Though the awards won’t be handed out until January, the Recording Academy has announced the nominations for the 2022 GRAMMY Awards and I’ve got a bone to pick with them. Before anyone says anything, no, it doesn’t have anything to do with Taylor Swift. Well, maybe a little, but only indirectly.
See, last year, the Recording Academy got a lot of praise when their “Best Rock Performance” category featured six nominees, all of whom happened to be women, for the first time in history. The nominees included Phoebe Bridgers for “Kyoto,” Big Thief for “Not,” HAIM for “The Steps,” Fiona Apple for “Shameika,” Grace Potter for “Daylight,” and Brittany Howard for “Stay High.”
This year, things seem to be back to normal, the “Rock” category is once again dominated by men, not a single woman has managed to sneak into any of the “Best Rock Performance,” “Best Metal Performance,” “Best Rock Song,” or “Best Rock Album” categories.
Look, I’m not a person who believes that quotas are strictly necessary when it comes to award shows. I’m not saying there should be a category for “Best Female Rock Song,” or anything like that, but I’ve gotta wonder, where did all the girls go?
This year’s rock categories feature the usual suspects of AC/DC, Foo Fighters, Weezer, and Paul McCartney in all of the performance, song, and album categories. I just absolutely refuse to believe that this is the best that rock music had to offer this year.
It has long been said that the reason men and bands fronted by men dominate certain categories is because statistically, there are fewer women in certain genres. Fewer women release rock records, so fewer women are nominated for rock awards. In 2021 though, I think it’s worth considering that maybe the problem is, at least in part, the way that we categorize music for shows like these.
Genre is fluid and ever evolving, rock music especially. It’s defined by many for its experimentation. Rock artists have always played with the form and pushed the boundaries of music and genre. When the nominations came out, I took a look through the list. I found myself disappointed when I scrolled through the rock category because I thought that one of my favourite bands, Japanese Breakfast, had been totally snubbed. As I scrolled further though, I found that the band had been nominated for “Best Alternative Music Album” for Jubilee.
What makes Japanese Breakfast “alternative” in comparison to the nominees in the rock categories? Sure, when you think about rock music, you probably picture the strong guitar of AC/DC over the mixture of synth and horns that Japanese Breakfast uses, but does that necessarily mean that Japanese Breakfast isn’t rock? Does the experimentation negate the fact that Japanese Breakfast are described (both by themselves and others) as a rock band?
Rock music is characterized by many as a genre that embraces experimentation, yet, when it comes to these award shows, it seems like the only people allowed to experiment are the ones who have dominated and owned the genres for years. Paul McCartney is up for “Best Rock Album” for McCartney III, and while I mean no disrespect to what is a very good album, McCartney is given an amount of freedom when it comes to genres that other, less established artists aren’t. If Paul McCartney wants to collaborate with Phoebe Bridgers or add horns sections to his new album, that’s perfectly fine; we’ll still think of him as a rockstar, he’s Paul McCartney after all.
Experimenting with the form and blurring lines between genres seems to be a privilege only extended to the kinds of artists and bands that have already been dominating their categories. For People of Colour, for women, for anyone who’s not a white guy, experimentation is the fastest way to have your music brushed aside as, “not real rock.”
It’s not just the rock categories though, and it’s not just the GRAMMYs. We saw it in 2018 when the country music charts removed Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” from Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart because it was determined not to be “country enough.” Kacey Musgraves was disqualified from the country categories at this year’s GRAMMYs because her most recent album did not get past the country screening committee who determined that her album belongs in the pop categories.
When it comes to the categorization of music, things will never be black and white. Part of making art and being an artist is constantly pushing boundaries and genre blurring, crossing, and breaking are long-standing traditions across all art forms. When people who are traditionally underrepresented in certain categories are further excluded for acts of experimentation that those who are overrepresented are rewarded for making, there’s a problem. When that happens, we end up categorizing art, not based on what it is, but based on who is making it.