Last week I wondered why the Grammys hate norteño music — hint: it’s the money — but maybe you’ve wondered how the Grammys have grappled with this issue over the years. Wonder no longer! (Well, wonder at your leisure, because I won’t claim this timeline is complete.)
As we travel through the years a familiar story emerges. The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS) doesn’t quite know how to reward one of its subgeneres — norteño is far from unique in this regard — and so they cast about trying to figure it out. As they do, NARAS repeatedly confronts an uncomfortable truth: a reward system designed, in the words of award watcher Thomas O’Neil, “to remain truly academic in nature, free from all commercial pressures… where its members could discuss and reward great music as it should be,” might not be the best system for rewarding mass-produced commercial music.
A truly existential dilemma. (It’s akin to a state governing body whose members believe government is the problem and not the solution — but where were we?)
Variety discovered this dilemma at the first ceremony in 1958, when rock ‘n’ roll received zero nominations (“Over the pomp and circumstance of the festivities hung a cloud…”). Rap and metal would later feel the snub. Over the years telecast performances have become more important sales boosters than the awards themselves, a dilemma of its own — are the performances also supposed to represent the best music of the year?
Because of the language barrier, the dilemma looks a little different when we get to norteño, but it’s the same at its core. Music industry professionals, sensitive to how music portrays their livelihood to outsiders, often have terrible ideas about what constitutes great music. And all genres share an essential truth: self-regarding “real musicians” are fucking annoying.
To the timeline!
1983 (Album of the Year Thriller*): NARAS splits the Best Latin Recording category into three performance categories: Latin Pop, Tropical Latin, and Mexican-American. We’ll keep an eye on that last one. It contains no norteño nominees the first year — they’re all ranchera and Tejano, with Los Lobos winning the statue — but eventually the category will latch on to Los Tigres, who win the award in 1987 (AOTY The Joshua Tree).
1990 (AOTY Back on the Block; Best Mexican-American Performance by the Texas Tornados): During a trip to Mexico City, NARAS chair Michael Greene proposes creating a Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, with its own Grammys and everything.
As Ramiro Burr reports to Billboard in 1996 (AOTY Falling Into You), this is no small undertaking:
“It turns out we didn’t know anything,” [Greene] said. “It has taken us five years to bring us to this point.”
Which point is that?
“We are now interviewing for an executive director position,” he added. NARAS is perhaps best known for presenting the Grammy Awards, considered the most prestigious awards in the music industry, but the academy also works on improving professional standards through outreach programs and educational seminars and offers workshops on such issues as copyrights and intellectual property.
“LARAS will be the Latin American Academy for Recording Arts and Sciences, and it will be for the people in the U.S., Mexico, Central America, South America, the island countries, and Spain, who are practitioners either creatively or technically in the Latin music community,” said Greene. “This would very much be a parallel organization to the American academy.”
Greene went on:
“[LARAS is] a very ambitious project; that’s why it has taken so long. One incredible thing that I don’t think people realize is the diversity of the music when you get into regional music forms.”…
This is one of Grammy’s perennial questions: how many different categories should they have? Not just how do you compare apples to oranges, but do chayotes get their own category?
Well, if the chayotes have enough clout…
The growing influence of the Texan music industry sparked the movement to not only establish the Texas NARAS branch but to create a Tejano music category in the Grammys.
In 1996 the Mexican American award becomes Best Mexican American/Tejano Music Performance. Tejano band La Mafia promptly wins.
Norteño musicians just need better lobbyists.
1998 (AOTY The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill): At Billboard, John Lannert lobbies for norteño musicians in an article entitled “Latin Grammys Still Stuck In Rut”:
Prestige and artistic confirmation must be the prime reasons why the Grammy Awards are so important to U.S. Latino artists and record labels.
What other motives could there be for a Latino act to covet the honor? Certainly a Latin Grammy does not enhance album sales, as the award does with many Anglo Grammy winners. Even a Latino superstar’s record sales seldom benefit from winning a Grammy statuette. With the televised portion of the Grammys rarely spotlighting Latino stars in action, viewers are not exposed to their talent.
He singles out the Mexican American category for criticism:
Take, for instance, the confusingly named category best Mexican-American/Tejano music performance. This travesty of a category consistently omits such top norteno acts as Los Tucanes De Tijuana and Grupo Limite.
Now, who knows how much John Lannert has to do with this, but later that same year, change is afoot! Sort of afoot. The Latin categories expand to five, notably spinning Tejano off into its own category. Flaco Jiménez wins the Tejano award; the supergroup Los Super Seven, which includes Jiménez and other Tejano musicians, wins Mexican American Performance. Norteño performers once again lose. Small steps.
2000 (AOTY Two Against Nature): After a decade of planning, the Latin Grammys finally arrive! Broadcast live on CBS during prime time! In their own ceremony, Latino superstars receive the attention they deserve, and among many others, there are categories for “ranchero,” banda, grupero, Tejano, norteño, and regional song. America’s most popular Latino genre — norteño — finally enjoys its day in the sun. OR NOT… Billboard‘s Leila Cobo suggests otherwise:
In the end, despite to-be-expected grumblings, few could argue about the merit of these first nominations. But when it came to choosing who would actually perform during the two-hour awards program, the Latin Grammys fell short on several counts. The most patent was the absence of regional Mexican acts, pointed out by California-based Fonovisa, which specializes in regional Mexican music.
“The majority of Latins in the U.S. are Mexican or of Mexican descent,” says Gilberto Moreno, Fonovisa GM. “So, if you exclude Mexicans and Mexican music, it’s not a show made for the majority of Latins.” Referring specifically to popular Mexican music, he adds, “There isn’t a representative of popular Latin music.”…
This wasn’t limited to the awards alone. There was no sign of the music in anything leading up to the ceremony. Should there have been? Yes, to give the music credit it rarely gets in the mainstream and, frankly, to appease everyone involved, especially during this groundbreaking first Grammy ceremony. The reason Moreno’s words found resonance in media outlets across the country was because he had a point.
Well, OK. But don’t forget the Tito Puente tribute!
Here we see where the language/cultural barrier comes into play. CBS broadcast this show to all America, Latino and gringo alike, and you can imagine the pressure on producers to schedule performers who’d command a large audience. Hence the inclusion of known-to-gringo quantities like Santana, Christina Aguilera, Miami Sound Machine, and ‘N Sync. In a sense, the show’s producers played up a hot-footed tropical stereotype. In the words of Narcocorrido author Elijah Wald, “Americans have historically turned to Latin music for its African rhythmic power, and that is simply not what most Mexican regional music is about.”
2003 (AOTY Speakerboxxx/The Love Below): Cobo concurs:
Additionally, performances have been a particularly sensitive issue for the Latin Grammys. This is because it is a predominantly English-language show that airs on an English-language network but honors Spanish- and Portuguese-language music.
As a result, the awards try to balance what could appeal to the masses with what is authentic to Latin audiences.
But is performing at the Latin Grammys even worth it? Cobo thinks not:
Those performances, however, come at a steep price that many say is not compensated by the sales generated.
“It’s very prestigious to perform, but as far as sales [go], we’ve seen a step forward as a result, not a jump,” one label rep says.
Labels have to foot the entire bill of showcasing an act at the Latin Grammys, including transportation, per diems and rehearsals. Depending on the level of production involved, costs can range from $40,000 to $100,000 and beyond per performance.
This complicates the complaints, by Gustavo Arellano and others, that the rewards overlook regional Mexican genres. On the one hand, yes, a truly representative award show would feature norteño and banda performers because they’re immensely popular. (And the Latin Grammys do — the awards feature about three such performances a year. They’ve improved since their disastrous start in 2000, although the 2014 edition took a step back, with only one banda thrown in among all the pop stars.) On the other hand, as John Lannert noted with the awards themselves, what’s the point? If it costs the label tens of thousands of dollars to stage a performance and the sales bump is negligible, why would a label want their act to perform at the Latin Grammys? Apart from the prestige factor?
Again, we’re back to the Grammys’ existential dilemma. The LARAS introduction reads:
The Latin GRAMMY Awards aim to recognize artistic and technical achievement, not sales figures or chart positions, with the winners determined by the votes of their peers — the qualified voting members of The Latin Recording Academy.
A main purpose of the Latin GRAMMY Awards is to recognize excellence and create a greater public awareness of the cultural diversity of Latin recording artists and creators, both domestically and internationally.
It’s all there: Excellence! Achievement! NOT sales figures or chart positions! The heart swells. But you gotta ask: if this altruistic endeavor makes record labels pay to stage their performances, who gets left behind? LARAS effectively disqualifies most indie groups from performing at the awards show, simply because their labels can’t afford it. Correct me if I missed something, but I don’t think the vital Gerencia 360 or Remex labels have ever sent an act to play the Latin Grammy ceremony. If their acts achieved more excellence than some major label act, tough chayotes. Which is it, Latin Grammys? Rewarding excellence or getting viewers and dollars?
Also, does either Recodo or Arrolladora really make the most excellent banda album every year? I submit that in most cases THEY DO NOT.
2007 (AOTY River: The Joni Letters jajaja): Progress! NARAS adds the category Best Banda Album to the Grammys. This continues for five years, and the nominees include some duranguense acts like K-Paz de la Sierra and my beloved Alacranes. In 2009 (AOTY Fearless) NARAS goes one step further and adds the category Best Norteño Album. Los Tigres win it twice in a row, followed by Intocable, and then in 2012 (AOTY Babel ay) the categories merge into Best Banda or Norteño Album, which still has merit. Los Tigres win. And then, after taunting us for a few years, everything goes to hell…
The dozen or so musicians and activists delivering the signatures are part of a considerably large (didn’t you hear us say 23,000?) group of disgruntled musicians and music industry employees who have been protesting the NARAS’ controversial cuts — which included awards for Latin jazz, regional Mexican/Tejano, banda/Norteno, and hard rock/metal, in addition to gender-specific categories in pop, R&B, rock, and country — since June of last year (did we mention they added contemporary Christian music in the Gospel category?). Back in August, four Latin jazz artists even filed a lawsuit with the [New York] Supreme Court, claiming that the eliminations had negatively affected their careers, and that the organization was violating its “contractual obligations” to its members.
The lawsuit was dismissed, and here we are: back to one category, Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano). This year I guarantee you the winner will be a well-performed and well-recorded ranchera/mariachi album that you could play at a stodgy dinner party, because that’s all that’s nominated. (Last year Recoditos, Intocable, and Joan Sebastian were nominated, though the album went to the Mariachi Divas de Cindy Shea, good for them.) As I pointed out last week, Gerardo Ortiz would gain new crossover fans if he sang his gorgeous “Eres Una Niña” (released during the eligibility period) on the show, maybe in a duet with Prince Royce or King Romeo. But Ortiz’s NARAS peers evidently have other ideas about what constitutes the best in their industry.
Not to take anything away from Juanes’s achievement, but which is it, Grammys? Rewarding excellence or gaining viewers and dollars? (And in the case of Juanes’s “Juntos,” terrible Disney dollars at that.) In the end, artistic excellence goes unrecognized, and a new generation of performers learns they can get along just fine without the Grammys.
* Albums of the Year are listed according to their eligibility period, not the calendar year in which they won the award. This may cause some confusion, especially when we get to the Latin Grammys, which have a different eligibility period than the Grammy Grammys. You get the gist.