Dissecting the Grammys
When one considers the idea of a critic, there is a certain notion that some people’s opinions are more valid or relevant than others; it seems to be clear that the popularity of a thing is quite different than the quality of that thing. After all, millions and millions of copies of the Twilight novels have been sold, despite any evidence that there is a shred of good writing in any of these books. For better or for worse, this holds true with music just as it does with literature or film. When a hipster blogger tells you that she has better taste in music than you do and that this “taste” makes her opinions on the most recent Wilco or Lady Gaga release more important than yours, she is probably right. This sense (or even fact) of superiority is what causes establishments such as Pitchfork to be reviled by some (those who disagree with/don’t understand them) while adored by others (those who agree with them and/or live in Brooklyn). These same critics hold a certain disdain for traditional top 40 music; Nicki Minaj seems to appeal to the lowest common denominator of music consumers, just like Twilight does to readers (it’s been pointed out to me that her single “Super Bass” made Pitchfork’s Top Songs of 2011, but this track seems to be the exception, not the rule). Therefore, different types of music appeal to these folk outside mainstream music; they are independents, or “indie”.
The 2012 Grammys made an unprecedented effort to praise lesser-known music, appease the indie/blogger crowd, and include different types of artists into their traditional mainstream performances. They were at once pandering to critics, trying to gain buzz on Twitter, and attempting to please their older, traditional crowd. What should we make of this year’s event?
1. Bon Iver won the award for Best New Artist.
Lovers of indie (and, before that, alternative) music have always held the Grammy Awards with the upmost contempt; to many of them, the Grammys represent a circlejerk in which Los Angeles’ wealthiest musicians, producers, and celebrities come to celebrate everything that is wrong with the music industry—namely, the abandonment of true artistry for the sake of pursuing mansions and Lambos. However, this year’s Grammys threw a few monkey wrenches into this traditional narrative, namely with the surprise announcement of Bon Iver as Best New Artist over the likes of Nicki Minaj, Skrillex, and J. Cole.
This award continues the trend set by last year’s selection of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs as Album of the Year: rewarding indie acts with major awards over their more mainstream counterparts. While one could (and probably should) dispute the fact that Bon Iver is not anything close to a “new artist”, as 2011’s self-titled album was not even his first major release, it is more interesting to note that the powers-that-be which give out Grammys gave Bon Iver the nod despite the fact that Justin Vernon talked shit about the Grammys for weeks before the ceremony. Even during his acceptance speech, Vernon acknowledged that the Grammys weren’t really “for” artists like him, as he thanked “all the non-nominees who’ve never been here and never will be here”.
Bon Iver also picked up the award for “Best Alternative Album”, denoting a fundamental shift in the way “alternative” is defined by American music. For your reference, here are the previous five winners of this category:
- 2007: Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere
- 2008: The White Stripes, Icky Thump
- 2009: Radiohead, In Rainbows
- 2010: Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
- 2011: The Black Keys, Brothers
Alternative has traditionally come to mean “rock and roll that doesn’t fit in with Top 40”. Bon Iver is the only winner out of these entrants that couldn’t be classified as a traditional rock band. As my friend Phil Chevalier astutely pointed out, “What I understand is that ‘alternative’ means alternative to something, and that Bon Iver is by far the most salient deviation from whatever that something is”. As the death knell continues to sound for two-guitars-a-bass-and-drums bands, perhaps understated artists like Bon Iver will soon take the “alternative” category away from their noisier counterparts.
2. Dave Grohl got cut off during his acceptance speech.
While accepting the award for Best Rock Album, Grohl said, “the human element of making music is what’s most important…learning to play an instrument…that’s the most important thing for people to do…it’s not about what goes on inside a computer”, at which point he was cut off by Ryan Seacrest and the computer-generated opening riffs of LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem”. Considering that the Grammys gave an unprecedented level of attention to electronic and dance music this year, this was a pretty controversial statement, why is probably why CBS chose to shut him the hell up.
(Aside: I understand that the Foo Fighters are perhaps the last relevant rock act from the late 90s. However, I don’t like that every time they release a record, they’re showered with Grammys, as if it’s inevitable. It’s not really even a contest anymore. They won an award for Best Rock Song/Performance and Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance with tracks on the same CD. How is this possible? Why are there two different awards for Songs and Performances? Keep in mind that this is coming from a huge Foo fan.)
The Foos then went on to play a duet with electronic DJ Deadmau5, sampling the previously remixed Rope. Whoops.
Speaking of DJs….
3. After completely ignoring dance and electronic music for two decades, the Grammys decided to try and stay relevant by throwing DJs at everything.
The Grammys, no stranger to unusual duets and performances, threw (previously disbarred) Chris Brown, Lil Wayne, David Guetta, Deadmau5, and the Foo Fighters into a massive rave shitshow that looked strange and sounded worse. I can only imagine the wave of horror that spread through living rooms across America as parents realized that teenagers taking ecstasy and waving glowsticks while yelling at some guy dressed in a weird electronic bunny outfit as he plays music that sounds like Optimus Prime with a case of explosive diarrhea is fast becoming a norm rather than something that those weird kids do behind the local movie theater.
Seriously, though, Skrillex’s nomination as “Best New Artist” lent a huge dose of commercial weight and mainstream approval to the electronic/dubstep movement. Part of the Grammys’ fight to stay relevant has to include rewarding artists that jive with a younger segment of the population, even if that artist doesn’t completely fit with what we think of as music. God, I feel old.
4. There were no fewer than three “ex-boyfriend/husband revenge songs” performed at the Grammys.
Between Taylor Swift’s “Mean”, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”, and Katy Perry’s “Part of Me”, we were definitely feeling the man hate at the 2012 Grammys. Maybe this was a calculated move to try to atone for letting domestic abuser Chris Brown perform and win an award for Best R&B Album after not even being allowed to attend previous iterations of the event. It’s like they were apologizing to Chris Brown and apologizing for Chris Brown in the same event. Completely bizarre.
5. The mind-blowingly tasteful and understated tribute to Whitney Houston by Jennifer Hudson was immediately followed by Nicki Minaj’s mind-blowingly weird and over-the-top rendition of “Roman Holiday”.
Jennifer Hudson’s cover of “I Will Always Love You” will be appropriately lauded by those far more credible than me, and I won’t even try to make sense of the chaotic clusterfuck that was “Roman Holiday”. It’s just awful that the one moment in which the Grammys showed tact, diplomacy and beauty had to be followed by Nicki Minaj; that the whole moment wasn’t absolutely ruined is a testament to Jennifer Hudson’s charisma and talent.
Overall, the Grammys reflected what has been true of music in America for the last ten years: musical tastes are becoming increasingly diverse and differentiated. The Grammys will find themselves increasingly challenged to accommodate these shifting tastes in a coherent manner. From the looks of this year, simply mashing old artists, new artists, and DJs on the same stage together isn’t going to work.