Yes, But Why Are the Grammys So Awful?

It’s become an article of faith that 2000 will be a lousy year for the Oscars. Gladiator? Chocolat? Where is this year’s American Beauty or Affliction?

The Oscars certainly pulled their share of boners this year, slighting the terrific You Can Count on Me with just two nominations and ignoring worthy films such as Nurse Betty and Best in Show. Yes, the pleasure we take in Oscar competition and pageantry is a slightly guilty one. But at least we still care. As anyone who watched last night’s Grammy Awards will realize, the Oscars could be much, much worse off. They could be as bad as the Grammys, which have been a subject of derision for nearly as long as the Recording Academy has been awarding them. When was the last time someone invited you over for beer and chips to watch the Grammys?

Music fans gave up years ago on pointing out how dreadful these awards are. For every talented and deserving nominee this year—Macy Gray, Beck, Eminem—there were the dispiriting ‘N Sync, D’Angelo, Don Henley, Faith Hill, Toni Braxton, Madonna, and Vince Gill. If movies were this bad, we’d all be debating the merits of Best Picture nominees Saving Silverman, Little Nicky, and The Wedding Planner.

But why are the Grammys in such sad shape? Here are four theories that might explain why they became a laughingstock. Got a better one? Post it in “The Fray.”

1. Slavish attention to sales figures. Most top-selling albums of the year will be nominated for at least one major Grammy. This year’s best-selling artists—Eminem, ‘N Sync, Dr. Dre, Britney Spears—garnered multiple nominations. The same was true last year, when most of the top-grossing artists—Ricky Martin, Cher, the Backstreet Boys, TLC, Spears, Santana—were rewarded with several nominations.

By contrast, few top-grossing movies are in the running for Oscars. This year, both Cast Away and Gladiator did well at the box office and received important nominations. But Cast Away was shut out of the coveted Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay categories, and other big-ticket movies were ignored entirely. The year before, of the 10 top-grossing pictures, only one—The Sixth Sense—was nominated for a major Oscar (and it didn’t win).

In other words, the Grammys reward boffo sales, which makes them predictable. The Oscars reward—well, it’s not entirely clear what the Oscars reward. But it’s certainly not only big box office.

2. The music industry is too diverse. The major awards suffer from an apples-and-oranges problem. Paul Simon and Eminem were both nominated for Album of the Year. But Paul Simon fans don’t buy many Eminem records, and vice versa, which is why no one felt deeply torn about which singer deserved to win: Either your guy won, or some no-talent cretin did. Either way, many fans leave feeling ripped off.

The minor Grammy awards err in the opposite direction. They’re the congressional spending bills of award shows, shamelessly doling out pork to special interest groups. Take the latest category to be introduced: Native American Music. This kind of pandering leaves the Grammys with a whole bunch of awards that most music lovers couldn’t care less about.

Oscar movies, on the other hand, appeal to a relatively homogenous audience. You might actually feel conflicted about Best Actor nominees Javier Bardem and Ed Harris, or about Kate Hudson and Frances McDormand for Supporting Actress (they were in the same movie, after all). Conflict creates drama, which is crucial to an entertaining awards show.

3. The voting system favors the lowest common denominator. As Timothy Noah pointed out in “Chatterbox” earlier this month, the Oscars pick their nominees using proportional voting, while the Grammys do not. I’ll let him explain the finer points, but the bottom line is that Oscar voting gives more power to minority interests—say, people who love costume dramas or foreign-language flicks. The Grammys, meanwhile, cater to people who love Faith Hill.

4. The Grammys are stuck in a vicious cycle. Winning an Oscar means you’ve reached the pinnacle of your career. Tom Hanks will be thrilled—or at least will bother to act thrilled—if he wins another Oscar. But rock singers are, by nature, rebels. Eminem famously taunted the Recording Academy: “You think I give a damn about a Grammy?” No filmmaker who’d be taken seriously enough to get an Oscar nod would dare say anything so contrarian. If your own nominees belittle you, why shouldn’t the audience?

(Don’t forget to post your own explanation for the Grammys in The Fray.)