Critic's Notebook: Unpacking the Politics of the 2019 Grammy Changes

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SZA walked away without a single Grammy this year.

Increasing the number of nominees in the three biggest categories is a nod toward greater inclusivity, but won't do much to address the industry's larger issues of power and representation.

On Tuesday, the Recording Academy announced one of the largest adjustments to the Grammy Awards’ major categories since the show’s inception in 1959. Effective for next year’s edition, the Academy will expand from five to eight nominees for the categories of best album, song and record. While seemingly innocuous — another extension of a bloated award show that probably needs more subtraction than addition — this is clearly a signal that the Academy is trying to catch up to the times.

So what, if anything, does the change mean?

It’s a nod toward appearing more "inclusive," a word that in and of itself is usually code for "we’re trying to address a systemic problem with a few representational changes." Men indeed swept the major prizes at the 2018 Grammys, and dominated nominations in the three categories concerned here. The Daily Beast called this year’s awards "tone deaf" and an "out of touch mess" that favored fossils like U2 and Sting above critical darlings like Kendrick, SZA and Lorde. That criticism echoed the #OscarsSoWhite tag that stuck a few years back for the Motion Picture Academy’s geriatric, milquetoast tendencies and seeming unwillingness to evolve in a world that is less white, less straight and more dynamic than it used to be.

The lack of women performing or as winners of major Grammys prompted a group of female music executives to sign a letter calling for the resignation of Academy president Neil Portnow in February. This was in response to Portnow’s unfortunate comment that women should “step up” and essentially change things themselves if they feel like they’re not being represented properly. Anyone with a remote understanding of how power dynamics work should know that condescendingly speaking down to an entire gender (and perhaps not even realizing you’re doing that) is part of the problem to begin with.

Earlier in June, Portnow announced his decision to step down in 2019. Maybe he saw the writing on the wall. Or maybe he was calling it quits anyway. But, at least symbolically, this announcement felt like it was partially due to pressure from women in the industry — and was itself more meaningful than switching some of the technicalities of the award program.

That said, this regime change is arguably still just symbolic, at least for now. While taking down a figurehead that represents out-of-touch old male whiteness certainly feels good, it probably won’t amount to much more than a PR move if nothing else changes other than some rules. Regardless of who the next Academy president is, if he or she is creating and fostering an imbalanced culture, then that really is the problem. And, historically, making a few rule changes and shuffling around some chairs does not create a widespread shift in behavior or culture. Typically, more is required — and what that “more” is can be elusive and abstract.

However, it’s worth mentioning that there were also other, more technocratic changes made to the rules (you can read the full list of changes here). The Academy announced that for the first time, music supervisors will be eligible to receive awards for the best compilation soundtrack album category, an award which is as old as this century but until now never recognized the music supervisor. It seems like it should have been this way all along and likely took years of lobbying to get it corrected. This is another in a multiple-step process by the Guild of Music Supervisors to attain acknowledgment and recognition industry-wide for one of the departments that notoriously gets short shrift when it comes to protections and benefits. They were successful in getting the Emmys to add the outstanding music supervision category in 2017, and you’ve got to imagine they’re lobbying the Oscars as well. But all the representation in the world doesn’t help music supervisors if they’re not, for example, getting paid a living wage.

Most of these tweaks feel minor and relatively inconsequential to the music industry’s culture of representation at large or the public’s perception of it. Outside of the artists themselves who will benefit from this expansion and those who may assume power in this reformed Academy, who is all this for?

Does anyone think these rule changes will make the music industry more equitable to women or people of color? Or should we take Portnow’s unfortunately worded advice and just “step up” to make the changes we want?

Awards shows at their very core are marketing incarnate. Will they ever be more than just an advertisement for the values of the wealthy and powerful? Does the Recording Academy really care about fundamentally reworking how it operates or is this just an outward-facing move to suggest reform? History — at least in Hollywood — is very short on examples of a change in rules leading to a transformative cultural shift. Then again, anything is possible.