The first hour of Sunday night’s Grammy Awards will showcase, we’re told, Shawn Mendes, Miley Cyrus, Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, Little Big Town, Camila Cabello, Ricky Martin and Post Malone, who’s teaming up with Red Hot Chili Peppers.
If you’re keeping score, that includes only one act from the world of hip-hop — today’s biggest selling sound — and he’s been paired with a group of 50-somethings.
When CBS, which is broadcasting the Grammys this year, promoted that list during the Super Bowl, there was a collective yawn from music fans.
“I was confused,” said Eboni O’Donnell, a senior at Cooper High School in Robbinsdale who is an avid awards-show watcher. “It’s a lot of the same thing. Why aren’t there different acts?”
Because CBS and the Recording Academy can’t risk people tuning out in the opening 60 minutes.
Imagine how CBS pooh-bahs felt when red-hot rapper Travis Scott got bleeped three times during his Super Bowl halftime show. If viewers weren’t already bored with the bloodless efforts of Maroon 5, Scott’s indecipherable performance of his smash “Sicko Mode” was certainly a channel-changer.
Hip-hop apparently is not safe for prime time.
“In the case of TV, you’re dealing with older, white executives who are more worried about the response of advertisers,” said Donna Halper, a professor of media studies at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. “Executives making these choices are trying to walk a tightrope: ‘I need a big name — and a big name that isn’t going to alienate every advertiser.’ You’re dealing with caution.”
Television executives “think rap music is scary,” said Peter Parker, DJ and music director at Twin Cities hip-hop station Go 95.3. “There’s still a stigma. They’re afraid something bad could happen. They haven’t been to a Juice Wrld concert at Myth in Maplewood and seen 4,000 white suburban teenagers.”
Listeners don’t stay in one lane when it comes to music nowadays. Whether they’re turning to Spotify, a car radio or their own collection, music consumers are switching among hip-hop, pop, rock, R&B, Latin, EDM and country.
It’s all popular music. If music lovers can genre-jump, why can’t America’s broadcast media?
Do not disturb
Four hip-hop albums — by Cardi B, Drake, Post Malone and the Kendrick Lamar-produced soundtrack to the blockbuster film “Black Panther” — deservedly landed as Grammy finalists for album of the year.
But those nominations were made by a blue-ribbon panel. That doesn’t mean the 12,000 voting members of the Recording Academy — and the producers of the 3 ½-hour televised ceremony — will get it right.
Avoiding “tune-out factors” is the watchword of Grammy producers. Don’t offend the masses. Keep the baby boomers hanging on to see Diana Ross’ 75th birthday bash.
You could see this kind of thinking in the latest edition of “Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve.” Host Ryan Seacrest trotted out a parade of current hitmakers — including Mendes, Cabello, Dua Lipa, Halsey, Charlie Puth, the Chainsmokers, Dan + Shay and Kane Brown — along with a handful of still relevant oldies (Christina Aguilera, Weezer, New Kids on the Block).
Oh, and Post Malone, who, despite his freaky-to-some tattooed face, was suitably mass appeal for TV programmers. He’s certainly got a track record like a rock star: a string of hazy, highly listenable hits including “Psycho” and “Rockstar” from his LP “Beerbongs & Bentleys,” which was the second biggest seller of 2018.
“I wouldn’t call Post Malone edgy,” said Macalester College freshman Lucien O’Brien, who likes a variety of musical styles.
No, he’s safe enough. Not to mention white.
“Post Malone, in essence, is singing rap songs,” Go 95.3’s Parker said. “It’s a white guy singing, so Post Malone is acceptable.”
He’s also safe enough for mainstream radio stations such as KDWB, the Twin Cities’ leading Top 40 outlet, which is guided by research indicating that listeners like him.
However, KDWB listeners don’t hear the equally easy-to-listen-to Drake, the streaming-music king who had 2018’s biggest album with “Scorpion.” Blame it on research.
Losing young listeners
“You live by research, you die by research,” said Halper, who was a longtime radio programmer and consultant before becoming a professor.
“You have to have a feel for your market,” she said. “Certain songs are going to go over in your city; you might as well give them a chance. Research is sometimes used by people in management to reinforce a position they already have. Radio has lost lots of young listeners because it’s perceived as too cautious, too safe, the same songs over and over, too many commercials, etc.”
Take it from a KDWB listener:
“So if you were, like, to get in the car at 3 o’clock and you go to the mall, you’re going to hear a good five songs,” said Cooper High senior O’Donnell. “And when you get back in the car a couple hours later, you’re going to hear those exact five songs.”
Maybe she exaggerates. But on Monday night, KDWB played three Ariana Grande songs in 40 minutes. On the station’s playlist last week, there were only two numbers that were remotely hip-hop: “Wake Up the Sky” by Gucci Mane (featuring the Grammy-beloved Bruno Mars) and “Sicko Mode.” And neither ranked high on the list.
Regardless of genre, the bottom line is that young music lovers react to tunes one at a time, regardless of the performer. And they’re using those tunes to create personal playlists on such streaming outlets as Spotify and Apple Music.
“Kids are song-oriented,” Halper said. “Yes, they like certain artists, but they really like certain songs that speak to them. When I first got into radio, I was taught that a hit song either makes you want to dance or makes you want to cry. Songs that do that can come from just about any genre. Kids are more eclectic than some people think.”
O’Donnell, a true eclectic who’s influenced by her older brother, rattled off some of her current favorites: Grammy-nominated R&B newcomer H.E.R., teen emo-pop singer Billie Eilish, socially conscious hip-hop star Childish Gambino and pop megaforce Grande. And she still likes Taylor Swift, but in her country phase rather than her current pop incarnation.
O’Donnell is rooting for the “Black Panther” soundtrack — one of the few current projects she’s bought on CD — to win album of the year Sunday.
The Grammys have had a strange — maybe “estranged” is more accurate — relationship with hip-hop. Kanye West crashed the podium and protested the winners. Jay-Z doesn’t bother to attend anymore. Neither of this year’s leading nominees, Drake and Lamar, is scheduled to perform.
Even though hip-hop has been the soundtrack of young America for three decades, only two such albums have snared the top Grammy — Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Miss Lauryn Hill” in 1999 and OutKast’s “SpeakerBoxx/The Love Below” in 2004.
Maybe O’Donnell will be surprised in the final moments of Sunday’s Grammys if “Black Panther,” Drake, Cardi B or even Post Malone grabs album of the year. That is, if she’s still watching.