The Grammy Problem
Give it to Bon Iver – or rather Justin Vernon, who anchors the atmospheric songscapers. When the big-time network TV folks decided to come up with a way to stage his kind of “obscure music” to the bing-bang-boom conditioned viewership, he balked. If his songs were good enough to help his loose coalition of players earn four nominations – Song and Record of the Year for “Holocene,” Alternative Album for Bon Iver and Best New Artist – then he wants his music to stand on its own. Certainly its merits more than carried the Wisconsin-based musician on Saturday Night Live. And regardless of Vernon’s long line of collaborators – from Kanye West to the Chieftains, Flaming Lips to Alicia Keys to Kathleen Edwards – that doesn’t mean his music should be reduced to an event. No matter how much the 30 second chunks of advertising are being sold for. (Hint: $800,000 each.) Strip everything away, including America’s quick-hit, sensational/emotional manipulation, American Idol attention span, and Bon Iver earned their critical mass. With 300,000 copies sold before the Grammy nominations, not to mention Pitchfork’s Best Album of 2011 honors, this a bona fide act.
If the Grammys – and their blue ribbon panel that oversees the nomination slate to make sure no more Jethro Tull inaugural Best Heavy Metal wins happen by virtue of an aging voter base – want to use Vernon’s music for credibility, then they need to honor his vision. Or acknowledge the Grammy telecast is no longer about honoring music really, but rather creating a television event that uses music to differentiate it from the Oscars, the Golden Globes and the People’s Choice Awards.
Because you can’t have it both ways.
If you want the cred, know these artists won’t be packaged for maximum sizzle. Or admit: this is about sexy television; embrace Stiff Records’ sometimes slogan of “Fuck Art! Let’s Dance.” Just don’t play high and mighty, credible and exclusive – and miss the point. Especially when the ballot’s engineered for maximum spread and legitimacy.
The impact of the music community’s expectations and television’s indifference to anything but big stars manifested in “category trimming” that was anything but discerning. Across the board cuts – and yes, perhaps there were too many “pop,” “jazz” and “urban” variations – found Country Music collapsed into Solo Vocal and Duo, Group or Event. If the Grammys want to suggest there are not five excellent Male and Female vocalists in the genre… and that’s before getting into the fringe beyond mainstream country radio, they’re lost. Country’s always fielded hardcore singers – and Taylor Swift’s awkward Stevie Nicks collaboration aside, still does. And pitting Collaborations, designed for wow! factor over musicality, against working Duos or Groups misses the point. Sugarland builds a body of work against the burden of day-in and day-out, not the gilded moment of two stars colliding. What makes a band or a duo stand out is their chemistry and how it reflects the audience – and not the shock factor of American Idol Kelly Clarkson with hardcore roughneck Jason Aldean.
Country – to NARAS – is a fringe category. Never mind being the largest radio format in America, nor that it routinely puts the most butts in seats of any touring genre. It’s not cool; it’s lame, so cut it down. Oh, and those hot-shot pickers? Forget their instrumental category. If it doesn’t work in Rock, the hillbillies can’t have it either. ‘Cause all genres are created equal.
That said, the more egregious slight is the seeming victory of the Americana Grammy. Renamed the Contemporary Folk category, it became a catch-all for acts that didn’t have a clear category. Rather than create a slate for one of the most artistically vital genres there is, Contemporary Folk became a dumping ground, ranging from the Civil Wars to Los Lobos, Ry Cooder to Carolina Chocolate Drops. All are fascinating, but why are they fighting amongst themselves, when they could – especially with the legend factor of Bruce Springsteen, Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, the Band and Bonnie Raitt – easily field a whole slate? Best Male, Female, Duo/Group, Event. Album, Song: no problem.
Argue among yourselves who you’d nominate. It’ll be lively dinner table conversation. As the Grammys once inspired. Not about why they are lame, but who was better, who deserved it more. It’s important. Especially since this music not only matters, but for these artists, Grammys – and nominations – become a major part of promoting albums, selling tickets and grounding their existence beyond the Learjet and Prevost lanes.
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