contemporary R&B Album for her follow-up, Growing Pains, with no big change in artistic direction.)

They also cut awards for Best Instrumental Performance in Pop, Rock, Country,   (They now compete with vocalists in other performance categories.) But they retained the category of Best Pop Instrumental Album.

I don't agree with all of the changes. I would have preserved separate categories for male and female vocalists in pop, R&B and country. (The awards in the rock and rap fields were combined years ago because of a perennial shortage of female nominees.) The Oscars, Emmys and Tonys all have separate awards for each gender. Award show audiences like it that way and expect it. Why mess with that?

Bruno Mars won last year for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for "Just The Way You Are." If the Grammys had retained that category, he would have won it again this year for "Grenade." How can I be so sure? He's the only male artist nominated in the combined Best Pop Solo Performance category, where he is almost certain to lose to Adele's "Someone Like You." Mars would have been the first artist to win Best Male Pop Vocal two years in a row since Sting in 1999-2000. Congratulations, Bruno, on your achievement. (Too bad no one will know.)

I don't like the idea of forcing ongoing groups and duos to compete with one-off collaborations (this was done in pop and country; they already had to compete in rock and R&B). One-off collaborations generally have an advantage because they're shiny and new.  There's a sense (if only subconsciously) that the ongoing group can always be back next year, while it's now or never for the one-time pairing. (Eight of the last 10 winners for Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals were collabos. The only ongoing groups to win in this period are Destiny's Child in 2001 and Sade in 2010.)

I don't understand why they have one combined category for Best Gospel/Contemporary Christian Performance, when they have separate categories for Best Album and Best Song for each of those styles. If the albums and songs are so different they can't be compared, how can they compare the performances? That's illogical.

I don't think I would have cut Best Urban/Alternative Performance, which was a hot category. Winners included such utterly contemporary hits as OutKast's "Hey Ya!," Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" and Cee Lo Green's "F**k You (Forget You)."

The cuts were made after a sub-committee spent more than a year studying the topic. Critics have charged that the academy didn't consult enough people before it acted. I think here the critics have a point. For the record, while I had a vague idea that an overhaul was in the works, I had no idea what it entailed or how extensive it would be. Nobody at the academy asked my opinion about the cuts before they were announced.

Years ago, the show made a point of announcing every single winner, even the winners in the "pre-telecast" categories, on the air. As the number of awards crept upward, that became harder and harder to do. I remember one year, Roberta Flack was given the unenviable task of reading the names of dozens of pre-telecast winners on the show. In recent years, the Grammys have made no effort to reveal the names of the "pre-tel" winners on the show. They simply direct viewers to Grammy.com to see the complete list.

So, the critics argue, if the show zeroes in on eleven or so categories on the TV show, what does it matter if there are 78 categories or 109 or 150, for that matter? If it can help a musician in a specialized genre get a little publicity or better concert bookings, why not? I don't really have an answer to that, other than I think it devalues a Grammy when they're so easy to win.

With The Rev. Jackson entering the picture, I'm sure this controversy is going to be with us for a while. What do you think? Did the Grammys cut or gut? Weigh in below.