The sporting case for the Grammy Awards

The Grammys are to pop music what the Super Bowl is to sports

It is perhaps possible to take the Grammy Awards seriously. But only if you stop worrying about them.

Consider, for a moment, the National Football League.

The NFL is presently the premier professional sports league in North America: a multi-billion-dollar cultural institution that can claim, in the Super Bowl, the biggest single sporting event on the planet. Its athletes are among the world’s most exceptional and most beloved. But success in the NFL is not the ultimate standard of sporting achievement. The NFL does not define the concept of sport. In fact, no league, tournament or event—not even the Olympics—does. And it is generally understood that it is impossible to compare athletes of different leagues and disciplines—any discussion of “the world’s greatest athlete” generally defined by he or she who dominates their particular competition most spectacularly. (Tiger Woods, for instance, wasn’t ever as fast or as strong as any number of Olympians, football players or basketball players. But he was, by virtue of his unique excellence in golf, in the conversation as the best athlete in the world.)

The Grammys are, in a way, the NFL of music—the most glamourous and popular league, but by no means the ultimate standard of achievement. It is merely the leading spectacle—classier than the MTV Music Video Awards, less British than the Brit Awards, less insufferable than critical acclaim. As Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Walter Payton, Jerry Rice and Lawrence Taylor don’t define the last 50 years of sport, nor do Georg Solti, Quincy Jones, Alison Krauss, U2 and Stevie Wonder—the most honoured musicians in Grammy history—define the last half century of music.

This will appease neither the Recording Academy (that selfishly claims the Grammys as the pinnacle of achievement in modern music), nor the critics (who selfishly moan that it is nothing of the sort), but the Grammys only become more interesting the less you worry about how much they matter. Taken as it is own universe, the Grammy Awards are full of curiosity and intrigue, not unlike any professional sports league with its own heroes, preoccupations and lore. The most honoured individual in Grammy history, Solti with 31 awards, worked for three decades as the conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The most honoured performer is, somehow, the bluegrass singer and fiddler Alison Krauss. The most celebrated albums of all time are U2’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb and Santana’s Supernatural, each with nine awards, neither otherwise making anyone’s list of the most noteworthy records of the late 20th century. The only artist to ever win Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Best New Artist in the same season is Christopher Cross in 1981—probably making Sailing one of the most unique achievements in the history of humanity.

In the grand scheme of music all of this might seem preposterous, or at least besides the point. In the realm of the Grammys, they are legitimate records of success, akin to Dan Marino’s 5,084 passing yards in 1984.

Last night’s ceremony opened with Lady Gaga and Elton John paying homage to each other. Green Day, who first got famous singing about masturbation and other testaments to boredom, performed with the cast of the musical that’s based on American Idiot, their concept album about the decline of Western civilization. No one seemed to find this hilarious. Pink did a half-nude Cirque de Soleil routine. Beyonce, flanked by a SWAT team, performed Alanis Morissette’s You Oughta Know. Jamie Foxx was backed-up by a trio of T-Pain, Keith Sweat and Slash. And then Céline Dion, Carrie Underwood, Usher, Jennifer Hudson and Smokey Robinson sang with the disembodied voice of Michael Jackson. In 3D. (Or, if you were watching at home without the necessary glasses, multi-coloured blurriness.)

It was pop music as sporting event: chaotic, competitive and strangely athletic.

Success at the Grammys is dependent on a particular mix of popularity, quality, inoffensiveness, reputation and familiarity. And, for the last decade at least, femininity. In 1999, Lauryn Hill led the night with five awards, a feat subsequently matched by Alicia Keys in 2002, Norah Jones in 2003, Beyonce in 2004, the Dixie Chicks in 2007, Amy Winehouse in 2008 and Krauss in 2009. There is probably any number of explanations for this, but it probably doesn’t help that Justin Timberlake, the era’s only worthy male pop star, has hosted Saturday Night Live more times than he’s released albums (3 to 2).

This year, wholesome teen princess Taylor Swift won four—including a somewhat surprising win for Album of the Year—but Beyonce topped herself and all other female artists with six. She is now the pop music equivalent of Peyton Manning, obsessive, relentless, efficient and seemingly without a flaw to exploit.

And she can now fairly claim to be the biggest pop star on the planet. Even if, for her career, she remains a full nine awards behind Alison Krauss’ 27. Which is sort of interesting. Even if the Grammys don’t matter all that much anyway.