Award shows have long been embroiled in controversy, and the 2023 Grammy Awards were no different.
During his Album of the Year acceptance speech for “Harry’s House,” Harry Styles said in response to his win that “[this] doesn’t happen to people like me very often.” His remarks immediately sparked backlash online, with many social media users pointing out that awards like these were designed specifically with people like Styles in mind — white, male singers. Others defended Styles, explaining that he simply misspoke in the heat of the moment. One TikTok user @pattypopculture explained that the singer was likely referring to the fact that his music was finally being taken seriously within the industry, given that teenage girls and young women comprise the majority of his fanbase. Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that Styles’ language reflects a certain privilege that remains prevalent despite efforts to alleviate its impacts.
And while Styles’ words are troubling, there is already an established history of deep-rooted issues within the award show tradition. The Golden Globes may be the best example of just how problematic award shows can be.
Premiering in 1944, the Golden Globes are voted on by a group of foreign journalists and photographers known as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA). Actors, directors and the broader public have all called attention to the HFPA’s problems with corruption as well as the allegations of sexual assault. Most recently, Brendan Fraser refused to attend the 2023 awards after accusing former HFPA president Philip Berk of groping him. The HFPA has also been accused of racism due to the lack of diversity among both the nominees and its members. The controversy surrounding the Golden Globes eventually came to a head in 2022 when NBC refused to broadcast the awards. After a series of changes to the HFPA itself, the Golden Globes returned to screens in 2023.
Other award shows have attempted to make similar changes in order to adapt to outside pressure. In 2015, April Reign took to Twitter with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite to express her frustration with the Oscars for the Academy’s failure to nominate a diverse group of films, actors and directors. At the time, 92% of Academy members were white and 75% were male. While Reign’s hashtag inspired a social movement that shifted the membership to 84% white and 68% male by 2020, sweeping transformations are yet to be seen. Many of the systemic problems stem from the kinds of stories that the film industry believes are worthy of telling. Writing on this very subject, Reign questioned, “What does it mean when Lupita Nyong’o can win for her performance in ‘12 Years a Slave,’ playing an enslaved woman, but is completely shut out when she’s playing not just one, but two fully realized characters in ‘Us’?”
Although award shows are gradually changing, it’s not enough. Even when they appear to be making progress, these small glimmers of hope are often overshadowed by moments that anger the general public.
Beyoncé’s status as the artist with the most Grammy wins to date was obscured by the fact that she failed to win Album of the Year. This is her fourth loss of the coveted prize to a white artist, even though her music epitomizes Black art. It’s clear that even though minority artists continue to make big waves, the current award system doesn’t mirror either their success or their social impact.
If award shows consistently fail to recognize talent that mirrors the current social and cultural climate, are they still relevant? Should the general public still care about tuning into the Oscars or the Grammys when they know that they’re going to be disappointed? Certainly, there’s the allure of obsessing over red carpet looks and the sense of pride that comes with witnessing a favorite celebrity win a big award, but those two factors alone can’t be enough to keep audiences coming back year after year.
In recent years, there has been a dramatic decline in viewership for award shows dating back to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, viewership for the Oscars plunged to a mere 10.4 million viewers — a 56% drop from 23.6 million viewers the previous year. At least 15.3 million people tuned into the 2022 Oscars ceremony, which, while representative of an increase in viewership, failed to return viewership to its pre-pandemic levels. Something about the way that Hollywood currently produces its award shows is unsatisfactory for audiences. Instead, they are choosing to spend their time watching TV elsewhere, likely turning to one of the various streaming services available to them that don’t require that they sit through hours’ worth of ads. Whatever the case may be, people are angry — or worse, bored — with what award shows have to offer.
Audiences are voicing their frustration with award shows both explicitly, by taking to social media to demand change, and implicitly, by taking their viewership elsewhere. Since they are failing to live up to changing expectations of what kinds of artists and content the public wants to see nominated, it’s time to explore the possibility that award shows simply aren’t the cultural markers they once were. Continuously mired in scandal, award shows must come to terms with their identity before they disappear altogether.
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