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So What Exactly Do The Grammy Awards Award?

55thgrammy

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. 

  • El Camino – Black Keys
  • Some Nights – Fun
  • Babel – Mumford & Sons
  • Channel Orange – Frank Ocean
  • Blunderbuss – Jack White

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-channel-orange-e1341897653302Frank 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. fun-some-nights

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.”2012-02-13T050843Z 01 LOA522 RTRIDSP 3 GRAMMYS

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?

Comedy Central Finds Election Night A Perfect Party Time

olivia--sisterThere's no better way to assuage election night jitters than to drown oneself in drink and stuff faces with food. Especially with such an important race as President Barack Obama vs former Governor Mitt Romney.

So on Tuesday night at the Edison Ballroom in Times Square, Comedy Central held its Indecision 2012 election night party with a large partisan Democratic crowd including such personalities as Olivia Wilde and Adrian Grenier.

The gargantuan space had television monitors hanging from every corner turned to all the stations, including ABC, CBS, CNN, Bloomberg TV and PBS. The television set airing FOX news coverage seemed to be hidden behind a pillar -- not inappropriate though much to their chagrin they were early in calling the election for Obama.

The party crowd drank red-white-and blue hued drinks and munched on sliders, mac & cheese, risotto and dumplings -- such obviously American food. And the décor was a riot of patriotic colors and decorations. Lots of presidential Bobble-Heads, donkey and elephant images.

Upon entering guests were given scratch-off tickets by attractive women in blue wigs and sexy, red halter gowns. Truely patriotic. The loot you could win -- and almost every ticket was a winner -- could be redeemed for Comedy Central t-shirts, glasses and other branded stuff, which made for a nice touch and keepsake memories of Election Night.

Best of all were the Mitt and Barack bobble heads -- but you had to move quick. The Prez’s head went fast, though the Mitt head may be the more collectible -- loser memorabilia usually is.

Attendees enjoyed a patriotic photo booth and a half-elephant, half-donkey cake weighing about 300 lbs. Plush couches in the seating areas had pillows picturing copulating elephants and donkeys, that is donkeys humping elephants and vice versa -- what else. The x-rated pillows were a hot item and guests made off with them even as you leaned against them to watch the news coverage. Meanwhile, the DJ worked a mix of songs from the late 1990s throwing in an occasional song by Adele

Celebrity guests that were spotted mixing with everyone included 30 Rock-ers John Lutz and Scott Adsit, actors Grenier in an Obama t-shirt and Wilde with her activist attorney sister Chloe Cockburn.

Wilde carried on the patriotic color scheme in her fuzzy hat and blue-and-white starred hand knit sweater. Someone asked if she bought the sweater for tonight’s event. “No, I knitted it when I was a child,” she cracked with a smile. 

And in between posing for photographs Wilde kept up a steady stream of tweets.

At 10:59 she tweeted, “AMERICA! You have spoken! Women! You have been heard! Young people! You proved them wrong! Tireless Obama volunteers! I THANK YOU!”

At 11 p.m. the television sets were turned to the Daily Show’s special coverage of Jon Stewart’s “Election Night 2012: This Ends Now,” followed by Stephen Colbert’s “The Re-Presidenting of America: Who Will Replace Obama?” Stewart announced the election results and Obama’s win mid-way through his show and soon waiters passed around the champagne. 

At 12:30 am, after the broadcasts, Wilde tweeted, “Real talk: this country is amazing. We take for granted a peaceful transfer of power. No tanks in the streets (unless Trump is driving).”

The party was a blast but had a strange hallucinatory vibe; the mainstream news reporting with their team of “experts” and statisticians converged closer than ever that night to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show coverage and news reporting by their “best F#@ing News Team Ever” of funny faux pundits. 

It was all a massive celebration and a little after 1 a.m. the well-lubricated happy election party guests left happily with their t-shirts, Obama bobble heads and fornicating pillows.

Kati Marton´s Paris Love Story

Paris: A Love Story is a contest between a city and a state (of mind) over which one will become the main subject. Kati Marton’s new book doubles as a valentine to the French capital and a réquiem for Paris a Love Storyheartbreak and loss. 

The author and newswoman first lived in Paris as a student during the turbulent 60s. She would subsequently return during marriages to the late anchorman Peter Jennings and diplomat Richard Holbrooke.

It was her grief over Holbrooke’s death in 2010 that moved her to write this memoir, as a catharsis. Anyone who has lost so much as a cat will recognize the slow-motion of mourning and rewind of surrender as her memories flicker and glow.  

By no means are these all home movies. Some of the most poignant passages replay Marton’s career as a foreign correspondent for ABC News. Though her rocky relationship with Jennings culminated in divorce in 1994, it also scaled ecstatic highs. For all of his insecurities – and attempts to clip her wings – per Marton, her ABC boss and father of her two children also joined her in romantic quests for headline news.

The daughter of two Hungarian reporters has journalism in her blood. katimartonBorn in Budapest in 1949, she and her family fled to America following the 1956 uprising. Marton recalls the childhood trauma of returning home to find her parents gone; she later learned that they were jailed on false charges of espionage.

Later still, she would discover that her parents were Holocaust survivors. Having been raised Roman Catholic, Marton was stunned to discover her own Jewish roots. Several of her books reflect a deep curiosity about her heritage, including Enemies of the People, about Marton's parents, and The Great Escape, about nine Hungarian Jews who escaped Hitler to become influential world figures.

At 63, she still cops to having a “Hungarian temper,” which calm, sturdy Holbrooke apparently knew how to handle. The then Ambassador to Germany plied his diplomatic skills from their earliest courtship. Swanning into Paris at Christmastime of 1993 as she was leaving Jennings, he swanned out -- with her -- to Chartres and the Loire Valley castles. Five days and many history chats later, the two were clutching hands. She writes of their developing bond, "He said that he had waited a long time for me, and I was for him, and that was that."

Over 17 years of marriage, they would gallivant across continents, nestle in Paris and entertain world luminaries in New York, where Holbrooke was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. As a special envoy for Bill Clinton, he even brought Marton to the Dayton talks concluding the Bosnian War -- and seated her at dinner between antagonists Milosevic and Alija Izetbegovic.

Time and physical separation would take a toll on the perfect couple. Kati admitted to having a brief Holbrookeaffair while researching The Great Escape in Hungary. Ever cool in crisis, Holbrooke stayed the course and they forged a new bond. When not in the same airspace, the two would regularly reconnoitre by phone, including during his stint as U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It was one of these long-distance calls that would thrust her into the saddest chapter of her Parisian love story. The seemingly invincible Holbrooke reached Marton from an ambulance hurtling toward a hospital in Washington, D.C., where he had just collapsed. “I feel a pain I have never felt,” he told her in fear. “I am on my way!” she assured him. “Those were my last words to Richard.”

The book opens with a near blow-by-blow account of this calamity and the events leading up to it. While few readers will have garnered sympathy from the likes of Hillary Clinton or Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Marton relays their caring in a way that invites all to share in the shock.

Whether writing Paris helped its bereaved author to heal is unclear. What's certain is her message: "We'll always have Paris." 

Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art Re-Opens with New Partner

society of illustratorsIn July The Museum of Cartoon and Comic Art (MoCCA) shut down their SoHo location at 594 Broadway that they had occupied since 2001, leaving people to speculate what would be the future for the prestigious organization and the MoCCA Fest.

It has been recently been announced by Society of Illustrators Executive Director Anelle Miller that MoCCA’s assets have been transferred to the Society of Illustrators and that MoCCA will now share a space with the Society at 128 E. 63 Street. MoCCA will continue the programming it is known for, including master classes MoCCA Thursday Events and MoCCA Fest.

The Society will curate a special exhibition of works from MoCCA’s permanent collection in their Hall of Fame Gallery (on display March 5 - May 4, 2013), which will run in conjunction with a major exhibit, The Comic Art of Harvey Kurtzman.

The Society of Illustrators was formed in 1901 and has honored illustrators such as

Will Eisner
Milton Caniff
Al Capp
Mort Walker
Winsor McCay
Rube Goldberg
Al Jaffee

MoCCA President Ellen Abramowitz stated, “The Society of Illustrators is the perfect fit for MoCCA and its members. MoCCA’s fundamental principles will continue to be guided by the steady hand of the Society and its terrific staff. The two organizations are a wonderful match, where attendees, members, and fans will have it all under one roof in New York City. To be welcomed into the home of celebrated artists and publishers by a first-rate organization will serve to ensure that the foundation upon which MoCCA was built will continue to have a bright future.”

Here’s hoping that MoCCA can continue to be one of the foremost organizations exhibiting and fostering the work of animators and comic artists with their new partner.

To learn more, go to http://www.societyillustrators.org/

The Society of Illustrators
128 E. 63 Street
New York, NY 10065

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