If there’s one Grammy category that reflects the state of the music industry this year it’s the Record of the Year, one of the four most prestigious awards handed out by the Recording Academy. Given to “honour artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to sales or chart position”, the award has long reflected the sentiment of the US-based recording industry as to the dominant taste of the moment and which artists are at the industry’s cutting edge.
And that is why this year’s nominees represent a troubling trend in the Anglo-American music industry; a palpable lessening in the standards by academy members for what constitutes the height of songwriting craft and performance and – whatever description the category might still retain – a consideration of popularity and monetary impact above that of artistic achievement
The nominated songs for Record of the Year include Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”, Sia’s “Chandelier”, Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me”, Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” and Meghan Trainor’s “All About the Bass”.
These songs have been huge hits, even by contemporary standards, garnering more than half-a-billion views each of their official YouTube videos. In theory, a third of the earth’s population might have heard the nominees. If that is not the case, it’s undeniable that an unparalleled number of people have heard the song.
The problem is that these songs represent the most simplistic songwriting techniques imaginable. Azalea’s “Fancy” can hardly be called a song in a meaningful sense. It’s a synth bass line with a vocal over it that is barely sung and no arrangement, harmony, or movement whatsoever as it progresses from start to finish.
Ignoring the tired and crass materialism of the lyrics, and even the accusation of appropriation of black American cultural and language (an accusation that became more heated when Azalea, like most white artists, remained largely silent in the wake of the spate of shootings of unarmed African Americans by police in 2014), the reality is that however catchy the song might be, or even fun to dance to or boom out of one’s car stereo, it’s frighteningly inexplicable that a large share of professional musicians in the US would see it as an example of “artistic achievement” and “overall excellence”. What bar does that set for pop music more broadly?
Trainor’s “All About the Bass” certainly has a much more uplifting and clever message – using the metaphor of musical frequency to celebrate fuller body types than the ones that continue to dominate most aspects of the entertainment industry, even if a so-called “plus size” model finally graces the pages of the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated.
And the tune is undeniably catchy. But again, from a musical perspective, to consider it an exemplar of artistic achievement and excellence would seem a very big leap of the critical imagination. Yes, the vocal at least has a melody and the song does include changes in chords – unlike Azalea’s song, which has neither – but they are incredibly simple, repetitious and undeveloped, even by the minimalist standards of much (although not all) contemporary dance/electro-inspired pop music.
If the music industry is going to grow and thrive, it needs to bring artists at the cutting edge of global popular music - from Nigerian rappers to Colombian rockers, Indonesian punks to Egyptian metalheads, much more into the mainstream of the Euro-American dominated music community in the West.
Swift’s “Shake it Off”, offers an even more egregious example of an artist with a well-known and developed level of song-writing talent producing a track that seems deliberately simplified to appeal to the lowest musical or aesthetic denominator.
Of course, as do all artists, Swift has every right to write and produce a song like “Shake it Off”, smile all the way to the bank, and bring home an American Music, Billboard and/or MTV award in recognition of its success.
But the Grammys are supposed to stand, as the description for Record of the Year attests, for something far deeper and ultimately separate from chart success, airplay on YouTube, or even “viral” views. What happens when even Swift understands that the bar to Grammy success has been lowered this far?
Of the five nominees, Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me” and Sia’s “Chandelier” have likely received the greatest critical recognition. Smith’s song reveals one of the most emotionally infused new voices in a generation, and carries a simple yet affective melody that is almost impossible not to sing, regardless of one’s age, background or taste in music.
No harmonic development
But again, the song has no harmonic, melodic, structural or aural development. Sia’s “Chandelier” is in fact the only nominee that can boast any harmonic movement, but it’s not so easy to imagine how she could win over the juggernauts represented by the other entries.
It’s worth noting that a song doesn’t have to include prog-rock-like chord changes and arranging to possess a level of movement and development worthy of recognition. We can compare this year’s Record of the Year entries to Pharrell Williams smash hit “Happy”, which surprisingly wasn’t nominated for this category.
While on the surface it might seem like a standard, albeit catchy pop song, its catchiness owes in good measure to a very sophisticated underlying harmonic structure that sees a lot of movement within and between chords, including an unusual move between major and minor variants of the same root chord, and a move towards a jazz-inspired progression in the chorus.
Similarly, last year’s most celebrated song, Williams’ collaboration with Daft Punk and Nile Rogers “Get Lucky”, pulls off the equally interesting and difficult trick of being in two keys at the same time, which creates the harmonic and melodic tension that drives the song.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Mikael Wood argues that the Grammys biggest problem this is year is its snub of the music most pre-teen girls love, including One Direction and the soundtrack to the movie Frozen. It is true that both productions are far more sophisticated and musically rich than the majority of the Record of the Year nominees.
Expanding its base
But the problem with the Grammys today is not that as a “trade group” it’s shooting itself in the foot by not celebrating, or at least recognising, the tastes of a core group of consumers (in fact, the Grammys are sponsored by the Recording Academy; the trade group is the Recording Industry Association of America). Rather, it’s the idea that expanding its base of support can and should be achieved by becoming more inclusive of other huge Euro-American artists.
In reality, if the music industry is going to grow and thrive, it needs to bring artists at the cutting edge of global popular music – from Nigerian rappers to Colombian rockers, Indonesian punks to Egyptian metalheads, much more into the mainstream of the Euro-American dominated music community in the West.
The future of so much popular music clearly lies in the global south. But even as artists like MIA and K’naan have broken through to the A-list of hip hop (undoubtedly pop music’s most globalised genre), the immense richness of global pop still remains outside the grasp of most mainstream artists, while the musicians from these scenes find it extremely difficult to penetrate western markets other than as tokens or sidekicks, or relegated to ghettoised categories like the increasingly irrelevant “world music”.
For the sake of fans and aspiring artists the world over, and the future of the Grammys as an award of artistic distinction and excellence, academy members need both to toughen their standards and open themselves far more comprehensively to the rich musical heritages unfolding all around them.
Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.