Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Brief (Yea Right) Thought on Sunday's Grammys

Another year has gone by and thus another awards ceremony where music's 1% has been paraded around on stage like a show dog has illuminated our television sets.  Each year is a mix of celebration for those in the 'in' crowd and scathing critique from those outside of it.  Sometimes those critics are even invited inside the coveted circle of The Grammy cabal, and more often than not they fall rank and file into the collective.

Every year that passes by we get a similar set of writings and musings from armchair critics (like yours truly) who point out that The Grammys are pointless, poorly constructed, and should die out much like the African Black Rhino (too soon?).  They are not in the wrong either, as most do make a valid point.  There are plenty of well developed and well thought criticisms of the awards show that pin-point the massive errors that are ingrained into the architecture of the ceremony.

First and foremost, and I think the genuine epicenter of the issue is how dated the ceremony is in its concept.  In the late fifties, when The Grammys were developed there was simply far less recorded music being developed.  The amount of labels were fewer, and the amount of genres in existence were also less.  The job of listening to every 2013 release would be a full time position, and one that would result in countless hours of slogging through endless releases spanning styles so far and wide it would be preposterous to make heads or tails out of all it.

I can respect that certain releases will not even make it into consideration; the local garage bands or desktop musicians are unlikely to receive the golden sippy cup any time soon, regardless of the quality of their release, and that I think is an acceptable concession to be made.  The sheer volume of releases results in obvious cut-off that may not make everyone happy, but at least puts a healthy set of boundaries on what is and is not accepted.

In addition, it is accepted that niche genres will likely not make it into the winner's circle either.  As much as it may pain some listeners of Psychic TV, Hella, or Lightning Bolt, their beloved musical acts are probably not going to win an award either by sheer fact that the music is too unconventional for the average listener and too abrasive.  I love all the above mentioned bands (as I have a penchant for nonsense), but I can accept that I will probably never see Zach Hill smash his drum kit into oblivion inside the Staples Center anytime soon (aside from the one time he did dismantle his drum kit inside a stadium).

Both of the above considerations are compensated by independent publications who have general interest in under the radar niche music.  Websites like Pitchfork, Tiny Mix Tapes, and sometimes even this little carnival of journalism have no problem giving praise to the basement show heroes.  It seems reassuring to many fans of these genres (myself included) that there do exist venues in which this kind of music gets its day in the sun.  As long as the avenues exist we are not at such a loss.

All of this I can accept and do so without much thought to the issue.  As cool as it would be to see Tera Melos do a duet with   Ringo Starr I know that the chances of the former Thomas The Tank Engine narrator singing Skin Surf are none to less than none.  These artists are from seemingly separate worlds with clearly different ideas of what music can be and what it means to be a professional musician.

The bloated fanfare of The Grammys is not the real issue.  Nor is the issue the denial of smaller more experimental artists.  No, the crux of the issue, then, is the stance of the NARA which is that this award ceremony is an end all be all for music awards and accolades.  It is not, it is not even close, and it has never made a single effort to truly be such beyond its own claim.

Again, there is no issue with the Grammys being an celebration of big label artists and a few token indie acts (I'll get to that), but then acknowledge it as such.  Take ownership of the fact that the show is more of glitz-upped showcase of chart topping acts that helped make record companies a boat load of money that year.  This is even apparent in the fact that certain categories are awarded off-camera at pre-show events that barely acknowledge the winners at all.  The lack of respect to those artists is a bold faced disrespect to those parties involved.  This an event for investors, celebrating yearly earnings on live television, not music.

I get it, it all boils down to money.  What kind of ceremony would bring in the most viewers which results in the best advertising revenue?  Do you think millions of Americans are going to tune in to see The Knife weird up their airwaves?  No, and they might find the prospect slightly more offensive than ultra conservatives found the marrying of same-sex couples on Sunday's show.  The typical music consumer is totally ok with hearing Get Lucky one more time, and they love seeing half of The Beatles half-ass a song so they can add some more money to their literal mountain of currency.  None of that is wrong, and those who stick up their nose at those prospects need to not be so bent out of shape.  The prospect of a night of musical mash-ups showcasing the year in review is fun and does provide for some pretty interesting one-off performances even if they do get cut-off mid act.

It is the coupling of all of this grandiose pomp and circumstance with the awards is where I begin to raise my eyebrow.  The complete lack of acknowledgement of the majority of the independent music scene shows how completely out of touch the NARA folks are with today's music.  Not to discredit The Heist as it was a genuinely great album, but rap album of the year?  Is everyone smoking some heavy drugs that I missed out on?  While that alone raises skepticism, a look at the nominations cause full out alarms.  Among the nominees was Jay-Z's Magna Carta...Holy Grail an album Jay-Z himself said was average by his own standards and the reviews reflected the same.  Yet somehow it is now one of the top 5 albums of the year?  Whose job is it to nominate these albums?  In conjunction a lot of great independent rappers were left in the cold, neglected, and ignored such as Run The Jewels (an album that made it on many publications best of lists) or Death Grip's insanity fueled No Love Deep Web to name a few.  A look at all the hip-hop categories indicates the NARA listened to maybe 6 rap albums total in the course of a year which is a comically small pool of music diversity.  The rule seems to be that if your album sold 2 million copies or you have been making music for over thirty years you are a shoe-in to win something.  Is it just me or does it seem record sales seem to equate 'quality'?

Now if there was some sales cut-off point that existed or some other prerequisite then again I would put up my hands and acknowledge the system for what it is, but there is allegedly no such thing.  Yet we still see the same trend of major pop acts and festival headliners getting nominations they really did not deserve.  While I agree with Daft Punk getting album of the year, the majority of the nominations in the list read more like the NARA members looked at their kids ipod playlist rather than involve any critical listening.  Red?  Seriously?  I know Ryan has a soft-spot for Taylor, and her song writing skills have indeed evolved, but is there a joke I am missing here?

This criticism of being completely out of touch must have reached the panel at some point as they began the proud tradition of picking one or two more independent acts and parading them around like an African-American at the Republican National Convention.  This cheap acknowledgement hit its apex when Arcade Fire won the 2011 album of the year award for The Suburbs.  This is not to say it did not deserve the award, but rather it seemed more like a desperate attempt to appeal to an audience the Grammys had long lost rather than a genuine acknowledgement of the shift in power in the music world.  Since then a modest parading of indie acts has commenced, with the nominees being shoehorned into the alternative category as some sort of consolation prize no one wants to win.  Even fewer indie artists ever make it to the stage.  Nate Ruess was this years prize show pony.  Perhaps Grimmes will do a duet with Lorde next year.

What this leaves us is the question of how to resolve a continually compounding issue of pandering to the masses in exchange for throwing integrity out the window faster a Ukrainian protestor can throw a Molotov Cocktail.  The way I see it, there are a few possible solutions to the problem, some more realistic than others.

First is the least likely, and that is The Grammys do the honorable thing and put the what seem already obvious limitations on the nomination process.  Dictate that the album had to have had X number of sales to be considered, have had to have been on a major label, or have had some level of radio play.  These all seem to be preexisting conditions that the ceremony refuses to admit.  Be upfront about how the process goes about and the detractors will at least have much less to argue about because its all there in the bold print.  Even if a system does not work in your favor it is hard to as bent out of shape when it is transparent. When you live in North Korea you know the election is rigged and there is little denial of it.  In Russia they still try to validate the charade.

Second, get rid of the awards component.  Turn The Grammys into a showcase of popular music that wowed us and dominated our airwaves in the past year.  Use it as a chance to give the viewers one last listen to those iconic hits that we are just about sick of hearing.  The musical acts are the highlight of the show and should be the focal point instead of any superficial trophies that hold little critical water (or Hennessy).  This is an option that I think most viewers would actually support as I believe most viewers are only interested in the performances anyway, seeing the awards as brief annoying intermissions where people awkwardly thank mom, dad, and god for all their support.  This would allow for more performances and more general fun for everyone.  Likely more drinking too, and if we can learn anything from The Golden Globes, more drinking means more fun for the viewers.

Finally, if the status-qua will not change, create an alternative.  If you don't like Coke you can drink Pepsi, if you don't like Walmart you can shop at Target.  If you don't like The Grammys you can watch the _____ instead.  There is clearly a large enough gap that would allow for a second awards show.  It would be obviously smaller and lower budget, but the artists would be smaller and thus would warrant the less extreme budget involved.  It would be a chance for Melt-Banana  or Fuck Buttons to be on national Television (or maybe The Food Network) showing what they can do.  It would give a chance to give public acknowledgment to Lou Reed without the striking multi-tiered irony surrounding the gesture at The Grammys.

The takeaway is that the current system barely functions and continues to collapse slowly.  There are good elements to The Grammys and the concept alone is great as it gives music a chance to flex its muscles and be celebrated.  These are all good things.  The presiding issues are how the system is broken and there unfortunately appear to be no efforts to remedy in site.