Stop The Presses!

The Genderless Grammys

Stop The Presses!

Most of the coverage of the Recording Academy's revamp of its Grammy Awards process has focused on sheer numbers: How the academy dropped or consolidated dozens of categories to reduce the total number of awards from a bloated 109 this year to a flab-free 78 next year. Obscured in the coverage is the academy's bold, even radical, decision to do away with separate categories for male and female performances in pop, R&B and country. Every single category on the Grammy ballot next year will be open to both genders.

This runs counter to how most other major awards shows operate. The Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards and Country Music Awards, among others, have separate categories for men and women. Gender seems to work as an organizing principle at awards shows. Fans seem to like gender-specific contests. It brings some sex appeal to the proceedings.

The Oscars have had separate awards for Best Actor and Best Actress from their first year, 1927 (when the winners were Emil Jannings and Janet Gaynor), to this year (Colin Furth and Natalie Portman). The Emmys have had separate awards for Best Actor and Actress from their third year, 1950.

The Grammys, too, had at least some separate awards for female and male vocal performances in each of their first 53 years. In 1958, Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Irving Berlin Songbook and Perry Como's "Catch A Falling Star" became the first winners for Best Vocal Performance, Female and Male. In February, Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" and Bruno Mars' "Just The Way You Are" won for Best Female and Male Pop Vocal Performance. These categories are usually among the highest-profile awards of the night, just a beat or two behind the four "General Field" awards (Record, Album and Song of the Year and Best New Artist).

The Grammys added separate awards for female and male vocals in "country & western" (as it was then called) in 1964. (The first winners were Dottie West and Roger Miller.) They added separate awards for male and female vocals in R&B in 1967. (The first winners were Aretha Franklin and Lou Rawls).

The Grammys used to have separate male and female awards in rock and rap, as well. They did away with them in 2004, on the grounds that there was perennially a shortage of female entries in both fields. But that isn't a problem in pop, R&B and country.

There will be even more consolidation next year in R&B, rap and rock, where solo artists will also have to compete with groups and duos for one overall performance award in each field. (In pop and country, there will be one award for solo performances and another for duo/group performances.)

If the rules that will be in effect next year had been in place throughout Grammy history, the Grammy winners book would look very different.

In 1994, Elton John finally won his first award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for "Can You Feel The Love Tonight," his Oscar-winning ballad from The Lion King. But if he'd had to compete with the female pop winner that year, Sheryl Crow's "All I Wanna Do," he would probably have lost yet again. ("All I Wanna Do" won for Record of the Year. "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" wasn't nominated in that category.)

In 1992, k.d. lang won the female vocal pop prize for "Constant Craving." The song wasn't a smash hit, but lang's vocal was extraordinary. But if she'd had to compete with the male pop winner that year, Eric Clapton's "Tears In Heaven," she'd have almost certainly have lost. ("Tears In Heaven" beat "Constant Craving" for Record of the Year.)

In 1985, red-hot newcomer Whitney Houston won the female pop vocal prize for the sultry ballad "Saving All My Love For You." But if she'd had to compete with the male pop winner that year, Phil Collins' No Jacket Required, she may well have lost. (No Jacket Required beat Whitney Houston for Album of the Year.)

In 1973, Stevie Wonder won the male pop vocal prize for his marvelous "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life." But if he'd had to compete with the female pop winner that year, Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly With His Song," he would have probably come up short. ("Killing Me Softly" beat Wonder's hit for Record of the Year.)

In 1972, Helen Reddy won the female pop vocal prize for "I Am Woman," which became an instant anthem of the feminist movement. Her acceptance speech was among the most memorable in Grammy history. She started out by thanking her manager for making her career possible and then added: "And I would like to thank God because She makes everything possible." But if Reddy had had to compete with the male pop winner that year, Harry Nilsson's "Without You," she probably would have lost. ("Without You" was a Record of the Year finalist. Reddy's hit wasn't.)

One of the most fabled of all Grammy records is Aretha Franklin's eight-year winning streak in the Female R&B Vocal Performance category. The streak, from 1967 through 1974, helped to clinch Franklin's unquestioned title as the Queen of Soul. But if she'd had to compete with male vocalists, and with duos and groups (as R&B females will have to do starting next year) she would have probably lost in some of those years to such other Grammy winners as Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) Dock Of The Bay," the Temptations' "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone" and Stevie Wonder's "Superstition."

In 1984, the rock winners were Tina Turner's "Better Be Good To Me" (female), Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing In The Dark" (male) and Prince & the Revolution's Purple Rain (group). All three were worthy winners. Turner's comeback that year was among the most dramatic in pop history. These were the first Grammys for both Springsteen and Prince. Under the new rules, only one of these artists could win in the new Best Rock Performance category.

It's a similar story in the country field. In 1978, Dolly Parton won for Best Female Country Vocal Performance for her crossover hit "Here You Come Again." Willie Nelson won the male country award for "Georgia On My Mind," the lead hit from his trend-setting album of standards, Stardust. Under next year's rules, only one of them could win.

Fans used to the seemingly endless Grammy winners list of recent years will be surprised to learn that there were just 28 categories in the Grammys' first year, 1958. The total number of categories topped 50 for the first time in 1977, 75 for the first time in 1988 and 100 for the first time in 2000.

It's not just a case that the academy became too accommodating to member pressure to add categories (though that was part of it). The academy also greatly expanded its reach. In the beginning, it was primarily focused on pop, jazz and classical. In the 1960s, it expanded its focus to also include country and R&B. In 1979, the academy belatedly added categories dedicated to rock. In 1988, it (again, belatedly) added a rap category. Along the way, the academy has added awards for best album and best song in a wide range of genres.

The Grammys explained next year's cuts by saying they tried to have greater parity and consistency among all musical fields. In the revamp, most major fields have just four awards. The only fields with more than four awards are classical, with seven; Gospel/Contemporary Christian, with five; and American Roots Music, also with five. The latter is a broad field that encompasses Americana (won this year by Mavis Staples' You Are Not Alone), bluegrass, blues, folk and Regional Roots Music.

But pop, rock, R&B, rap and country are the dominant genres in contemporary music, and have been for decades. They deserve a little extra consideration.

Don't get me wrong: I support most of the cuts the academy made. Most of the categories that were cut won't be missed (except, of course, by people who work in those genres).

I also think the academy was right to tighten up on the number of entries needed to maintain a category. From now on, if a category receives between 25 and 39 entries in a given year, only three recordings will receive nominations. If the number of entries falls below 25, the category will go on hiatus for that year, with no award given. If a category receives fewer than 25 entries for three consecutive years, the category will be discontinued. (This will be a challenge for such categories as Best Musical Theater Album, won this year by American Idiot, where the history and prestige of the genre is greater than the current number of entries.)

And the academy was right to restrict voting. Previously, voting members were allowed to vote in up to nine genre fields (plus the General Field) on the first ballot and up to eight genre fields (plus the General Field) on the final ballot. If a voter selected the most crowded fields, he or she could be voting in as many as 69 categories on the first ballot (plus the General Field). Starting next year, a voter may vote in no more than 20 categories in the genre fields (plus the General Field). That's a big reduction, which will force voters to focus on the categories they care about the most.

But the academy went a little too far in cutting categories. I'd like to see the Grammys retain separate categories for male and female performances in pop, R&B and country; and retain separate categories for group and duo performances in rock and R&B. (If parity was the issue, why are there dedicated categories for groups and duos in pop and country, but not in rock and R&B?)

Since one of the academy's main objectives was to pare down, I have suggestions as to a couple of categories that could be cut. The Grammys have two categories for album packages: Best Recording Package (won this year by the art director of the Black Keys' Brothers) and Best Boxed/Special Limited Edition (won this year by the art directors of a limited edition of the White Stripes' Under Great White Northern Lights. The idea behind the addition of the second category was that regular, individual CDs would probably have a hard time competing with fancy, elaborate packages. That's true. But there's only one award for Best Album Notes. Liner notes for regular, individual CDs have an equally hard time competing with elaborate booklets that accompany box sets. That's life.

If the Grammys were going to cut the fat from their awards process, that would have been a good place to start. It's hard to fathom that they slashed categories to the extent of consolidating two of their flagship categories, Male and Female Pop Vocal, and continued to indulge art directors in this way.

The Grammys could also dispense with Best Dance/Electronica Album. The award for Best Dance Recording is sufficient to represent the genre. If there's an exceptional dance/electronica album, a track from it could compete for Best Dance Recording. (Indeed, this year's winner of the dance album award, La Roux, was represented in the Dance Recording category (with "In For The Kill"). Dance is an important genre, but so are all these fields (among others) which have just one category in the revamp: Alternative music, Blues, Folk, Reggae and World Music.

I also would like to point out two oddities.

The Grammys dropped categories for Best Instrumental Performance in pop, rock and country, but they retained categories for Best Instrumental Composition and Best Instrumental Arrangement. Why are composers and arrangers of instrumentals entitled to dedicated categories, but performers of instrumentals are not?

The Grammys have separate categories for Best Song and Best Album in both gospel and Contemporary Christian Music. But they combine the two religious genres into one overall Best Performance category. If voters can reasonably compare gospel and Contemporary Christian performances, why they can't they compare songs and albums in these genres?

The leaner, meaner Grammys will have 78 categories next year, the lowest number since 1989. Even if they re-add a few categories (and I hope they do), they'll probably stay under 85 or so, a number they last saw in 1993. The Grammys deserve great credit for going on a diet. It's just that, like many crash dieters, they went a little too far.

 

Colin Firth photo by Dan MacMedan/WireImage; Natalie Portman photo by Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage 

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