The Grammys has never been an arbiter of taste—even when they get it “right,” it appears to be accidental, like a broken clock being right twice a day. So if we’re to prescribe any value to the parade of pomp & circumstance that the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences puts on every year, it’s that it’s meant to be a reflection of the music industry over the past year.
And in some ways, it is. The winner’s podium during the televised broadcast was curiously devoid of women, with Alessia Cara as the only woman solo artist presented with a gramophone trophy. As Janelle Monáe tweeted, from 2013-2018, only 9.3 percent of nominees were women.
But if the Grammys are supposed to represent the songs and artists that had the biggest impact on the market—if not the culture—then what’s the excuse for Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s empty hands? “Despacito” was one of those songs so massive it crossed every cultural barrier to ubiquity on its way to becoming the “most streamed song in history.” It’s even been credited with boosting Puerto Rico’s economy, driving an increase in tourism to the U.S. commonwealth by 45 percent. Yet despite being nominated for three awards – including Song of the Year and Record of the Year – the academy decided that the biggest song of 2017 deserved exactly zero Grammys.
“Despacito” was one of those songs so massive it crossed every cultural barrier to ubiquity on its way to becoming the “most streamed song in history.”
This tells us a few things, none of them new, and none of them encouraging. First and foremost, it’s clear that “Latin” music is still very much segregated from the rest of the industry. The fact that the Latin Grammys (where “Despacito” took home four trophies) exists serves almost as an industry-sanctioned reason to exclude Latinx acts from the Anglo Grammys, for the same reason that Latinx-centric festivals give bookers a reason to exclude Latinx acts from tentpole festivals. It’s the same separate-but-certainly-not-equal ghettoization that has plagued people of color from time immemorial.
The song was hailed for much of last year for flipping the script on the traditional “crossover” narrative, achieving its lofty heights not with an English-language version or remix, but with an Anglo pop star (Justin Bieber) singing his verse in Spanish. But the Grammys whiff suggests that even though the U.S. market has proven itself receptive to Spanish-language hits, the industry’s gatekeepers would still prefer the Spanish-speakers stay in their lane. Unless you’re ready to whitewash your style a la Ricky Martin or Shakira, the academy just isn’t interested.
Of course, none of this should come as a surprise to anyone paying attention. The academy is notoriously exclusionary, and still refuses to recognize hip-hop as a genre worthy of equal footing with pop, rock, country, and even R&B. And its perspective on women is also abhorrent, withholding a solo performance from Album of the Year nominee Lorde—the only woman nominated, and the only artist excluded—so they could squeeze in multiple performances from Sting and U2, neither of which were nominated, for any award. The importance of a Grammys win is debatable, but what’s not is the academy’s feigned ignorance of how many people in the U.S. speak Spanish, or listen to music in Spanish. It may be that even if the Grammys don’t reflect the music we consume and support, that it does indeed reflect the opinions and perspectives of the industry’s gatekeepers and power brokers, the architects of the structural segregation of Latinx people in mainstream markets.
Ultimately, the “Despacito” snub is just another in a long line of signs indicating the Grammys’ fading relevance. It’s ripe for replacement by another institution more willing to reflect the diversity of the culture, to call out the structural barriers that silence marginalized voices, and offer a glimpse of what the industry could be, rather than a celebration of the oppressive status quo. Because an awards show that doesn’t actually award the biggest song of the year isn’t just useless, it’s actively disingenuous. And it’s unlikely to change, unless the stars with the most agency speak up, or opt out.