What I’m about to write is based on a prediction of what I think will happen on Sunday at the Grammys. Because I don’t yet know what will happen, it’s possible that this is all for naught. Unfortunately, I don’t have a contingency plan should this possibility become reality.1 This is what I’m stuck writing about, for better or worse. No matter: I feel confident that Ben “Macklemore” Haggerty, Mary Lambert, and Ryan Lewis will win a Song of the Year trophy for “Same Love,” and therefore I’m going to proceed with a preemptive attempt to understand what this means for the Grammys going forward.
When I originally made this prediction last month, I based my reasoning on three important facts:
1. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were among the most successful pop acts of this Grammy voting period,2 scoring two no. 1 singles (“Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us”) and moving more than 1.2 million copies of their independently released album, The Heist. This is important because the Grammys like rewarding success.
2. “Same Love” was also a hit, but not as big as “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us,” peaking at “only” no. 11. It is the only nominee in the Song of the Year category that did not go to no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.3 A pro-gay-marriage anthem, “Same Love” is also the only “message” song in the category. This is important because while the Grammys like rewarding success, they also want to be perceived as being progressive (even though they’re really not and never have been).
3. Never in the history of the Grammys has a hip-hop track won for Song or Record of the Year. This is important because it’s extremely weird. It’s also important because awarding rap’s first-ever Song of the Year Grammy to Macklemore seems weirdly (some would say absurdly) plausible.
Before delving into the implications of this hypothetical, let’s explore rap’s inauspicious history with the most prestigious4 award in pop music.
The first hip-hop artist recognized in one or more of the top three Grammy categories was MC Hammer, who was nominated in 1991 for Record of the Year (for “U Can’t Touch This”) and Album of the Year (for Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em). Hammer lost in both categories to Phil Collins’s “Another Day in Paradise” and Quincy Jones’s Back on the Block, respectively.5 (Attention, readers under 25: Do not familiarize yourself with any of this music.) After that, rap doesn’t reappear in the Record of the Year category until 1996 with Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” (which lost to Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose”), and in the Album of the Year category until ’99 with Lauryn Hill’s sorta-rap, sorta-soul, sorta-every-genre-under-the-sun masterpiece, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (which won).
Now, we could take a moment to point out all the commercially popular and critically acclaimed rap music that came out during the ’90s. The neglect of hip-hop during this time would be akin to the Oscars failing to nominate films by “new Hollywood” stalwarts like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Altman in the ’70s. It’s a horrible oversight. But let’s plow forward, because things pick up a bit in the wake of Hill’s victory.
From 2001 to ’11, at least one rap LP was nominated for Album of the Year every year save 2007.6 The only winner in the bunch was Outkast in 2004 for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, which came after the duo was previously nominated in 2002 for Stankonia and lost to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.
Speakerboxx actually competed in ’04 against another hip-hop LP, Missy Elliott’s Under Construction, marking the second instance of two rap records competing for Album of the Year. (The first occurred in 2003, when Eminem’s The Eminem Show and Nelly’s Nellyville both lost to Norah Jones’s Come Away With Me.)7 Eminem was nominated in the category a total of three times during this period, as was Kanye West. (They went a combined 0-for-6.) Like Stankonia, Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III (which lost to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand) and the Black Eyed Peas’ The E.N.D. (which lost to Taylor Swift’s Fearless) were stopped by MOR folk and country records.
But still, not a bad showing for the genre in the Album category.8 You’d think this would translate at least equally well to the Record and Song categories, especially considering the dominance of rap and rap-tinged singles on the radio in the past decade. It’s true that rap songs have consistently shown up among the Record of the Year candidates, and have occasionally even dominated the category. For instance, in 2004, the year Speakerboxxx/The Love Below won, four out of the five Record nominees were either hip-hop hits (Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where Is the Love,” and Outkast’s “Hey Ya!”) or a song prominently featuring a rapper (Beyoncé and Jay Z’s “Crazy in Love”). However, the winner that year, Coldplay’s “Clocks,” is pitched about as far as you can get from rap while still being considered a contemporary pop song.
What’s really interesting is that in the Song of the Year category — the one that rewards songwriters rather than recording artists, which “Same Love” is up for — you can count the previous 55 years’ worth of rap nominees on one hand and still have fingers left over. There is one white guy (Eminem, for “Lose Yourself” in 2004 and “Love the Way You Lie” in 2011), one black guy (Kanye West, for “Jesus Walks” in 2005 and “All of the Lights” in 2012), and one black woman (Estelle, for “American Boy” in 2009). That’s it. That’s the list.9
In essence, while the Grammys believed Lauryn Hill made the best album of the year in 1999, it did not also believe that a single song from that album was good enough to be nominated for its own award. (Even though Miseducation spun off three Top 40 singles, including a no. 1, “Doo Wop (That Thing).”) When Outkast won best album for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in ’04, the signature cut, “Hey Ya!” was deemed one of the best recordings of the year but not one of the finest examples of songwriting. So, while the Grammys have historically displayed a willingness to at least consider that the sonic construction of a rap song might be worthy of its top Record award, this has not been typically extended to the creation of the song itself.
Again, this seems extremely weird. So much so that I suspect that even the people who vote for the Grammys will want to change their own history on Sunday.
What if “Same Love” does win Song of the Year? How significant will it be? Will it really mean anything?
I’m tempted to say it won’t be significant at all, because deep down I don’t think award shows (least of all the Grammys) ultimately shape how the history of art forms are remembered. That “Hey Ya!” didn’t win Record of the Year obviously hasn’t affected the love people have for it. (As much as I like “Clocks,” it probably won’t outlive “Lose Yourself” or “Crazy in Love,” either.) “Jesus Walks” is better regarded today than John Mayer’s “Daughters,” even though the latter beat the former for Song of the Year in 2005. Jay Z has as many Song of the Year nominations as Hoobastank,10 and yet Jay Z could pay to have the members of Hoobastank dropped into a South American rain forest and hunted like wild game by billionaires. This is as it should be. Awards never stick around as long as truly great music does.
But while I believe everything I just typed, it’s not exactly true. The Grammys do matter — maybe not as an arbiter of quality, but certainly as a signpost for the current state of the recording industry and unquestionably as a driver of sales (or at least plays on streaming services). Because the media inevitably focuses way too much attention on these empty, self-congratulatory displays, their professed importance becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, at least in the short term. (I plead guilty to this charge.) A Grammy victory reiterates and amplifies trends in pop music that the Grammy voters see as worthwhile, which then makes those trends appear to loom even larger in the culture.
Moreover, the Grammys have long mattered to rappers themselves, even when (as Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav declared in 1988’s “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic”) they claimed not to give a fuck. This has often been manifested by hip-hop artists denouncing the Grammys for being out of touch with the genre. PE boycotted the ceremony way back in 1991, following the lead of Kid ’N Play and Salt-N-Pepa, who two years earlier protested the Grammys for not televising the first-ever awarding of the Best Rap Performance statue.11 Though he’s set to perform on Sunday, Jay Z publicly disavowed the ceremony for several years in the late ’90s and ’00s, in spite of his success in the Rap categories. (He’s won 17 times.) “I don’t think they give the rightful respect to hip-hop,” he said in 2002.
Then there’s Kanye West, perhaps the loudest critic of the Grammys not recognizing elite rappers (namely himself) in the elite categories. Most recently, West complained that his critically adored LP Yeezus garnered only two nominations, one for Best Rap Album and one for Best Rap Song for “New Slaves.” He was similarly upset over his sophomore record, Late Registration, not winning Album of the Year in 2005. The outcry was more widespread in 2011 when My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a commercial favorite and widely acknowledged artistic triumph, didn’t even garner an AOY nomination. In an open letter to Grammy voters posted as a full-page ad in the New York Times one week after the ceremony, record company executive Steve Stoute blasted the award show for failing to “acknowledge the massive cultural impact of Eminem and Kanye West and how their music is shaping, influencing and defining the voice of a generation.”
Given the long list of luminaries that never even had a chance to compete in the Song of the Year category, a victory for Macklemore — who is commonly perceived as an interloper marketed at a largely white, non-hip-hop audience — will likely be seen not as a breakthrough but rather as a cosign of certain developments in pop that many observers believe are generally destructive. In 2013, not a single no. 1 hit on the pop chart was recorded by a black artist, in spite of many of the year’s most popular songs (like “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us”) deriving from genres originated by and normally associated with black artists. In this context, “Same Love” winning Song of the Year would perfectly capture a highly unflattering (and woefully uncritical) portrait of modern pop.
There’s one other way to look at this, which is with limited optimism. Critics get upset about how the Grammys do a poor job of honoring the musical vanguard. This is true, but spotlighting the cutting edge is not the Grammys’ function. What the Grammys do is work from the rear, slowly pushing the baseline of musical stodginess in our culture forward.
It can’t be underestimated just how far back this award show is from the head of pop culture. Consider that the first instance of a hip-hop artist getting nominated in a major Grammy category occurred three years after the Pillsbury rap. Recognizing rap’s preeminence in pop music is strictly late-20th-century stuff. The Grammys still aren’t there yet.
There’s been a concerted effort for the Grammys to “go younger” in the past several years. But though the most honored artists of recent years — Taylor Swift, Adele, Mumford & Sons — are all in their twenties, the music is rooted in cozy rock, folk, and soul styles of the ’60s and ’70s. I don’t know for certain that Grammy voters are prejudiced against regarding rap music as a forum for serious songwriters capable of producing compositions as lasting as past Song of the Year winners like “Moon River,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” or [cough] “Smooth.” It’s just that the historical record strongly suggests that this is the case. “Same Love” may not be an example of exemplary songwriting in hip-hop, but if the Recording Academy proves that it can honor mediocrity in this genre with a Song of the Year award like it has honored mediocrity in other genres, then it will be a positive sign that even the most conservative among us have reached a new plateau.
Then again, if Lorde wins, forget I said anything.
This article has been updated to remove an incorrect reference to Eminem winning a Grammy in 1999.