The Grammys are America's worst awards show

It turns out the show could be a whole lot more illegitimate than anyone had imagined

A grammy.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Nerthuz / Alamy Stock Photo, Nenov/iStock)

Getting worked up about awards shows is usually a fool's errand. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter that The Artist, a bad movie, beat out The Tree of Life, a good movie, at the 84th Academy Awards. That being said, I'll complain about it until the heat death of the universe. Because sure, awards shows are just glitzy marketing tools — an excuse to attach "Oscar-nominated" or "two-time Emmy award winner" to someone's introduction into perpetuity — but arguing about them is a lot of fun, and nothing beats that pregnant pause on TV after "and the winner is..."

There's a caveat though: It's only fun if you can get invested, and the only way to get invested is if the award has an ounce of legitimacy. Even if you think their opinions are terrible, you have to trust the voting bodies are trying earnestly and fairly to honor the best works of the year. The Grammys, "music's biggest night," has long struggled to convince anyone of this; music insiders have murmured for years about the whole ceremony being a charade. And now, in a scandal threatening to kill off the last of the Grammys' respectability, it turns out the show could be a whole lot more illegitimate than anyone had imagined.

In a bombshell interview on Thursday, the recently-ousted head of the Recording Academy, Deborah Dugan, claimed on Good Morning America to have proof there are "conflicts of interest" that "taint the results" of the Grammy Awards. She further alleged members of the nomination committee "push forward artists with whom they have relationships" and it's "not unusual for artists who have relationships with board members and who ranked at the bottom of the initial 20-artist list to end up receiving nominations," Billboard reported. Dugan was the first female president of the Grammys before she was put on leave last week for "bullying," and she claims she was actually pushed out for sending a damning memo to the HR department of the Academy, which included everything from allegations of being sexually harassed by the organization's general counsel, to asserting that artists Ed Sheehan and Ariana Grande were bumped from making the 2019 Song of the Year nominees due to the influence of a secret committee that tinkers with the results. The Grammys have vehemently denied any corruption.

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But Dugan's allegations appeared to confirm a long-suspected rot of sexism behind the Recording Academy's closed doors. The awards show has historically struggled to treat male and female artists equally, even spurring a hashtag, #GrammysSoMale, in 2018. Only 9.3 percent of nominees between 2013 and 2018 were female, a disparity that then-Recording Academy president Neil Portnow told Variety was essentially the women's fault, and that they needed to "step up." Part of Dugan's complaint also referred to an "outstanding allegation of rape against Portnow made by a female recording artist," Vulture writes (Portnow has denied the charge) and that such alleged abuses were "all made possible by the 'boys' club' mentality and approach to governance at the Academy." It goes without saying that any organization that fails to support women artists in 2020 has no business serving as an authority on the industry in the first place, a fact that is also threatening the modern Academy Awards.

The other part of Dugan's complaint is also worrisome — the talk of a "secret committee" that tinkers with the nominees after they've already been voted on by the rest of the 12,000 member body. This anonymous "Nominations Review Committee" was first established in 1995 after The 3 Tenors in Concert 1994 was nominated for Best Pop Album. The Review Committee essentially reflects on the top nominees to emerge in the Best New Artist and Album, Record, and Song of the Year categories and makes adjustments if it sees the initial results as dissatisfactory. "The idea ... was to make the final nominations more progressive; more musically adventurous," writes Billboard. But because of the lack of transparency, as well as the lack of clarity around what would lead the Review Committee to intercede and how often it does so, we have little to go off of other than Dugan's unconfirmed but believable claim that board members boost their friends, rendering the entire Grammy Awards results a farce.

The Grammys' methods have been questioned for years, though; Dugan's report only adds credence to fears that have already been voiced. Take the introduction of the "Best Urban Contemporary Album" award in 2013, which "is seemingly designed to compartmentalize black artists," according to The Establishment. In 2015, for example, all of the Urban Contemporary artists were black, including Beyoncé, Chris Brown, and Pharrell Williams, despite them also making pop music — and yet the top nominees for Best Pop Vocal Album were all white that year, Boston's WBUR reports. Additionally, as if to prove that the awards are totally meaningless, in 2013 the virtually unknown artist Al Walser earned a nomination for Best Dance Single against Avicii, Calvin Harris, Skrillex, and Swedish House Mafia (all of whom had appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 that year) after marketing himself on "Grammy 365, a private social networking website for voting members of the Recording Academy," NPR writes. Campaigning for awards is nothing unusual, but "[Walser's] song's clunky rock/trance fusion and low-budget video make Rebecca Black's 'Friday' sound and look cutting-edge in comparison," wrote Spin. Walser's effort had basically revealed the Recording Academy could be hijacked by anyone with an understanding of social media optimization, regardless of the quality of their music.

Admittedly, no awards show will ever be perfect: Citizen Kane, widely considered to be the best movie ever made, only won a screenplay award at the 1942 Oscars, and Jerry Seinfeld never took home a statuette for his show about nothing at the Emmys. But the Grammys' history of goofs just seems, somehow, dumber than everyone else's: Look at 1970, when the Recording Academy believed with conviction that Blood, Sweat and Tears' self-titled release was a better album than The Beatles' Abbey Road, Johnny Cash's At San Quentin, and Crosby, Stills, & Nash. Or 1995 when Tony Bennett's MTV Unplugged won Album of the Year but Nirvana's MTV Unplugged wasn't even nominated. You don't even need the benefit of hindsight in most cases: When Macklemore and Ryan Lewis beat out Kendrick Lamar for Best New Artist in 2014, the mistake was immediately obvious. As WBUR recounts, "it was the difference between a talented-but-blandly-agreeable emcee rapping over sugary earworms (Macklemore) and a virtuosic visionary precipitating the revival of story-oriented hip-hop with an ode to a childhood growing up tough in Compton (Lamar)." Even Macklemore knew it was wrong.

Aside from maybe watching celebrities dance awkwardly during sets, or waiting for Kanye West to say something that offends everybody, I can't see any other reason to watch the Grammys anymore. Certainly not for the awards themselves — which, long having been a joke, now feel more like an insult to the intelligence of fans and the hard work of the artists it supposedly honors.

Because if an awards show isn't legitimate, it isn't fun, and in that case, why bother with it at all?

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Jeva Lange

Jeva Lange was the executive editor at She formerly served as The Week's deputy editor and culture critic. She is also a contributor to Screen Slate, and her writing has appeared in The New York Daily News, The Awl, Vice, and Gothamist, among other publications. Jeva lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.