A common theory of eternal damnation is that of the personal hell— a uniquely tailored punishment for each sinner to eke out the most possible suffering. It’s a theme that’s animated pop culture for centuries, from The Divine Comedy to The Good Place. I’m not sure I quite believe in personal hells, but if they exist, I know what lies down there for me: An endless stream of awards shows, of self-congratulatory speeches segueing into misbegotten tributes segueing into maudlin performances then back into those same damned speeches about the power of cinema or how wonderful the music industry is.
Awards shows are some of the most bloated, unwatchable spectacles our culture has to offer. Their runtimes have ballooned, with the 2017 Oscars running almost four hours. Their choices for high awards have been increasingly criticized for being out of touch— witness the Grammys’ repeated snubs of Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar. And in response, the viewing public has increasingly realized that they don’t have to watch them; this year’s Grammys were by far the lowest-viewed in history, and last year’s’ Oscars represented the third consecutive year of ratings decline since a brief resurgence at the start of the decade. Yet the malaise plaguing awards shows is not the result of overly long ceremonies or egregious snubs, but in their inherent nature. Awards shows are not designed for the enjoyment of anyone watching them. They aren’t even designed for the creative figures they theoretically honor. Instead, they are merely a tool used by the business leaders of the industries they were created by to increase their own prestige.
Business interests above all informed the genesis of the awards show. Of the core four awards that make up the EGOT (the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards), all but the Tonys were founded by industry executives who wished to ensure that their commercial interests would “grow, not decline,” in the words of the official mailers sent out with early Grammy ballots. The creation of the Oscars, for example, were spearheaded by Louis B. Mayer, the founder of MGM studios, to distract the creative class of his industry from unionization and create a more favorable labor dynamic for producers rather than filmmakers— he claimed, in his own words, that “If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted.” Though the academies that govern these awards would largely cede voting privileges to the creative types that actually produced the art they were voting on— actors, directors, musicians and the like— the core motivation of each remains roughly the same as when they were established half a century or more ago.
It’s not that any of these motivations are nefarious, it’s just that they’re fundamentally commercial rather than artistic. The precise logic used by each academy varies based on the commercial needs of each industry it belongs to. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences favors honoring low-budget prestige movies in non-technical categories— the big blockbusters already make enough money on their own, but for smaller movies, an Academy Award nomination is often the factor that decides whether a film’s producers make back their investment. The Recording Academy, on the other hand, presides over a much more fractured and unprofitable business, so the Grammys instead serve to showcase already-established stars and whichever young artists the major labels have decided to bet their promotional budgets on. The Grammys award only the safest bets possible— why else would Adele and early-to-mid Taylor Swift dominate? The world of TV has its own arbitrary rules, and so The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences tends towards the nominations of long-lasting stalwarts (Modern Family has been nominated 8 seasons in a row, and Law & Order reeled off an astounding 11 consecutive nominations in its late 90s/early 2000s heyday) in close correlation with the television industry’s general emphasis on getting shows above the threshold of 100-or-so episodes to reach extremely profitable syndication deals.
These commercial motivations have curdled over the decades into a deeply conservative attitude for the academies. Of course, the overt posturing of awards shows is liberal, but only in the most facile way possible. The Oscars will almost always nominate a smattering of actors of color in the performance categories, the Grammys will always get Kendrick Lamar or Rihanna to show up (but not let them to win anything of note), and the Emmys will always have Modern Family (which has both latinos and gay people) be a perennial winner. But beyond that passing patina of Hollywood-style liberalism, the core of any awards show is as conservative as the Hoover Institution. Very little of the actually compelling art made in any field in any year gets the accolades it deserves at a given award show. The truly shocking thing about the La La Land v. Moonlight snafu of last year’s Oscars was not that the presenters screwed up the envelopes but that Moonlight beat La La Land in the first place. In any other year, the two movies would represent, respectively, the exact sort of movie that doesn’t win Oscars and the sort of movie that the Academy eats up— a weird art film filled with relatively unknown actors of color and completely bereft of big dramatic monologues versus the superficially scrappy retro-styled musical about Los Angeles starring two conventionally attractive white people in the prime of their careers.
The perfect award winner is just interesting enough to stand out from the crowd but not interesting enough to call into question the conventional wisdom of the academy, the will of the wealthy, predominantly white, male and heterosexual business elites that ultimately control the creative class below them that is increasingly demographically different. It’s on the strength of that wisdom, the idea that these academies are making the right decisions about what’s worthy of recognition, that the dominant forces of any cultural industry are able to continue their stranglehold on the culture itself.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Honest! It doesn’t! Awards shows are not a vital part of our culture in the same way that the actual ceremony of the Inauguration isn’t a vital part of the running of the presidency. It’s merely a show of soft power— “look, we can make you sit outside in the D.C winter for hours” or “hey, willingly watch Imagine Dragons play music and then listen to LL Cool J to make jokes”— in which the hegemonic forces atop our culture make us pay gentle fealty to them by doing something ridiculous. You don’t have to make an Oscar pool, or livetweet the Grammys, or watch the Emmys at all. The only control awards shows have over you is in their ability to steer the narrative and reputation around a given work, and this power is ever-diminishing. The design of an awards show inherently assumes that there was one best picture in a year, one album of the year or best miniseries— that there is a monoculture that’s confined enough to reasonably make singular selections from. The internet has blown up the monoculture entirely, made its concept of hegemony seem increasingly antiquated, and awards shows are essentially the only institutions within our pop culture that still cling to the shreds.
The only way to “fix” awards shows is by jettisoning all of their core ideas, starting with the idea that there will ever be a set best thing in any given year. Art, in all of its kaleidoscopic and subjective glory, is far more fun to debate about then to merely appreciate— the only fun thing about awards season is arguing about which exquisitely appointed prestige film or maximalist pop album is better. So why not leave it an open question? Instead of awarding one work over the other, let the grand messiness that is modern culture sprawl itself out on stage. Let these ceremonies be celebrations of all the creative energies going into the work— not just the commercial stuff in its narrow lane, but the weird too. Let them be occasions for not a rigid pseudo-meritocracy of middle-brow taste but an egalitarian mélange. These festivals of the arts would better represent what culture is like in the 21st Century, and would thankfully keep the performances, the only parts of awards shows that people actually like. It wouldn’t just be less deadening to the culture than what we have now, but it’d straight up make for better TV.
Because when we strip away all the pomp and circumstance, an awards show is simply a spectacle, and there’s nothing wrong with spectacle on its own. So shed the turgid old bloat of the captains of industry that birthed these academies, and embrace the creative forces that they should have been focused on all along. Whatever happens, it has to be better than what we have now.
Photograph: Oscars Statuettes. Credit: Prayitno, November 24, 2011