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White Mediocrity Is Diluting The Influential Power Of Music Awards Shows

The capitalist system of The White Celebrity™ keeps using music awards shows to reward itself for mediocrity at the blatant expense of Black and Asian artists. 

By Ebony Purks 

At the 1985 American Music Awards (AMAs), Prince’s critically acclaimed, avant-pop song “When Doves Cry” won the AMA for “Favorite Black Single.” At some point, this award category was changed to “Favorite Song: Soul/R&b.” And era-defining Black artists such as Diana Ross and Lionel Richie, Whitney Houston, and Janet Jackson have won awards in this category. However, the category was retired in 1995, only returning in 2016 when Rihanna won for her hit single “Work.” 

It’s no secret, most of these music awards shows and white music networks’ beginnings are rooted in anti-Black racism and xenophobia. For example, as we know, Black artists like Michael Jackson and Rick James had to fight for the same airtime MTV allotted to white artists in the 1980s. In 1982, James called MTV out for their racism in a Rolling Stone interview saying, “Me and every one of my peers — Earth, Wind, and Fire, Stevie Wonder, the Gap Band, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson — have great videos. Why doesn’t MTV show them?”

Correspondingly, the AMAs limited Black artists to their own categories from the ceremony’s very beginning in 1974. Notably, the same year Prince won “Favorite Black Single,” the “Purple Rain” singer was also nominated for several other categories: “Favorite Black Male Vocalist,” “Favorite Black Album,” “Favorite Black Male Video Artist” and “Favorite Black Video Single”. An article for Culled Culture so accurately called this “A Jim Crow level of separatism at a 1980s [music] awards show.”

Decades later, not much about music awards shows have changed. What was once “Black” is now subbed for “Urban” or other predominantly Black-made and digested genre categories like R&B, Rap, and Soul. And Black artists are often placed into the aforementioned categories even if their artistry doesn’t align with the criteria or description of the genre. Whereas, main category music awards still remain largely for white artists

Some may remember, Tyler the Creator spoke about this (re)occurrence at the 2020 GRAMMYs. That year, the California artist won “Best Rap Album” for his genre-bending 2019 album, IGOR. Tyler graciously accepted the award on stage but felt the Grammys categorizing his album as rap was patronizing. 

“When I hear that, I’m just like why can’t we be in pop? Half of me feels like the rap nomination was just a backhanded compliment,” he told journalists backstage. “Like, my little cousin wants to play the game. Let’s give him the unplugged controller so he can shut up and feel good about it — that’s what it felt like a bit.”

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In fact, in 2020, Deborah Dugan, former Chief Executive of the Recording Academy, accused the GRAMMYs of voting irregularities. Something that had long been widely suspected amongst Black culture fans and Black artists themselves, but was now at the forefront of discussion amongst a mainstream (white) audience and media. This could explain why, in recent years, awards shows haven’t seen the success of past decades. Previously-culture-defining ceremonies like the GRAMMY’s, the Video Music Awards (VMAs), and the AMAs have all experienced record lows in viewership within the last three to five years. 

The 2021 VMAs, in particular, were a clear illustration that these award shows aren’t leading pop culture forward the way they once did. The capitalist system of The White Celebrity™ keeps rewarding itself for mediocrity at the blatant expense of Black and Asian artists. 

In 2019, the VMAs added an award category to recognize the substantial rise of Korean Pop’s popularity. This may seem like an inclusive effort. However, all a new KPop category does is prevent Korean artists from ever winning “main category awards;” otherwise considered the biggest awards of the night. BTS —one of the biggest boy bands in the world— won their first VMA for their song “Boy With Luv” at this year’s VMA ceremony. An accomplishment the group likely wouldn’t have achieved if not for music awards shows continually othering non-white artists into their own categories. 

Ultimately, we’ve seen this same story play out before. There is a stagnation happening in the music industry wherein the industry itself doesn’t know if it’s heading forward or backward in terms of social and political progress. At the same time, however, younger generations are decidedly moving forward. Performative gestures aren’t enough to keep these ceremonies relevant. The blatant snubs against racially marginalized artists are not only hard to ignore, they’re now being ignored. Young viewers are now altogether disregarding music awards shows—whether critically voted or fan voted ones—because their predictability and prejudice renders watching them unnecessary. 

After all, why would we keep tuning in to watch the consequences of white supremacy on full display as well as watch white mediocrity continue to give us nothing? In hindsight, it was inevitable that celebrity culture would begin to collapse onto itself. Capitalism thrives on being repetitive and lacks innovation, and whiteness maintains power by only recognizing whiteness. 

Luckily, people are beginning to understand a music industry without tangible progress and proper recognition for Black culture and other racially marginalized artists is not one worthy of anyone’s attention.

Ebony Purks is a recent college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in professional writing. She is currently a freelance writer and Junior Life Editor at The Tempest. Ebony specializes in writing about pop culture, social justice, and health, especially examining the many intersections between those subjects. Though when she’s not writing, she’s rewatching her favorite comfort shows or excessively tweeting.

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