In the music business, as in government finance, partial fixes are not fixes at all, but, more often, appeasements and, sometimes, impairments. Last week, the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the industry body that runs the Grammys, responded to pleas from its appropriately panicked membership and announced a plan to improve the awards through consolidation. NARAS eliminated 31 award categories—nearly one third of the 109 categories honored in past years. Explaining the decision, the head of the organization, Neil Portnow, a former vice president for Jive Records, said the Grammys needed to “be restructured to the continued competition and prestige” of the awards, whatever that means. The statement could be translated into Yiddish with one word: farpotshket, which means to make something worse by trying to fix it.
The problem with the Grammys is not quantitative, but qualitative. There’s nothing wrong with the number of awards presented; to the contrary, NARAS’s tradition of recognizing a great many kinds of musical work—its claim to catholicality—has always been one of the Grammys’ few indisputable strengths. I’ve always found it heartening to pan down the seemingly endless list of Grammy nominees and see awards under the categories Best Latin Jazz Album, Best Tejano Album, Best Contemporary Jazz Album, Best Hawaiian Album, and on and on—in some cases, as in the Latin Jazz and Tejano categories, because I love a lot of that music, and, in other cases, such as the Contemporary Jazz category, because I’m glad to see recognition for a widely and too easily disparaged genre. All the award categories I just mentioned will be dropped or consolidated with others, as will four honors in classical music and several in instrumental pop and country music.
In 2011, two of my favorite artists in the world won Grammys: Chucho Valdes, one of the living giants of jazz piano (for Chucho’s Steps, in the Best Latin Jazz Album category), and the singer Little Joe, the embodiment of ebullient machismo (for Recuerdos, in the Best Tejano Album category). I should probably state flatly, in the wake of my little Nick Hathaway stunt on April Fool’s Day, that my admiration for Little Joe is not tongue-in-cheek; Little Joe, a master of his form, is not a joke, but a rare exemplar of unabashed musical joy.
The problem with the Grammys, as with the Oscars, is that the voting pool is stocked with insiders susceptible to all sorts of influences, including the human need to eat and, accordingly, keep one’s job. The best solution may be to continue in the spirit of the new cuts in categories. With 31 now gone, there are only 78 to go to eliminate the Grammys and complete the fix.