Never Forget: The Grammys Aren’t Just Stupid — They’re Trolling Us

Yes, the Grammys were on last night, and hey, guess what? The internet spent all this morning arguing over this year’s controversies: how the hell did professional Nice Guy of OK Cupid Hip Hop Macklemore end up with Best Rap Album? Was that actually Daft Punk in the robot suit, or two random dudes off the street? And what was with Pharrell’s hat? This process plays itself out every year, which means the ceremony rates like crazy and the Grammy people laugh all the way to the bank. We generally attribute the awards’ lack of relevance to what’s actually going on in the world of the music to the fact that they’re voted for by clueless old white dudes. But come on, you think they’re not doing this on purpose?

Clearly, no one actually expects the Grammys to be cutting edge. Not in 2014, anyway. And really, not ever, because as Slate’s Bill Wyman — no, not that one — pointed out a couple of years ago, the main concern of the Grammys is this: “Sticking some controversial and megapopular names in the top categories to increase ratings for the group’s annual TV show/cash cow.” That’s not just stating the bleeding obvious, either. The most interesting thing about Wyman’s piece was his explanation of how the Grammy Committee functions:

The group is allowed to overrule the membership’s nominations for its four biggest awards: album of the year, record of the year, song of the year, and best new artist. They take out nominations that might embarrass the academy — one official has hinted that “Macarena” might otherwise have been nominated one year — and replace them with artists they think are more deserving or, more importantly, who will bring in more viewers to the TV show.

In other words, they’re trolling us all. Having someone like Macklemore win Best Rap Album is a perfect example: it’s an award that both satisfies the core audience and creates a decent amount of controversy. We tend to assume that the Grammys’ Grand Panjandrums are just hilariously out-of-touch old people, but it’s more likely that they know exactly what they’re doing here. Year after year, the ceremony hits all the key demographics, and this year its numbers for the 18-34 demographic were up 10 percent from 2013. The ceremony draws in both ends of the key 18-49 demo, albeit for different reasons: the older folks watch because they’ve always watched, and the youngsters do something that falls between hate-watching and giggling at those clueless adults. But they tune in nonetheless.

You can see this in how coverage manifests. Outlets whose demographic skews younger, like Pitchfork and Noisey (and, um, Flavorwire) tend to respond with hand-wringing and frustration, but we still respond. We’re like Charlie Brown with the football — year after year, we tune in, thinking that maybe this time, the committee won’t snatch the ball away at the last minute. And year after year, they do.

The more interesting question is why we still care. The Grammys enjoy the same fraught love/hate relationship with younger viewers as many other boomer-centric institutions — Rolling Stone, for instance, has been hilariously out of touch with what’s actually happening in music for decades, but getting a good review in the magazine still enjoys a cachet disproportionate to its actual importance. In the same way, everyone knows the Grammys are silly, but everyone still wants one. And everyone still wants their favorite artist to win one. It’s like yearning for the approval of a stern, distant, condescending parent. Maybe it’s time we stopped.

Of course, I say this now. When it comes to next year, I’ll probably be back in front of the television, drink in hand, watching with the same old mixture of despair and the strange hope that maybe this time, someone like Kendrick Lamar will walk away with a well-deserved award. Same as it ever was, eh?