For years, it has been hard not to feel as though heavy metal wasn’t getting its due from the Grammys. The years of disconnect between fans and The Recording Academy hit a boiling point during the 57th annual awards. In a nomination class of Slipknot, Mastodon, Motorhead and Anthrax, the winner was Tenacious D for their cover of Dio’s “The Last In Line.” The Jack Black and Kyle Gass comedy band winning out over some iconic metal acts drew a lot of ire from the metal community, implying for many that the genre isn’t worth being taken seriously.
“To have chosen Jack Black and Kyle Gass as a representation of what the music industry considers the pinnacle of the genre’s achievement for the year is to say that the most they expect from heavy metal (and the people who love it) is a dumb, crude, laughable piece of sh-t,” says Noisey writer Kim Kelly in 2015. Later in an interview, Black himself would agree with the summation, plainly saying, “I mean, it is a joke. We should not be winning Best Metal Performance. We’re not really a true metal band.”
Then a shift happened. One year later, the psychedelic, uber weird Ghost would win the award for Best Metal Performance, a band whose entire aesthetic and purpose embody metal’s history and theatrics, in a class that featured strong contemporary bands who well represented what metal meant for that year. Since then, in both heavy metal and rock music as a whole, The Recording Academy has taken great steps to make sure that the category is well-represented. These new changes to how records are selected resulted in 2017 having arguably one of the strongest showings ever in a nomination class for both heavy metal and rock.
To see these changes in effect, one has to see the process of an album being considered for an award from the beginning. It’s important to note that The Recording Academy never goes out to court labels or musicians for submissions to the awards. “We’re very passive in that, they have to come into us, it’s the only way for us to be really unbiased about that,” says Bill Freimuth, Grammy SVP of Awards. Once a number of records have been selected for Grammy consideration, a committee begins its process to narrow down to albums that best represent “heavy metal” as a whole, distinguishing between metal and rock.
“We have a separate committee that just deals with metal,” says Freimuth. “We feel as though that’s such a particular area for expertise. A recording will get submitted to this group for best metal performance, and this group listens to it, some of them know already and won’t have to listen to it, others will say, ‘We’ve heard this a million times and that’s not metal, that’s definitely rock.’ And then the rest of it they’ll listen to. Sometimes there’s really wonderful, interesting debates where they draw the line any particular year, and there’s a moving line every year especially for a category as vibrant as this one.”
Another committee made up of about 15-18 academy members take the top 15 vote getters chosen amongst the entire genre pool, and narrow them down to the year’s top five best. From there, the results are made public, and members of The Recording Academy get to choose which album will win the award.
Internally, members of The Recording Academy have wanted to change up which albums are eligible for rock categories. “There’s been a gradual shift over the last several years [in the rock category.].” says Freimuth. “The nomination review committee for rock is only three years old now. It was initiated after listening to the community, possibly after hearing the Tenacious D thing, but in general the feeling was the people voting in the rock field were voting on name recognition, popularity, legacy status, chart position, marketing budget which are all factors we don’t want our voters to consider. We want voting to be entirely on what they’re hearing on the record. They either like it or don’t.”
Instituting a committee for rock has helped embrace keeping the diversity the genre can accommodate without drifting too far into what would be considered pop. “There’s been some very active discussions in the last year or two where a lot of concerns about making rock ‘rock’ again, and how we really needed to grapple and embrace the fact bands like Portugal the Man and Imagine Dragons belong in pop, at least in their current recordings, more than they do in rock. In theory that makes more room for the harder, heavier rock bands in the category,” says Freimuth.
Committees take into account both its tastes of its individual members, as well as what is happening in the culture’s conversation. “What’s really cool is in the metal nominations, there’s a real representation of the wide scope of that field,” says Freimuth. “We look at [Loudwire] lists, the 50 best of the year so far, and see three out of the five of those are on that list, the other two came out the year before.“
Beyond committees, the general voting population of the Grammys can now only choose categories they are experts in. Members are allowed four categories in which they can vote on in full, and only fifteen award categories outside of that. In a field of over 90 awards, it means those unfamiliar with a genre will not just choose whichever act they recognize based on name or legacy.
All of these decisions result in better representation for rock as a whole than in years prior. Instead of muddling pop focused bands that employ sounds closer to electronic or pop, there’s a sense of attention being paid to musicians who move the needle forward for the genre. Best Rock Album nominates bands ranging from the ephemeral drugged out sounds of The War on Drugs to Nothing More’s anthemic hard rock and Mastodon’s ever-progressive style of music. It’s not mislabelling genres, it’s celebrating who is making the most out of rock music in their own way
Heavy metal was truly the centerpiece of the rock-focused categories, representing the wide range of metal out there. Instead of sticking to legacy acts and older bands, the list is mostly dominated by younger bands in the scene, the oldest band in the nominees being Meshuggah, a group that has primarily stayed in the underground. It feels significant that young groups like Code Orange and August Burns Red are represented, as well as Mastodon cementing themselves as being vanguards of the younger generation of heavy metal artists.
Context for these groups aside, the Grammys have finally gotten the genre right because of what each band represents for the current scene of metal. Meshuggah have been working hard since the ’80s nailing down their sound, even inspiring the djent genre to become one of heavy metal’s newest subgenres that has caught on with a wide audience of listeners. Body Count has managed to continue to stay politically relevant, tackling issues of racism and oppression felt by Americans. Beyond that, August Burns Red represent metalcore’s rise to prominence in the 21st century, and Mastodon fully cementing themselves as new icons for metal.
Code Orange are the newest band of the bunch, forming less than ten years ago, each member in their early 20s. Their nomination lines up with how the rest of the Grammys approach music, rewarding youthful upstarts who bring energy and attitude to the hip-hop and pop categories. Code Orange’s music is fresh and dynamic, combining their days of their time in hardcore with a tangible appreciation of acts like Nine Inch Nails and Ministry. It formed an album that can appeal to different generations of listeners, a modern timeliness that is contagious.
These mix of both small and larger acts speak to The Recording Academy taking into consideration the ways in which music has been serviced by both larger and smaller record labels. “Personally, I think the ecosystem of music can accommodate all of it,” says Freimuth. “I think there’s still a really important role that major labels play, I think there’s an incredibly important role that independent labels play. There’s been some really big successes from artists that have been truly independent. In terms of our processes, most years a good half or more of all nominations come from independent artists or labels.”
Every step taken has helped 2018 to be the year for many fans to set aside their cynicism towards the establishment, and see musicians who truly move the genre forward to be rewarded and celebrated. “What we’ve been hearing from the community is that we’ve got it right, or at least we didn’t suck this year,” says Freimuth. “[Laughs] Believe it or not, we may have heard that in the past.”