The Grammys Are Finally, Truly Serious About Dance Music (Maybe)

The awards show may be making up for its spotty, awkward history with electronic acts by showing Kraftwerk and Daft Punk some love.
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 Volker Hartmann / AP

Two years ago, the ever-hip Grammy Awards appeared to be getting serious about the "latest" big thing in popular music: fist-pumping, floor-filling, club-hopping, dub-stepping, ultra-profitable electronic dance music. To prove it was down with what the kids were listening to, the awards program planned a tribute to EDM that featured DJ-producers David Guetta and Deadmau5, singer Chris Brown, rapper Lil Wayne, and … The Foo Fighters.

If that sounds like an odd combination, it was. Spin called the performance “a mess,” while dance-music site inthemix labled it a “ham-fisted” and “cringe-worthy” collaboration that “no one wanted.” The abundant glow sticks and Guetta's arm-waving from behind the decks looked more like parody than celebration; with Chris Brown dressed up like Run-D.M.C., the routine seemed confused about it exactly what it was honoring; and considering that most of the acts associated in the tribute weren't even dance artists themselves, it felt forced and out of place.

Even one of the participants, the Foo Fighters’ frontman Dave Grohl, derided electronic recording techniques that very night during an acceptance speech for Best Rock Album, which critics took as a jab toward the tribute itself. (Grohl later argued on his blog that those critics misunderstood him.) Looking back on the show, one member of mega-popular DJ trio Swedish House Mafia later said that performing at the Grammys "would probably feel like a monkey in a cage kind of situation.”

So the Grammys turned the volume down. At the 2013 ceremony, Skrillex cleaned up the categories for which he was nominated, but the night’s more notable winners were folk-revival acts like Mumford & Sons, who took home Album of the Year. Dance and electronic music, James C. McKinley Jr. at The New York Times wrote, were mostly absent:

The nominations for the top four awards seemed to ignore what many in the music industry saw as the biggest trend last year—the continuing growth of electronic dance music as a genre and the influence of its heavily mechanized and computer-generated sounds on Top 40 pop songs. None of those artists—Skrillex, Avicii, Calvin Harris, Swedish House Mafia—were nominated in the top four categories, though all were on the list for best dance or electronica album.

Despite how easy they are to make fun of, the Grammys still drive record sales in a challenged industry and break less-known acts into the mainstream. So fans of dance music—or just of the idea that the music industry’s most-famous showcase should actually reflect what’s happening in the music industry—might be heartened by how this Sunday’s ceremony is shaping up. In 2014, the Grammy Awards are actually trying to take dance music seriously. Again. For real this time.

The nominations offered a few reasons to be optimistic. Historically, the awards’ categories that recognize dance and electronica music have been even more inexplicable and out of touch than the rest of the Grammys’. The prize for Best Dance Recording, first given in 1998 to Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder, has tended to favor pop and R&B singers releasing beat-heavy material rather than actual electronica artists. Until they won that award in 2009 for a track off their live album, EDM pioneers Daft Punk were passed over several times for artists like Janet Jackson, whose "All For You," while a great pop song, didn’t enjoy the same life span as the French duo's "One More Time" and wasn't as innovative when it came to dance production. (This is also the same category that gave the Baha Men an award for "Who Let the Dogs Out" in 2001 over Eiffel 65, Moby, Enrique Iglesias, and Jennifer Lopez, so there’s that.)

But this year, Daft Punk has five chances to walk away with a trophy—in some of night’s most high-profile categories. The band’s ubiquitous "Get Lucky" is up for Record of the Year, a category that celebrates the performer as well as the production and engineering (as opposed to songwriting for Song of the Year) but tends to favor artists who are relatively analog—like Adele, Lady Antebellum, and Amy Winehouse. The album that spawned "Get Lucky," Random Access Memories, is also nominated for Album of the Year, which, as Chicago Tribune critic Greg Kot noted, is an honor that hasn’t gone to a dance record since the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack in 1979. Daft Punk is also set to perform alongside Stevie Wonder during Sunday’s telecast. Outside of 2012's misguided tribute, electronic and dance acts rarely perform at the ceremony, and, unsurprisingly given the Grammy's fondness for collaborations, the appearances are usually in support of another musician. (Daft Punk performed behind Kanye West in 2008 after sampled them on “Stronger.”)

Then again, maybe any Grammy recognition Daft Punk gets this year should come with an asterisk. That's because on Random Access Memories, the band ditched their normal recording techniques and instead paid homage to the 1970s with live, vintage instrumentation and session musicians. Coming from a field so often misunderstood by the Grammys, Daft Punk offered the most Grammy-friendly dance album it could give. (To say nothing of Random Access Memories’ enthusiastic critical reception and the album’s own musical merits.)

But there’s another sign that the Grammys are taking dance and electronic more seriously, and it has nothing to do with Daft Punk. The Lifetime Achievement Award is usually one of the less-interesting, more self-indulgent segments of the show, but this year, it’s actually worth paying attention to. Alongside the Beatles, the Grammys will honor the German electronica icons Kraftwerk, who paved the way for so many synthesizer-based acts and influenced the likes of Bowie, Blondie, Bono, and Björk. (Kraftwerk is the first electronic act to ever receive the Grammy's Lifetime Achievement Award.) The fact that the enigmatic group—which rarely appears in person, often shuns interviews, and uses secret studios—is getting recognized alongside four famous lads from Liverpool is no accident: “’The Beatles and Kraftwerk’ may not have the ring of ‘The Beatles and the Stones’, but nonetheless, these are the two most important bands in history,” wrote Tony Naylor in the NME back in 2005.

In 2012, the Grammy Awards paid lip service to EDM by spotlighting the biggest names of the moment. In 2014, the Grammys are up to something far less flashy, but far more meaningful: Recognizing dance and electronica music as legitimate by genres by simply giving their most influential acts credit where it's due.

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Nolan Feeney is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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