Do we need an alternative to the Grammys?

Industry’s highest honor, or glorified popularity contest?

The age-old question about the Grammy awards is being posed anew, this time in the wake of one of the accolade’s most controversial shows in recent memory. Although many profess to ignore the pomp and ceremony of music’s big night, somehow the event itself always seems to end up as water cooler chatter the next day. The reasons why are fairly easy to comprehend: the results and the performances never quite go the way you expect.

This year in particular, the spectacle managed to provoke a more salient question: is it time for the Grammys to be replaced by an honor more reflective of the industry’s talent?

Even when factoring in the usual awards show penchant for the unorthodox and self-promotional, this year’s event may well go down as one of the most controversial in recent memory – for more reasons than just one.

Let’s begin with the main reason why the Grammys were created in the first place: to recognize artistic talent.

The unexpected win of newcomers Mackelmore and Ryan Lewis over Kendrick Lamar went down badly in a number of different quarters. Soul singer India.Arie touched a raw cultural nerve when she penned an open letter excoriating the ceremony for “all but excluding…young black artists, although we set the world’s musical trends.”

The singer’s diatribe may have been an echo of Lamar’s snub, yet it reinforced a long-standing critique against the Grammys: they often fall short in giving black artists in general—and hip-hop artists in particular–their just due.

In fairness to the Grammys, the ceremony’s track record, while inconsistent, has successfully recognized talent. After all, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences only added a Best Rap Album category in 1995, which is fairly recent.

Meanwhile, Lauryn Hill managed to break a record in 1999 by getting ten separate nominations, leaving the actual ceremony with five golden statuettes.

Still, there’s an unresolved issue percolating in the background. Some believe it’s high time to push for an alternative award ceremony that is less of an industry popularity contest, and more attuned to independent artists and genuine talent. The short answer to that question is: there already are.

In a literal sense, the awards handed out by BET, Soul Train and the American Music Awards ought  to serve as a counterpoint to the over-hyped and celebrity-heavy Grammys. In practice, however, they fall short for a host of reasons. Either they reinforce the glitz and shenanigans found at the Grammys, or the industry’s marquee names don’t show up with the same frequency as they would at the bigger awards.

In principle, an award ceremony more stilted toward fan favorites and genuine talent is a good idea, but the execution would be hindered by some obvious drawbacks. For example, does anyone really think mega-watt stars like Jay-Z and Kanye West (fixtures at the Grammys and AMAs, but at smaller events like the Soul Train Awards? Not so much), would show up? Without the benefit of big stars, would a theoretical alternative draw as much media attention? Without lavish press and industry support, would most up-and-coming stars themselves even be interested in attending?

Music industry awards are certainly guilty of an inordinate amount of recursion, a fact that even insiders acknowledge. Still, questions about a successful alternative loom large. It’s not to say that a fan-endorsed award ceremony couldn’t be successful –there may indeed be a formula that can work. The unfortunate reality is that, for whatever their faults, people tune in to awards shows. At least a few people remain eager to catch a glimpse of a moment that can easily become a cultural flashpoint.

Viewers were outraged by Miley Cyrus’s booty-shaking on MTV (just as they were about Madonna’s infamous lip-lock with Britney Spears a decade ago), yet it made her an overnight sensation. The 2014 Grammys had no shortage of bizarre and objectionable moments, yet it produced the show’s best ratings in more than a decade.

Much like elections, awards shows will never leave everyone happy. There can only be one winner; the other side’s proponents have to content themselves with the mere honor of being nominated.

Still, the odd choices of winners, coupled with the Grammy’s eyebrow-raising antics, reveal an esoteric and semi-antiquated selection process that too frequently misses the mark. A more independent awards ceremony may not be a panacea, but it’s certainly worthy of consideration.