I’ve been working on an essay about Ice T for a while now but picking at it today brought to mind an aspect of The Not-So Great Bruno Mars Culture Wars of 2018 that is a little too under-discussed for my taste, and that is that so many people still care about the Grammys.
There is something to be said for Grammys as historical markers – when you die, “Grammy-nominated/winning artist…” is the first thing your obituary will say. But musical canon is not created by Grammys. For as many hours as a Grammy show consumes, not one has ever been long enough to take qualitative measure of all the work its industry generates. Depending on which gauge you use, the U.S. releases somewhere around 50,000-70,000 albums per year. Even if you didn’t know that figure before you read it, you knew there was astronomically more music out there than you were aware of. We all get that there are things being left out of Grammy shows. And yet we yell at our television screens and pound our thumbs into nubs making a case for better representation with the audiophile equivalent of a Texas social studies textbook. Everybody knows it’s broken, but we keep making the case as if that is where history is determined.
Much of this fear – and erasure is always a valid concern – comes from empowering white gaze on black art by treating certain avenues with undue importance. Cue the Grammys. We know they’re not legit measures of quality, and that they’re not comprehensive. Winning one is nothing to sneeze at, but not winning one – or not being nominated for one – isn’t a failure. One could argue that not being nominated for one is a better indicator of one’s musical worth. One could have been arguing that case for many years now.
There isn’t anything in what Bruno Mars has or hasn’t done that is new, including his praise for the culture his music is informed by. It’s telling that one of the criticisms of his current shine is that “24K Magic” is the first New Jack Swing song in years to get some play and it isn’t coming from a black artist. Setting aside for the moment that “24K Magic” isn’t an example of new jack swing but 1980s electro-funk, this criticism suggests that black people have been playing or creating new jack swing tracks for the last 20 years on the downlow but he’s the one that gets paid to do it. The premise suggests that there is this body of work by new jack swing artists not getting deals or props because people like Bruno Mars are scooping up their swag. The only new jack swing black people have been rocking for the last 20 years is the new jack swing that came out 20 years ago. It’s hard to take the food out of the mouths of people who don’t exist. If you leave your plate behind, someone is going to pick at your peas.
The job of canonization doesn’t lie with the Grammys. We have to stop treating them like they’re important or relevant. Even when the people we think “deserve” (whatever that means) Grammys were receiving them – Michael Jackson, Prince, etc. – we’re still talking about artists who created work that we, the consumers, first rewarded with our sales and praise and audience. Thriller won eight Grammys off of the blessings of millions of people – many of whom were white, but stamped officially dope and culturally important by black people – not because the industry is so good at picking out quality. With all of the technology we have today, this is even more true (criticism and culture defining has never been more democratic) and at a much cheaper rate: you used to have to sell multi-platinum to make it into the top ten selling albums of the year. Now you’re doing good to get in with 1 million. People have more tools, access to music, and critical resources to define what is and isn’t black art than ever before. It’s time we started acting like it.