This year, veteran androids Daft Punk may get more than lucky at the Grammys, as the first electronic group in history to get nominated for Album of the Year — we know it's for an album with live drums on it, but baby steps, people. In addition, the Grammys will honor their robot forefathers Kraftwerk with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Combining this with nominations for artists like Disclosure, Pretty Lights, Zedd and Calvin Harris, this is easily the ceremony's best year for electronic music. But it wasn't always this way. Here's the rough road that the Grammys danced along to get here. By Julianne Escobedo Shepherd and Christopher R. Weingarten
Somehow, the Grammys didn't discover disco until it had been around for nearly a decade. That's eight years after "Love Train" became the first disco track to top Billboard. That's three years after a disco version of the Star Wars cantina song was made. That's months after a riot of rockers chanting "Disco sucks!" left a pile of 12-inches on fire on Chicago's Comiskey Park. Gloria Gaynor won with "I Will Survive" but the Grammys, kowtowing to the haters, chopped this category as quickly as they wedged it in, thus ignoring dance music for almost two more decades out of fear that — what? Some bearded Pink Floyd fans might show up at their houses with picket signs?
After disco died (and the Disco Recording category with it), the 1980s dance music underground surged forward, emerging with more innovations than any other decade in electronic music history. Italo disco, acid house, Detroit techno, hi-NRG, electrofunk, Miami bass and other regional scenes were changing the world, but none of this registered on the Grammy radar — though they always did seem to find five nominees for the Best Polka Album. In the 1990s, Rolling Stone was busy running cover lines — the Orb, Junior Vasquez, Moby — that foretold the coming electronica storm, and the Grams finally caught on with the inaugural Best Dance Recording Category in 1998. Not that it was smooth sailing: They hilariously overcompensated by giving the award to Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer, who should have won the hypothetical 1978 Dance Grammy for "I Feel Love." Meanwhile, the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers, who had released two of the most successful dance albums in history, were locked out entirely.
Fatboy Slim's headbanging, infectious, repetitive stress soundtrack "The Rockafeller Skank" was the critical success of 1998 that wasn't named "Lauryn Hill," launching Norman Cook into the top tier of working DJs. However the Best Dance Recording category hadn't even left the days of Dire Straits wanting their MTV. The nominees? Boy George, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Gloria Estefan and robots-out-of-water (and ultimate losers that year) Daft Punk. Frankie say what?
Woof! Woof, woof, woof! As easy as it would be to make fun of Baha Men for snatching the award for Best Dance Recording, honestly the entire category was a mess. Should they have been beaten by Eiffel 65's insufferable "Blue (Da Ba Dee)" gimmick, a song so grating and off-key it made Aqua's "Barbie Girl" sound like prescient millennial innovation? Or would you have preferred "Let's Get Loud," a corny, watered-down Jennifer Lopez number that seemed like the Grammys' consolation for handing over the Latin Pop award to Shakira? It was the Baha Men's shining moment. We must let them live.
In between success as a Commodore and his current life as country crooner, Lionel Richie briefly tried his hand at dancing on more than the ceiling. The limp single "Angel" — it sounds like Seal on a weak house track — was a relative flop when it was released in 2000, peaking at Number 70 on Billboard. But Grammy voters clearly recognized the name "Lionel Richie" on a ballot or something and a Dance Recording Grammy nominee was born. And to think Basement Jaxx was completely locked out. Where's their head at?
Electronic music fans bristled at the word "electronica" in the Nineties, so it felt like a relic by they time the Grammys introduced the new category in 2005 for "Best Dance/Electronica Album." Though couldn't have come as too much a shock since most of the nominees — Crystal Method, the Prodigy, Paul van Dyk — could have won back in 1997 too.
The only thing we can venture to speculate about this one is that the bros go with what they know. Chemical Brothers' "Galvanize" was vastly inferior to LCD Soundsystem's "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House" — and far less connected to both the larger and the underground dance music cultures of 2006, as well — but by this point the Chem Bros were essentially the Paul McCartney of electronic acts.
Look. We're not making any excuses for Madonna's competitors in the Best Electronic/Dance Album category in 2007. Paul Oakenfold is Paul Oakenfold is Paul Oakenfold, while Zero 7's best achievement remains bringing Sia to the world. But Confessions on a Dance Floor, Madge's disco-aspirational tenth album, deserved a pop award rather than the token big-ups in a category in which literally no one else could compete with the queen. It's Madonna, and "Get Together" was a jam. Pet Shop Boys' also-nominated album was blowing in the tumbleweeds.
You could probably dance to MySpace-y Los Angeles electro-rock band Shiny Toy Guns if the only music you've ever danced to was someone spinning Human League at your college town's "Eigties night." But is that any world we'd want to live in?
It was like the only qualifier for "Best Dance Recording" up to 2010 was "uses synth somewhere in the mix." Gaga's "Poker Face" took it away, and while it was huge on the charts, it's nonetheless a 120 BPM middle-banger, memorable for its verses' flat monotony and a tempo literally anyone could dance to with little commitment. Regardless, any one of the songs nominated for this category could easily have been swapped with any of the songs nominated in the pop categories, although props to David Guetta — nominated with Kelly Rowland for "When Love Takes Over" — for humping the 4/4 while having a rave-y hairdo.
In 2010, dubstep was mainstreaming, R&B singers were making electronic records and the baby that would become known as EDM was beginning to emerge. Yet the Grammys' perception of dance music seemed to be fully planted in chart hits. In the year Crookers collaborated with Pitbull, Magnetic Man brought the world Katy B, and LCD Soundsystem dropped his final album, the members of the nomination committee couldn't seem to find a record that wasn't also pop. You could do way worse than Rihanna, Robyn, LaRoux, Goldfrapp and Gaga — but were the categories not so rigid or tied to popularity, it could been had a better representation of the movement set to devour the world.
"I'm leaving for tour tomorrow and there wasn't enough time for what I wanted to do, prepare," Skrillex told Billboard about why he didn't land his awesome spaceship on the Grammy stage. In their attempt to acknowledge EDM — a genre that reached critical mass in 2011 — the Awards invited David Guetta and Deadmau5 to perform instead. Likely scared that a French fortysomething twisting knobs and a dude in a blinking mouse head might not make the most compelling television, they had Foo Fighters "jam" with the Mau5. The intention was probably supposed to spark "Hey, this isn't that much different than rock" debates, but it just seemed like a mash-up that wouldn't blend.
And the nominees for Best Dance Recording are: Skrillex, Swedish House Mafia, Calvin Harris, Avicii and. . .Al Walser? While his competitors were dominating festival stages, this "entertainment mogul" had fewer than 7,000 YouTube plays total for his nominated song, "I Can't Live Without You." How did this happen? One theory we alluded to last year: "Walser is well connected in Grammy circles: he's a voter, and he's active on Grammy365, a social networking site for the awards. He also solicits opinions from people he's networked with while working on songs, which means many Grammy voters know who he is." As Walser told MTV, "Thousands of people have been part of the process of my songs. So probably when it came to ballot time they were very familiar with my name. There's nothing wrong with [that]."
The Grammys had had their dalliance with electronic music and appeared to be over it, despite the fact that EDM was still raking in buckets of money and attracting record festival attendees. (In 2012, Electric Daisy Carnival's main Vegas event alone attracted 300,000 people.) But astronomical DJ fees and touring proceeds does not the Grammys make, so after gesturing to the genre with a 2012 performance, the fickle board brushed its Dance Awards to the side. Skrillex swept both dance categories and Best Remixed Recording, but there was barely any visual evidence: The Grammys, weary of your blips and your bleeps, neglected to air any of it on the television.