Since they started in 1958, no one has ever accused the Grammy Awards of being on the cutting edge. This is, after all, a music award show that didn’t add Best Rock and Roll Recording as a category until 1962 — six years after Elvis electrified "The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show"and America with his talent — and didn’t give out its first award for a Rap Performance until almost a decade after the Sugarhill Gang had the genre’s first Top 40 hit with “Rapper’s Delight.”
Add to that the fact that Grammy ratings have been in a slump since 1994 when they were last watched by an audience of 30 million. In the last four years, they have not been able to get 20 million viewers. That’s not even a decent night of "American Idol." Still, don’t worry, music fans — we might not be able to save the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards that being are handed out Sunday, but while the patient is on the table, the doctor is in the house armed with a red guitar and the truth.
1. LESS IS MORE
You wanted bloated? Check this out … there are 29 genre categories, from Pop and Rock to Classical and Gospel, in this year’s Grammys. And there are 109 categories within those fields. Compare that for a second to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who will be giving out around 24 Oscars and five Special Oscars on March 7.
Then add to that the Byzantine breakdown of who’s eligible for what, how and why. You see why the Grammys and their rules has been the butt of jokes in and outside the industry for years. Do we really care who wins the Best Surround Sound Album award? (Last year’s "Fear of a Blank Planet: pictured.)Or the overly ambitious Best Recording Package award — which is actually for Art Directors not musicians? Especially in an era of iTunes?
Or what about the often intriguing but ultimately dusty Best Historical Album? Do we need to segregate a ton of new music to simply Best Electronic/Dance Album and Best Alternative Music Album?
Let’s get rid of most of all that crap and strip it all back to the Best Album, Best Song, Best New Artist and just a couple more. Put the best in Classical, Rock, Hip-Hop and Country head-to-head. Good music stands on its own against megastars and more popular performers. The best rock ’n’ roll is still based on two guitars, a bass, drums and vocals or, if you are a member of the hip-hop community, two turntables and a microphone. C’mon on, Grammy, get lean and get mean.
2. LIVE, BABY, LIVE
With all the problems the music biz has, the live concert biz is not one of them. In fact, live music — as the soon-to-be conglomerate of promoters LiveNation and stub sellers Ticketmaster are betting on — is doing very well thank you very much.
And yet, instead of embracing what is working, the Grammys aren’t truly using the technology and the opportunity available to them. They act like it’s 1985, and it’s Just Another Stupid Award Show.
Even LiveAid, which was in 1985, could be in London, Philadelphia and several places around the globe at one time. So why can’t the Grammys in 2011?
Let’s have a 21st-century extravaganza for a 21st-century music industry. Let’s have the country awards live from Nashville and the urban categories from NYC, the birthplace of hip-hop. You could have the rock awards and performances from L.A., the indie stuff from Athens, Georgia (birthplace of REM) or Portland (home of every indie artist who isn’t Ryan Adams lately) and the MOR stuff from whatever saccharine place actually likes that stuff.
Each full concert and ceremony in each city could be streamed online and broadcast entirely on specialty channels with a package mixed on CBS. So the country stuff would be on CMT, the urban stuff on BET, the Rock stuff on VH-1 and so on. Think of the traffic, think of the combined ratings, think of the packed stadiums. And, most of all, think of how nimble and good it could be.
3. IDOLIZE IT
Nothing, the cliché tells us, succeeds like success. So we say in today’s economy and amidst declining music sales, embrace what’s working.
Honestly, besides reinvigorating music on TV, nothing constantly cleans up with the American public like "American Idol." So, if the Grammys has primarily become a performance show, which it has, let’s bring in the "Idol" judges to pick the winners, critique the performances and surge the ratings upwards.
Couldn’t you just see Simon Cowell telling a nervous Jamie Foxx, T-Pain, Slash and Doug E. Fresh, who are all performing together this year, that he “doesn’t mean to be rude, but …”
Having fans vote online — as the Grammys are this year, on the song a band will perform live on the show — is a small step forward towards an "Idol" mentality. Hell, it’s a small step towards living in the 21st century. But having that band be Bon Jovi and the choice be limited to one of only three possible tunes isn’t much of a great leap.
As Randy Jackson, the on-air Ezra Pound of our times, would say — “I mean, I’m not saying I was blown away.”
4. NO MORE MR. NICE GUY
One reason the Grammys have become so irrelevant is that there are so many other music awards shows and venues for music TV out there. The American Music Awards, the MTV Video Awards, Prince Albert of Monaco’s World Music Awards, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame … and that’s not even getting in all those acts that show up to mentor on the likes of "American Idol" and "America’s Got Talent."
So let’s, as Devo would say, crack that whip. From now on, no matter how big you are or think you are, anyone who appears on any other music awards show is banned from the Grammys. Both as a performer and as a nominee. Could be for two years or could be for five years. Could be forever. This is how Oprah sometimes rolls and how occasinally have done it on the late-night shows.
And while you’re at it, let’s cap out some people out. Really, after 15, 22, 26 and 27 Grammys respectively, we get it. Yo Yo Ma, U2, Alison Krauss and Quincy Jones, to name a few repeat offenders, have had some "outstanding achievements” in the music world … make them Grammy Emeritus and let someone else into the temple.
5. LET’S GO CRAZY
Prince was right. And, when it comes to getting attention, there are a lot worse things one could do than take the lyrical advice of the Purple Paisley one. Maybe the best way to save the troubled awards is to abandon any attempt at (serious) credibility altogether.
Works for MTV. Besides Kanye West, no one really cares who wins best Video or Best Movie. Its all preordained. It’s the gags, the stunts, the Sacha Baron Cohen landing ass-first on Eminem’s face that we remember.
In fact, it’s Eminem who provided half of one of the show’s oddest pairings ever. In 2001, the Detroit rapper was provided a perfect bulletproof vest against charges of homophobia when Elton John dueted with him on the song “Stan.”
Now Elton — who also paired with Axl Rose in 1992, when the Guns’N’Roses singer was mired in a similar controversy over “One in a Million,” and Babyshambles’ Pete Doherty at when Doherty was caught up in drug-related charges — looks to hit the stage at the Grammys this year with Lady Gaga, a woman who looks to have made a lot of purchases when Elton auctioned off his wardrobe a few years back.
So let’s go crazy right off the bat by instituting an annual tradition: Let the public vote online for the biggest homophobe or train-wreck-in-motion to perform with Elton every year.
Another idea? What about collapsing two awards and two performances into one? Let’s have past Grammy winner and former President Jimmy Carter, who is nominated this year for Best Spoken Word Album, front the Black Eyed Peas for a rousing, Southern version of the band’s “I Gotta Feeling,” which is a nominated for Record of the Year?
Man, would that be a Grammy show that you couldn’t turn away from.