Everyone -- from indie rockers to jazz legends to pop giants -- wants a Grammy Award. They also seem to have their own (usually self-serving) idea of what exactly the Grammy awards should be rewarding.
When The Recording Academy announced the 2012 Grammy Award nominees on December 5th (the ceremony airs February 10th on CBS at 8PM EST), Edward Droste of the highly acclaimed indie band Grizzly Bear was disappointed that their lauded 2012 effort Shields had not been recognized. He blamed the awards’ commercial bias.
This is a popular opinion -- that a Grammy is an award for doing your part to keep the music industry financially viable by selling tons of albums.
Droste took to twitter to air his complaint:
“@edwarddroste: So the Grammies (sic) are literally based off sales and nothing else?#bummerzone”
Elsewhere in cyberspace, the manager of mega-seller (and also non-nominated) Justin Bieber seemed to confirm Droste’s worst fears, voicing this grievance:
“@scooterbraun: the hardest thing to do is to transition, keep the train moving. The kid delivered. Huge successful album, sold out tour, and won people over…”
Braun’s position: Bieber did exactly what the Grammys demand. He made a ton of money.
So if the Grammys neither reward artistic achievement nor financial success, what do they recognize?
This year’s nominations for best album were all big-selling, relatively critically acclaimed records. The list makes it pretty clear that this year you needed a bit of both to be considered.
The Black Keys are a lightweight blues band that pays homage to classic rock signatures while stacking up alt rock hits.
Fun is a genre-bending pop band that references Queen and Elton John (and, oh yeah, they had two number one hits from their most recent record.)
Mumford & Sons has championed the roots-music revival (with their own sonic twists) beloved by many critics, as well as selling over 600,000 copies of their sophomore release in one week earlier this year.
Frank Ocean, a post-Drake croon-rapper, knows how to write music that sells (he’s written songs for Justin Bieber, ironically) and edgy stuff that critics eat up (He’s part of indie hip-hop collective and critic darlings Odd Future.)
Jack White fronted the White Stripes -- the biggest selling, critically hailed edgy-esque blues band of the 2000s. His new record, a quirky mix of blues, soul, and modern rock was a hit with the critics but lacked a big single. Still, it debuted at number one because of his existing fan base.
The winners of the prize over the last decade or so have included Adele, Taylor Swift, Norah Jones, OutKast, Ray Charles (thanks in part duets with mega stars like Norah Jones and James Taylor), Arcade Fire, Dixie Chicks, and Robert Plant with Alison Krause. All of them made their mark with critics as well as consumers.
Were there "better" records (according to critics) than this year’s nominees or previous winners? Yes, of course.
Were there bigger sellers? Yes (with the exception of Adele, Taylor Swift, and possibly Mumford and Sons depending on how the year finishes out). But for the most part these records hit that Grammy Award sweet spot -- somewhere in the middle.
It seems like the Grammys are acknowledging artists who’ve successfully taken this middle road, making music just unchallenging enough to appeal to casual listeners and engaging enough to stand up to critical scrutiny.
There’s nothing wrong with that. But why do the Grammys -- seemingly America’s most prestigious music honor -- reward this particular compromise between artistic ambition and mainstream appeal?
Most people are not professional musicians. They don’t have the room in their lives -- or even the desire -- to endlessly reflect on the deeper musical and thematic meaning of a single album or even an musician’s career.
But even people with nothing at stake in music other than enjoyment -- given the opportunity -- like to go casually deep. This is true across all art and entertainment platforms.
Snarky smart and well-reviewed indie-flick Juno was a box office smash ($166 million on a budget of $7.5 million) while a brainless and panned big-budget action picture Battleship was a total flop ($65 million on a budget of $209 million).
Likewise, last year’s universally acclaimed sports documentary (by far the most popular kind of documentary) Undefeated made $166,000.
The lesson: People like to think… but just a little.
The 2013 Grammy nominees all present engaging but relatively non-taxing experiences. They don’t pander to audiences’ surface desires (like Bieber) or hurl them down the rabbit hole (Grizzly Bear).
It’s easy to look down on musicians who take the middle road. In a sense, the extremes of Grizzly Bear and Justin Bieber seem more pure, more committed.
But music that finds a middle way between hard-core self-expression and raw greed has an important place in our culture. Maybe it’s the most appropriate music to celebrate at a public ceremony like the Grammy Awards.
It’s like a Grammy is an award for being a good friend (the current nominees) as opposed to a life partner (Grizzly Bear) or a one-night stand (Justin Bieber).
Most people don’t need to find life-partners in music. They look for that in their chosen pursuits. Those of us who are that committed to music have plenty of ways (the internet) to find albums that connect with us on a deeply personal level.
And we’re certainly not going discover those kinds of albums on a short list of records that thousands of people kind of like a lot. That shit is PERSONAL.
On the other hand, the radio is filled with musical one-night stands that we find ourselves borderline (or downright) ashamed of next month.
Do we really need a glitzy event celebrating them? Let’s be real. No one wants that. It would be embarrassing.
But friends -- especially good ones -- deserve to be appreciated and it feels good to do so in a public setting. They’re the ones that will talk to you about your problems but also show you a good time. They didn’t sign on to be your shrink, and they’re (probably) not going to sleep with you, but they’re always there. You don’t regret them next year but you wouldn’t die of sorrow if your lives diverged. Because 10 years from now you can call them up and they’re still your friend.
Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon offers a rebuttal that’s worth considering.
In consoling his fellow indie rocker Droste, he writes:
“@blobtower: this is why i hate the grammies. because it allows you to question what you’ve done. don’t question what you’ve done Ed.”
Music is about connecting people -- artist with listeners, artists with artists, listeners with listeners. Creating an exclusionary hierarchy by announcing (from a position of dubious authority) which music is better at that work is divisive and destructive. It sounds, looks and feels suspiciously like something non-artists would do to boost sales of their product.
And of course that is in fact what it’s about. We all know that everything anyone does for broadcast on a major network is largely about the money. My goofy metaphor about friendship starts to feel a little off when you consider that the Grammys are basically about two things: winning (ego) and money (power).
Leave it to human beings to turn something as pure as celebrating our love for artistic and emotional transcendence into a contest over cash.
But contests are fun! People love contests. And a lot them also love the music nominated this year. Maybe it’s as simple as that.
Vernon ambivalently accepted two Grammys last year. Speaking to the New York Times, he said that “98 percent of the people in that room, their art is compromised.”
No doubt some of the musicians he’s talking about have made a bargain with the devil. They’ve sold their artistic souls for sales. But for others, the compromise may be a little less horrifying. They’ve given up the right to plumb the darkest corners of their souls in order to reach more people in a more casual, often more enjoyable way.
Sounds like making a friend to me. Is there something wrong with that?