Why The History Of The Grammys’ Rock Nominations Is Flooded With ‘Old Man Rock’

Believe it or not, there have only been “rock” categories at the Grammy Awards since the 1980s. There was a three-year dalliance with rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1960s with a Best Contemporary Performance, but there wasn’t a distinction made for rock until the introduction of Grammys for Best Male and Best Female Rock Vocal Performance and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, all introduced in 1980. Best Rock Instrumental Performance was also introduced in 1980, and ran all the way until 2011! It seems like that award may have been retired because they were sick of giving it to Jeff Beck.

In their current incarnation, the Grammy Award for Best Rock Song has only existed since 1992, and the Grammy for Best Rock Album was created in 1995. There are also Grammys for Best Rock Performance the conjoined version of all the rock performance categories that preceded it and Best Metal Performance, although that one comes with its own can of worms. Weirdly, the award for Best Alternative Music Album is more established than the current Rock Grammys, as it was introduced in 1991. It remains the only award the Grammys ever created for “alternative music,” and there’s always been plenty of overlap with the rock categories, as you might expect.

If you look back through the winners in these “rock” categories over the years particularly since they were given their current names in the 1990s, you’ll see a very strange pattern: These awards tend to go Lless to acts that you’d think of as “rock,” and more to who you’d tend to think of as “adult contemporary.” Or maybe “dudes your mom loves.” Or pretty much anything that wouldn’t feel out of place in a dentist’s waiting room. This makes for a strange legacy in a genre of music meant to push the boundaries of what the squares can tolerate; a genre where the very name is a slang term for doing the nasty.

Perhaps this is just to be expected: Institutions like the Recording Academy tend to bristle at anything that upsets the status quo, and thus tend to take the path of least resistance whenever possible. Companies, governing bodies, corporations, and the like will continue along performing business as usual until a new paradigm forces its hand, and when those entities’ hands are forced, they’ll acknowledge this new paradigm, but continue to try and make that paradigm conform to their own idea of what it should be or what the preceding paradigm dictated.

For example, even back in 1968, when the Grammys last experimented with the “contemporary” category to try and highlight and distinguish rock ‘n’ roll from the rest of its popular music categories, Best Male Vocal performance went to Glen Campbell for “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” And while, yes, this is an exceptional vocal performance, it sure doesn’t resemble what “contemporary” rock ‘n’ roll looked like in 1968… the same year The Beatles won Best Contemporary Album for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Also winning a pair of Contemporary awards in 1968 was “Up Up and Away” by the 5th Dimension, which is maybe the least rock song that’s ever been recorded. Those 1960s Contemporary categories were lousy with country and adult contemporary artists. Roger Miller’s “King Of The Road” won a pair of awards in 1966, and other nominees during the three-year Contemporary Awards span included the Statler Brothers, the Supremes, Tom Jones, Bobby Darin, Frankie Valli, Bobbie Gentry, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick.

It’s no surprise that the Grammys scrapped any attempt to distinguish between types of popular music after 1968 and didn’t try again for over a decade. The 1960s were arguably the most transformative decade for popular music in history, and when an entire art form is shifting that drastically and that rapidly, there are very few institutions or governing bodies who wouldn’t say, “You know what? Let’s not even bother with this until it makes sense to us.”