It's time to abolish award shows

Image credit: Sebastian Ervi via Pexels

Awards season, in my opinion, is reminiscent of one of those old relatives you dread seeing at your next family reunion. You’re unsure who invited them – or if they were even invited at all – but they show up regardless, harbouring tales of showdowns with fellow elders at the bingo, or the latest hot gossip from the next-door neighbour. Harmless enough, but irritating beyond belief.

Thankfully, these detested family gatherings were put on hold for a while. If there is one good thing to come out of COVID-19, it’s that we were spared from seeing that bothersome relative for 12 whole months (excluding the occasional zoom call, but we can’t have everything, can we?). In a similar fashion, we pressed pause on awards season for a short while, and could then rest easy knowing our timelines would be free from drama.

One way that relatives and awards shows aren’t alike is in their impact. Family members might be an annoyance, but it’s unlikely they hold any ill intentions towards us with their tedious chitchat. The same cannot be said for awards  ceremonies. The 2021 awards season has come and gone and I can’t help but feel that this whole debacle is something we should have left in our pre-pandemic past.

For the uninitiated, awards time typically occurs between January and May, the biggest names of the season being the Grammys, the Academy Awards (Oscars), and the Golden Globes. The Recording Academy of the Grammys state that they are “dedicated to celebrating, honoring, and sustaining music’s past, present and future”. The Oscars echo similar sentiments when detailing the purpose of their ceremonies, saying they grant the “highest honors in filmmaking”.

But, nowadays, awards shows have been warped into something else entirely. They’ve moved away from recognizing musical or creative talent and have begun to recognize other things – whether you’re white, whether you’re a man, etc. Qualities that really have no bearing on one’s ability to make art. Awards shows have now become a way for the industry to discreetly discriminate.

Perhaps one of the most prominent ceremonies here in the UK is the BRITs, which took place this year on 11th May. These awards are renowned for their controversies, most commonly a few crude jokes or an unfortunate mishap on stage. But, in recent years, there has been a different point of conflict: the diversity and inclusivity at the BRITs… or, rather, the lack thereof.

The first thing to garner criticism was the nominees list for the ’19/20 session. There were 25 places up for grabs across all mixed gender categories, and yet Mabel was the only female artist to be put forward. Miley Cyrus (who identifies as genderfluid) and Normani were also nominated, but only as featured artists, on the tracks of Mark Ronson and Sam Smith respectively. It would have been nice to see more women individually recognized for their own solo work.

Speaking of Sam Smith, they were also not exempt from the exclusion. Their album Love Goes would have been eligible for an award in this year’s ceremony, but they were denied a nomination due to their gender identity falling outside of the rigorously upheld binary gender categories.

It is clear that the BRITs still have a long way to go in making these awards more inclusive. But, we must give credit where credit is due. And it would be untrue to say that the BRITs had not significantly improved this year.

2021 at the BRITs was the year of women. Four out of the five mixed gender categories were won by women, and anything less would have been criminal when you look at the artists who have dominated the British music scene in recent months. From Megan Thee Stallion, to Arlo Parks, to HAIM, it has been an incredible year for female artists – proven further when Taylor Swift took home the award for Global Icon and became the first woman to ever hold the title.

The highlight of the night was when Little Mix were announced as this year’s Best British Group, making them the first all-girl group in history to win the award. They used their acceptance speech to give thanks and recognition to older groups such as the Spice Girls who had been passed up for the award, but also to highlight some of the deep-rooted problems within the industry that have prevented a girl group from ever winning the award before now: “It’s not easy being a female in the UK pop industry. We’ve seen the white male dominance, misogyny, sexism, and lack of diversity.”

Along with this new-found appreciation of women, the BRITs also delivered a series of politically charged messages that had many-a-Karen shaking their fists on social media. Dua Lipa stood up and demanded a pay raise for frontline workers, which was unsurprisingly met with roaring applause and cheers of agreement in an audience comprised entirely of NHS staff and other key workers. Elton John and Years & Years collaborated on a cover of It’s a Sin with all proceeds going to John’s AIDS foundation. The BRITs have not only started to properly recognize artists and celebrate their achievements, but are also providing a platform for important ideas to be shared on a national scale.

It is unfortunate, however, that the BRITs appear to be the anomaly of the 2021 awards season. When we turn our eyes to an even bigger event – the Grammys, for example – it quickly becomes apparent that there is still a massive lack of diversity in our awards shows.

The Recording Academy (RA) has quite the history with promoting white artists over artists of colour. The Grammys operate a little differently to the BRITs in that they have a pre-show, where smaller awards are given out before the big four in the main ceremony. However, the Grammys have continually relegated categories such as Latin rock and reggae music (categories traditionally won by BIPOC) to the pre-show, and this year they went a step further by pushing Best Rap Performance and Best R&B Album back as well.

If this wasn’t enough, the Grammys have also been criticised for exploiting artists of colour in order to bump their viewing figures up. The RA received considerable backlash when they decided to include the Best Pop Duo/Group category, arguably the most highly anticipated award after the main four, in the pre-show. BTS were nominated for the accolade – becoming the first ever K-pop group to be nominated for a major award at the Grammys – but were ultimately snubbed, much to the disappointment of fans.

Things only got worse at the main show. The group’s performance was teased for hours on end, as presenters promised that they would take the stage next, ad break after ad break, but in reality they did not appear until the very end of the ceremony. The Grammys could not have disguised this more poorly – it was a hopeful but futile attempt to force BTS fans (known as ARMYs and famous for their extreme dedication to their idols) to stick around for the entire show, in their masses. The RA didn’t even have the courtesy to tell the band when they would be on screen, but we shouldn’t have been too surprised, considering their previous actions.

Many celebrities have taken to social media to call out the Academy for their behaviour. The Weeknd, Halsey, Drake, and ZAYN have all been very vocal about their disappointment, particularly in the latter’s case about the secret committees who select nominee lists for categories outside of the big four. Artists have repeatedly asked the RA to be more transparent about how nominees are selected, and in turn the RA has promised that nominees will be chosen by the panel in its entirety, rather than small, exclusive committees. We have yet to see if they will follow through with this…

Celebrities aren’t alone in their dissatisfaction – it would seem the general public aren’t too happy with the Grammys either. This year’s show brought in abysmal viewing figures, with just 8.8 million Americans tuning in live for the ceremony itself. This marks the lowest rating that the Grammys have ever had, beating the previous record from way back in 2006. Additionally, viewership plummeted on the pre-show YouTube livestream after Best Pop Group/Duo was announced, which dashed the Academy’s hopes of having ARMYs boost their numbers.

And the RA aren’t the only ones struggling. The Golden Globes have come under considerable fire this year as it was revealed that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association had not a single black person in their board of just under 90 members. Many acclaimed actors have begun to boycott the show, with Tom Cruise handing back all three of his awards and others such as Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo publicly voicing their disapproval. It’s gotten so much heat that NBC have issued an official statement saying they will not be airing the ceremony in 2022, and will only resume showings when the HFPA follows through with creating a more diverse and representative team. It will come as no surprise that the Golden Globes also turned in woeful figures for this year’s show, experiencing a viewership decrease of over 60%.

It’s abundantly clear that there is a problem with how awards shows are being run. Either the institutions responsible for these events need to start improving and diversifying their organizations, or we as a society need to take a long hard look at whether awards shows are necessary at all. They might provide a fun night of entertainment for the casual viewer, but the devastating impact they leave on the artists and communities they are screwing over will last a lifetime. As Tina Fey said whilst hosting the 2021 Golden Globes, “We all know that award shows are stupid … the point is even with stupid things, inclusivity is important.”

We’ve lost a lot of the dead weight in our lives since the start of the pandemic; perhaps awards shows are the next thing we should be terminating too. They do far more harm than good, and we shouldn’t have to stand for it. It’s time we stopped viewing them as a necessary evil – like dealing with that blasted relative – and started paving the way for a fairer and more inclusive system.