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25 January 2020updated 25 Jul 2021 7:22am

Why do the Grammys have so many categories?

84 categories seems excessive – but the awards' ever-changing structure reflects its attempts to map the nuances of contemporary music.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

If you tune into the Grammys awards ceremony on Sunday evening, be grateful to learn – as you sit through endless “Here are the nominees…” videos and dramatic pauses following “And the winner is…” – that only a fraction of the available awards are actually televised. The event, broadcast live from Los Angeles’s Staples Center on CBS in the US and YouTubeTV globally, and showcasing winners in around eight categories as well as performances from Lizzo, Billie Eilish, Ariana Grande and Tyler, the Creator, may already seem pretty extensive – but it’s nothing compared to the full list of 84 categories in which prizes will be awarded.

Founded in 1958 by the Recording Academy as the Gramophone Awards (with just 28 categories), the Grammys are the glitziest of music awards. In recent years Lady Gaga arrived onto the red carpet not in a Limo but a giant egg, Radiohead performed “15 Step” with a full University of South Carolina Trojan Marching Band, and Michelle Obama made a surprise onstage cameo.

But in comparison to other highly anticipated US awards ceremonies for which red carpets are rolled out with just as much enthusiasm, its 84 prizes seem excessive. The American Music Awards have 29 categories; the Billboard Music Awards err on the more extravagant side with 57. In film, this year’s Oscars have 24 categories; the Golden Globes have 27. In theatre, the Tony Awards have 30. In the UK, the BAFTAs have 25; the Brits have a modest nine; the Mercury Prize is awarded to just one album each year. 

Of all the awards up for grabs, then, the inflated number of categories works to give the impression that the Grammys are an open-minded institution looking to celebrate modern music at its most diverse. 

On the face of it, there are four “big” Grammy categories, each of which is genre non-specific: “Record of the Year”, “Song of the Year”, “Album of the Year” and “Best New Artist”. If they already sound confusing, allow me to explain: “Album of the Year” is just as it sounds, awarded for a whole album and given to the artist, producer, recording engineer, and mastering engineer. “Record of the Year” is awarded for an individual song and presented to the performing artist and production team. “Song of the Year” is also for an individual track, this time awarded to the songwriter (of the melody and/or lyrics) – it therefore honours the song as composed rather than as recorded. “Best New Artist” is presented to a musician who, “during the eligibility year, releases the recording that first establishes the public identity of that artist”, states the Grammy website. Though that doesn’t necessarily have to be their first album.

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The winners of the big four will be announced during the television broadcast (along with the best albums in R’n’B, country, rock and rap) and will get to make a speech. Those artists whose awards are televised enjoy an almighty boom in sales known as the “Grammy bump”. According to data compiled by NPR, Herbie Hancock saw a 967 per cent sales increase of River: The Joni Letters after it won Album of the Year in 2008.

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Of the other 80 categories, well, the simplest answer to why there are so many is to offer every song released in any given year the opportunity to be a contender in at least one category – so every genre, from Tropical Latin to Choral and Children’s to Urban Contemporary, must be represented. The Grammys’ is a maximalist approach.

A deep dive into Grammys history uncovers some intriguing facts: at its upper limit, the Grammys had 109 categories, a number that was reduced in 2012 to 78, the most significant change being the removal of the distinction between male and female voices (the Oscars, Golden Globes or BAFTAs continue to differentiate between actors and actresses). Since then, it has grown little by little up to 84. With each update, the Grammys attempt to best respond to the wider music culture of any given year, their category and rule changes falling under four main areas.

First, there are the semantic changes: in 2014, “Best Short Form Music Video” became “Best Music Video”, while “Best Long Form Music Video” became “Best Music Film”. Even more pedantically, in 2012, “Best Electronic/Dance Album” was updated to “Best Dance/Electronica Album”, which, in 2015, became “Best Dance/Electronic Album”. “The title of this genre has evolved, and updating it more accurately represents the industry nomenclature of today,” said the Grammy committee. Which seems to mean: between 2012 and 2015, we said “electronica”. But now, for reasons unknown, we’re back to “electronic”.

Other changes mirror shifts in the technology of music. 2017’s rule change to allow recordings released solely through streaming, for example, reflects the Academy’s desire to keep up to speed with how fans are listening to their favourite artists. That year, Chance the Rapper won “Best Rap Album” for Coloring Book, which was neither released physically nor sold digitally – and so would have been ineligible the previous year. In 2015, the rules were updated to allow samples of previously recorded songs in all songwriting categories (before then they were only allowed in the “Best Rap Song” category). Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind”, which samples the 1968 soul ballad “Love on a Two-Way Street”, won “Best Rap Song” in 2011. Had it been released four years later, it would have been a shoe-in for “Song of the Year”.

Most interesting are those changes which shine a light on the way in which genres are expanding and colliding. At their most straightforward, these updates attempt to give every musician working even in the most niche genres the opportunity to win music’s highest accolade. The whole awards structure, the committee claims, “ensures that each genre is treated in parity to others”. 2015’s addition of “Best Gospel Performance/Song”, “Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song” and “Best Roots Gospel Album”, for example, acknowledges the wide variety of music being made within the gospel and Christian traditions. 

When “Best Rap/Sung Collaboration” was renamed “Best/Rap Sung Performance” in the same year, it allowed solo performances into the category, according to the Academy better “reflecting the current state and future trajectory of rap by expanding the category beyond collaborations between rappers and vocalists to include recordings by a solo artist who blurs the lines between rapping and singing.” This decision, it seems, was already behind the times: Drake’s So Far Gone mixtape in 2009 had already exploded the notion that a hit rap song required a rapper to bring the narrative and a singer to provide the emotional effect. Drake did both himself, incorporating “singing as rapping, rapping as singing, singing and rapping all woven together into one holistic whole”, as Jon Caramanica wrote in the New York Times last year. 

Other rule changes explicitly attempt to address issues of social rather than musical diversity. In 2018, Alessia Cara was the only woman to win one of the “main” awards when she took home the gong for “Best New Artist” (Bruno Mars single-handedly swiped “Record of the Year”, “Album of the Year” and “Song of the Year”). In an attempt to provide greater opportunities, the following year the number of nominations for these categories was increased from five to eight. In 2020, two years after the then Recording Academy President Neil Portnow told women to “step up”, Lizzo and Billie Eilish lead the way with the most nominations of any artist.

But there are suggestions of institutional prejudice behind the scenes. As Eve Barlow reports for Vulture, Recording Academy President Deborah Dugan was suspended ten days before this year’s ceremony. This follows a memo, written by Dugan and sent to the Academy HR, detailing numerous complaints about the Academy including allegations of sexual harassment. The Academy cites allegations of misconduct, including bullying. Dugan is the Academy’s first female president and was hired after Portnow’s comments about “stepping up” were met with outcry – he stepped down.

With each slight category change, the Recording Academy attempts to edge closer to a definitive list of the ways in which outstanding musicians, songwriters and performers should be celebrated. As 21st-century music continues to diverge from any expected route, that list will only continue to be revised, and revised.

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