Not Simply The Best: The Grammy Awards, Race, And America

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Critical Race
Media Industries
Music Industry
Popular Culture
African American Studies
Mass Communication
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This dissertation critically analyzes the global music industry’s premiere event, the GRAMMY Awards. It takes the mainstream music industry as its object of study, illustrating the ways in which a cultural-industrial apparatus contains within its foundations the myths, symbols, assumptions, and biases of the world in which it operates. The music industry has remained an amorphous object in media industry studies work, and when it has been critically theorized, it has been done so inchoately. Through archival research in the trade press; interviews with journalists, industry workers, and stakeholders; and conceptual theorizing, this project historicizes the discursive and material conditions surrounding the GRAMMYs’ vision of itself and of music. It suggests that industrialized music and its most public-facing event have at their roots a set of under-examined race-based attitudes. Its intention is to further understand further the place of racist and race-based decision-making on the part of the Recording Academy voters and organizational structure throughout the history of the awards show, connecting these decisions to their broader cultural and industrial contexts. This dissertation asks the field of communication studies to consider the extent to which race mediates our industrial and capital relations as well as our mass-mediated soundscape, again considering the discursive and material conditions of the racial state. At the same time, it encourages a renewed emphasis within the field on music as mediated text and race as media, with an emphasis on the popular music industry as a media industry and the GRAMMY Awards as a media event. Ultimately, this dissertation identifies and explicates the institutionalization of racial attitudes, specifically with regard to merit and artistic excellence in music. The history of the GRAMMYs’ determinations of greatness is also a history in which atmospheric racist and race-based attitudes cohere in voters’ opinions of what quality is and is not. This dissertation lays bare an unacknowledged racial politics at the root of what greatness in music might mean. It suggests that mainstream conclusions about artistic excellence ultimately carry and reinforce long-held ideas about coded racial superiority in high/low culture hierarchies and musical genres and styles.

John L. Jackson, Jr.
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