Why the Grammys Don't Matter
About this time five years ago, I was driving around with the radio tuned to a classic rock station when whatever super-computer Clear Channel uses to program its stations decided it was time for "Heart of Gold." "That was Neil Young," the DJ bantered afterwards. "Congrats to him for winning his first ever Grammy last night."
"Seriously?," I thought. "It's 2009 and Neil Young just got his first Grammy? He didn't get anything for 'Harvest Moon' or 'Rockin' in the Free World' or 'Ohio?' Nothing for Harvest, one of the biggest albums of the '70s?" Clearly, AllMusic.com had to be consulted.
Conveniently, each artist in AllMusic's massive database has all their Billboard chart peaks and Grammy wins listed under a tab on their profile marked "awards." The DJ was correct; until Young's win that winter in a very minor category (Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package), the Grammys had never given anything--not even an award in some genre category for rock or folk--to one of the most prolific and interesting singer/songwriters ever, and someone who didn't exactly fly under the radar. I started typing in other names compulsively.
Young is not the only insanely important and commercially visible artist who went ignored for decades. The Rolling Stones didn't win a Grammy until 1995. Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, the Allman Brothers Band and Pink Floyd all also waited until the '90s. (Floyd and the Allmans both won in the same since-deleted category: Best Rock Instrumental Performance, nothing for either's seminal '70s work.)
David Bowie didn't win until 1985 (and his only Grammy to date is for a music video), Smokey Robinson not until 1988 and John Coltrane not until 1981. Documentaries about The Clash and Lou Reed, respectively, have won Grammys, but neither ever won for their music. Marvin Gaye and Kurt Cobain were both dead before they got a Grammy and John Lennon was deceased before getting one for his solo career. If you were to judge from his wins, Bob Dylan's first noteworthy song wasn't "Blowin' in the Wind" or "Like a Rolling Stone," but "Gotta Serve Somebody," for which he got his first Grammy, in 1980.
Then there is the staggering list of incredible artists who've never won: The Band, the Beach Boys, Bjork, the Byrds, Sam Cooke, Cream, Credence Clearwater Revival, the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield, Notorious B.I.G., Queen, the Ramones, Diana Ross, Run DMC, Sly and the Family Stone, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, 2pac and The Who.
A caveat to these lists: Some of these artists did eventually get a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, despite never getting an award for any of the work that stacked up to make them worthy of a Lifetime Achievement Award--which just proves the point; the Grammys rarely notice monumental music until years after it's obvious. This isn't just failing to catch the Stooges or Hüsker Dü when they were together or not getting Sigur Ros. This is a track record that misses three quarters of the people who matter when they matter.