Why Bruno Mars Swept the Grammys

Photo Courtesy of BBC

Photo Courtesy of BBC

By Steven Norwalk

When the Grammy nominations were released in November, I remember being pleasantly surprised. The Recording Academy had fallen so far in my esteem over the past few years that the inclusion of Kendrick, Lorde, Jay-Z, and Childish Gambino in the list of Album of the Year nominees was refreshing. One could argue for each of these artists' records as being deserving of a golden gramophone, even if one or two were more deserving than the rest. I even smiled at the inclusion of Bruno Mars' 24K Magic - a likeable, if uncreative, throwback to vintage R&B. I had bumped that album's title track and follow-up single "That's What I Like" a fair number of times; I could appreciate Mr. Mars' pop craft. So go ahead. Throw Bruno in the bunch. It's not like he'll actually win or anything.

It is now clear that I was not the only one surprised by Bruno Mars' Album of the Year victory. The internet has had its day lampooning "Music's Biggest Night," and I would doubt that anyone is making a serious case for the justice of the decision. But while countless news outlets and music blogs have decried the results, few have examined the reasons behind Bruno Mars' sweep. No one, to my knowledge, has seriously questioned why the Recording Academy makes such consistently bad decisions.

It is worth noting that, while my use of "bad decisions" is certainly subjective, it is not rooted merely in my own opinions; rather it is rooted in the persistent disconnect between the consensus of the Recording Academy and the consensus of music critics. This year is a case-in-point. On Metacritic, a website that aggregates music, film, television and video game reviews from major arts and entertainment publications, each weighted according to their influence and readership in order to generate a "metascore" from 1-100, Bruno Mars' 24K Magic received a 70. That is a solid score, to be sure. But it pales in comparison to the scores received by the other nominees, especially Lorde's Melodrama (a metascore of 91) and Kendrick Lamar's DAMN (a metascore of 95), the latter of which earned the highest metascore of the year. This type of critical upset is nothing new, either. Last year Adele's 25 (75) beat Beyoncé's Lemonade (92), while the previous year, Taylor Swift's 1989 (76) beat Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly (96). It is abundantly clear that the Grammys, perhaps more than any other prime time awards show, regularly deviates from critical opinion, choosing records that most professionals who spend their time listening to and analyzing music balk at. Now the only question is why.

First, it is important to remember that Grammy winners and losers are not unilateral decisions made by some all-powerful Grammy God. They are the result of an elaborate voting process that involves the individual ballots of 12,000 people who never meet or even come in contact with the vast majority of their fellow voters. For reference, this massive voting base is nearly twice the size of the Academy of Motion Pictures. Any electorate this large will inevitably favor those nominees whose work has had the most public exposure. Just as many Americans head to the polls without thoroughly researching political candidates, it is unlikely that each one of the 12,000 voting members of the Recording Academy takes the time to listen to every nominated album several times with their full attention. It is more likely that some members rely on their knowledge of an artist's past work, or their modest exposure to an artist through the radio, to form their opinions. As a result, just as incumbents are generally favored in political elections due to their public exposure, nominees who have had the most radio airplay often win. Bruno Mars, who has had the most mainstream radio hits of any of the Album of the Year nominees, would therefore be a shoo-in. There are certainly exceptions to this rule (Beck's Morning Phase and Arcade Fire's The Suburbs immediately come to mind), but generally speaking, the more famous a nominee is, the more likely they are to win.  

The importance of name recognition is further evidenced by the Grammys' penchant for repeat victories. Early in the award show's history, Frank Sinatra took home three Album of the Year trophies in eight years, while a few years later Stevie Wonder won three in four years. Recently, we've witnessed repeat victories from Taylor Swift and Adele. The frequency of these repetitions reveals how important familiarity is to the Recording Academy's decisions; after all, there is no one more recognizable to Grammy voters than those who have already won.

But Grammy voters are not only influenced by familiarity; it appears they are also frequently misguided by their own nostalgia. It is no secret that the Grammys are backward-looking. A quick scan of recent Album of the Year winners will testify to this fact. Three of the past five, Random Access Memories, 1989, and now 24K Magic, were unapologetic throwback albums. Specifically, each of these albums embraced the sounds of the 1970s and 80s, which were likely the eras during which many members of the Recording Academy came of age. Studies have shown that music taste is formed most acutely during the ages 18-22. It's a safe bet that many Grammy voters were doing their most formative listening during the eras to which these albums pay tribute.

But perhaps the most salient reason Bruno Mars swept this year's Grammys is the most obvious one: his album is the catchiest. It is the most easily accessible. As I mentioned before, most Grammy voters likely only listen to each album nominated once or twice before making their judgments, leading them to choose the most superficially satisfying record. But in our age of instant gratification, we should be making an extra effort to do the opposite; we should strive to recognize and promote works that demand the attention and effort we are so reluctant to give. It took me three or four listens to sink my teeth into the other albums nominated, but each one has proved to be immensely more rewarding than 24K Magic. After all, the albums that challenge us are the ones that stick with us the most, the ones that matter. Hopefully, one day, the Grammys will recognize that.

MusicSteven Norwalk