Entertainment

Can the Grammys and the Oscars Believe Their Own Awards Matter Again?

Katey Rich: Erin, as someone who covered the Grammys for us here at Vanity Fair and follows the music industry very closely in general, I feel like you had a lot of reasons to feel smug last night. The Grammys—with their musical performances, wild fashions, and inevitably eye-popping mix of celebrities—often find a way to outshine the Oscars in audience satisfaction, if not in ratings. And with the Grammys coming just a week after one of the most notorious Oscars in history, the contrast this year was especially stark. Yes, of course there were Will Smith jokes. But more than that, the loose and energetic appeal of the Grammys felt more on display than ever, compared to the sweaty-palmed efforts of the Oscars just last week to get through 16 live categories and squeeze in a James Bond tribute and get the whole thing under three hours. (They didn’t succeed on that last one anyway.)

Asking the Oscars to be more like the Grammys is unfair, of course, and it’s not something we’d really want anyway—in an ideal, healthy awards show ecosystem, each one has its own identity and offers something unique. But Erin, I get the sense that you saw the Grammys struggling too. Why do you think the Grammys might be suffering some of the same existential threat as the Oscars—and, as part of a perhaps dying breed of people who actually love the shows, what can we do to get them out of this spiral?

Erin Vanderhoof: Last night’s Grammys were a fun few hours, and they seemed to at least pause their perpetual spiral, though they didn’t necessarily fix it. With a relatively new production team, the show nailed a few things that the Grammys have struggled with in the past. They had the biggest people in pop music—Lil Nas X, Olivia Rodrigo, BTS, J Balvin, Silk Sonic, Billie Eilish, and more—onstage playing their most beloved recent hits. They put a huge production budget to good use, kept the throwback references tight and relevant, and even the slower-paced parts of the schedule—the Stephen Sondheim medley over the “In Memoriam” section and the John Legend x Volodymyr Zelenskyy tribute to Ukraine—never veered into the maudlin.

Over the last few years, the Grammys have been diminished by internal turmoil (a variety of unsavory allegations about the Recording Academy) and global turmoil (SARS-Cov-2), so it wasn’t a given that they could even get that far. But they clearly lacked an element of fun, spontaneity, and a real reason for existing. The wins were a part of it. It was hard to feel enthusiasm for Silk Sonic’s wins for “Leave the Door Open,” a song that, not coincidentally, made its television premiere during last year’s Grammys ceremony. The length was another part of it. By the time Jon Batiste took home album of the year for a perfectly good set of songs that didn’t make too many waves, three and a half hours had passed, and the final performance by the Brothers Osborne was too much even for me, one of their biggest fans.

Live-TV ratings have collapsed across the board, for sports events and reality-TV finales alike. For awards shows, it seems like the response has been devaluing the awards themselves, by shunting them to earlier ceremonies. During the telecast, nine awards were handed out, with another 77 given out earlier in the day. For the Grammys, paying less attention to what is being awarded has always made for a much better viewing experience. I remember staying up late for years like 2001, when Steely Dan won album of the year, 2003’s Norah Jones domination, 2008’s Herbie Hancock extravaganza, and 2009, when Alison Krauss and Robert Plant did a sweep. All fine stuff, but slightly bizarre in the years when Jay-Z, Timbaland, Kanye West, and many more amazing artists were revolutionizing the pop charts.

But between the Oscars and the Grammys, it feels like we’ve crossed some sort of rubicon where the awards themselves seem inscrutable to the public, yet the telecasts are certainly not appointment viewing. The Recording Academy has dealt with the divide between what it likes and what real people listen to by adding a nearly infinite number of categories, which seems to have made it worse. Every solution that the Oscars have tried, like floating a popular-film category or the fan-favorite award, has seemed clueless and condescending. Katey, you’re the expert on this stuff—is there any way that the awards themselves can become more relevant to the mainstream without seeming like a gimmick?

Rich: You’ve really nailed this inherent conflict in awards shows that’s been there seemingly since they started being televised. There are the awards themselves, which go to projects that can be more than a year old or artists who aren’t especially relevant, but then there’s the demand to be a television spectacle, a task that seems to only get more difficult by the year. For all the challenges the Oscars have faced when rewarding movies that few people have seen (who could have guessed Nomadland wouldn’t be a huge ratings driver?!), the Grammys may very well have it worse—I like Jon Batiste and had no idea he released a new album last year. And you’re right, Erin, that adding an infinite number of categories doesn’t really help much if you’re not including those categories on the broadcast.

It seems that the Grammys have solved the problem by essentially going all in on spectacle and making the awards an afterthought, while the Oscars are basically stuck trying to do both at the same time. I imagine Oscar producers are puzzled by how the Grammys get away with awarding dozens of statues off the air, while shunting eight categories to an untelevised preshow this year led to an outright revolt. But it makes me think that the true strength of the Oscars might just be the actual awards, and they should lean into that! They’re never going to have as many musical performances as the Grammys, or even the Tonys, God help them. But the breathless, career-high moment of winning an Oscar makes for excellent television if you let it happen. With all due respect to Bruno Mars, I’m just not sure I can get emotionally invested in his taking home yet another Grammy the same way.



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