The Self-Inflicted Implosions of the Oscars and the Grammys

This past Tuesday, the Motion Picture Academy formally announced that this year’s Oscars would have no host, after comedian Kevin Hart stepped down following the resurfacing of past homophobic jokes. Remarkably, that is just one of several controversies clouding the ceremony. Even more remarkable was the official response to them: the more, the better. 

It’s a stunningly bad take for the Academy, in this era when awards shows are facing a crisis of relevance. Once a purveyor of buzzy, zeitgeist-capturing moments, the awards ceremony has been pipped by pretty much everything else. Social media, streaming services, politics; they’ve all had a run at the awards, stealing eyeballs and chatter to the tune of millions of viewers. Ratings have dropped across the board, and there has been reckoning with why. Legitimate questions have been raised about whether the works these ceremonies honor is equal and inclusive of all perspectives and identities. #OscarsSoWhite called out a long-unacceptable trend of the Oscars to ignore and pass over filmmakers and actors of color. The Grammys have always struggled to reflect the music of the moment (see Steely Dan and Eminem in 2000), but the last few years have seen artists actively rebel; some don’t attend even when they’re nominated, and others don’t even submit their records for consideration (like Frank Ocean famously did with Blonde). 

The shows’ parent academies have tried in earnest to update: shaken by #OscarsSoWhite, the Motion Academy immediately expanded its membership to diversify its ranks. And yet, the ceremonies are still frustratingly out-of-step with the industries they represent. One would think that, after the backlash to its “Best Popular Film” plans, the Academy would stop messing with its categories. Instead, rumors told of plans to relegate low-profile categories like Costume Design to the commercial breaks, robbing the winners their television moment (it was initially announced alongside Best Popular Film, and was buried beneath its backlash). Filmmakers and Academy members have decried the decision, but it appears to be moving ahead under the guise of creating a more streamlined ceremony. That was the same defense used for allegedly cutting the Original Song performers to just Lady Gaga and Kendrick Lamar. The decision was reversed, but only because of Gaga reportedly refused to perform without her fellow nominees. Her and Bradley Cooper’s first televised performance of ”Shallow” is one of the most highly anticipated of the year, and would certainly be one of the evening’s highlights. A refusal to perform would be deeply embarrassing for the Academy. Lamar, nominated for “All The Stars” with R&B singer SZA, appears to be over the politics either way: he is reportedly refusing to perform altogether

Credit: Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

The Motion Picture Academy’s slights don’t end there. Instead of having last year’s winners like Frances McDormand and Gary Oldman present in their respective categories as is tradition, the Academy reportedly planned to have “bigger names”, like Jennifer Lopez and Chris Evans, present instead. Although the Academy walked back this decision as well, it’s a slap in the face, one that left last year’s Best Supporting Actress winner Allison Janney “heartbroken”, according to Vanity Fair. Aside from the unforgivable crime of upsetting an industry legend, the Academy’s actions have shown utter disregard, even contempt, for its audience. Amidst the growing furor around these changes, the Academy’s Twitter account has played it like a game show, doling out information as if people weren’t genuinely concerned that the ceremony was being gutted. During a TCA 2019 executive session this past week, president of ABC Entertainment Karey Burke touted the telecast’s planned “brisk” three-hour runtime and a special opening number, joking that “we are not going to go straight into people thanking their agents.” It’s an obnoxious, tone-deaf sentiment: the Oscars are about paying tribute to film’s inimitable impact on our culture, or at least that’s what the Academy likes to remind us every year with its self-flagellating clips packages (which actually deserve to be on the chopping block). One reason why people complain about long running times is because the Oscars are removed from the film culture it claims to represent. It’s the same issue that led to the unfortunate “Best Popular Film” debacle. Instead of focusing on that real issue, the Academy is creating solutions to problems it doesn’t have, viewers and industry folk be damned. The last time the Academy so thoroughly misread its target, also the last time there was no host, Snow White and Rob Lowe sang “Proud Mary” on stage and legends like Julie Andrews and Paul Newman were ready to revolt.

The Recording Academy, still scrambling to pull together its Grammy ceremony for Sunday, is in worse straits. Variety reported this week that double nominee Ariana Grande has pulled out of performing and attending the Grammys. The reason given is that the show’s producers wouldn’t allow her to perform “7 Rings”, currently the #1 song in the country. The producers’ refusal to grant Grande artistic control has left a gaping hole in the ceremony’s setlist, which already suffers from relatively low wattage. Make of it what you will, but Ariana Grande was one of the biggest pop acts attending the ceremony, and her absence is a devastating blow to the Recording Academy’s insistence that it still matters. Also missing this year: Drake, Jay-Z and Beyoncé (together or apart), Kendrick Lamar, Taylor Swift, Childish Gambino, Ed Sheeran, and Justin Timberlake. Lady Gaga is doing them a favor by skipping the BAFTAs and jumping in at the last minute to perform a song that isn’t “Shallow”. Already deemed irrelevant by several artists fed up with Grammys’ consistent failure to align with the time, it is inconceivably stupid that the Recording Academy would risk losing a marquee act over a performance of a song currently at the top of the charts. Again, it is a noxious blend of arrogance and ignorance, an unwillingness to take a temperature of the cultural climate and maybe, just maybe, plan accordingly.

The Oscars and Grammys live and breathe on relevance and prestige: if they don’t reflect their industries, then they are no use to anyone. Reflection is not possible if you don’t listen to those you claim to speak for. If the Motion Picture Academy listened, they would’ve known that cutting categories, nominated songs and presenters from the telecast was a disgrace. If the Recording Academy had listened, they would’ve known that the pop star of the moment might’ve deserved a little deference, and maybe a nomination or two in the top categories. Both bodies seem to have different approaches to maintaining their value: the Oscars want to modernize, while the Grammys value rigid tradition. Their executions are equally awful, and the chaos they are causing will only hasten their downfalls.

If and when the day comes when these accolades are announced via Tweet, if at all, they will only have themselves to blame.

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