The Grammys? Meh.
Even as a music writer, I’ve generally been lukewarm about The Grammys. Okay, so I’ve despised the post-Michael Jackson Grammys, but have backed off in recent years, down to a milder meh. It becomes weary every year, looking over the list of nominees only to see, yet again, Metallica listed under best metal band, Aerosmith the best rock band, and a shortlist of pop pap artists du jour. (Okay, so Aerosmith wasn’t listed this year, but Metallica was — for “Best Music Film”. Has anyone listened to them since … And Justice For All?) It shouldn’t be a big yawn, because unlike The Oscars, the Grammys actually have entertainment for a TV audience beyond looking at dresses, listening for presentation flubs, and giddily awaiting non-scripted moments. You get performances. It’s not like Michael Fassbender is ever going to stand onstage and give a line-reading between Oscar announcements. But The Grammys rarely inspires me because I’ve felt for so long it never represented artists I listened to. I don’t mean to say that because I don’t listen to Lady Gaga, Beyoncé (hey, I can dig “Halo”, okay) and Taylor Swift that those artists shouldn’t be there. It doesn’t mean I’m upset about an artist not winning. In the scheme of things, it’s not like I’m up for an award, so who cares, right? But rather my taste for fringe independent artists isn’t in the Grammy wheelhouse — so its disappointing those musicians go unrecognized in its format.
But that begs the question: what are The Grammys about? The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences describes the Grammys as recognizing outstanding achievement (i.e., talent) in music while stating that sales are not weighed in the voting process. Okay. But is it a gauge of talent? Most viewers don’t think so. Let’s face it, this is a television event. It’s promotional. But some talented stragglers do make it through the gilded turnstiles. St. Vincent won “Best Alternative Album” — even if Arcade Fire’s masterful “Reflektor” might have been a better record. (Although, wasn’t that record released in 2013? What’s the cutoff date for these awards, anyway?) But at least it’s talent measured against talent. But for every Little Dragon and St. Vincent there are 10 more moderates like Paramore and Imagine Dragons, or a longtime heavy-metal-er like Ronnie James Dio. Even an award like “Best New Artist” really isn’t about finding breakthrough talent, as much as it is about seeing which up-and-comer will be selling more records in the future.
Last night, during the half-hour I tuned to The Grammys (before going back and forth with an old Joel McCrea Western) I heard an artist named Meghan Trainor announced as a nominee for “Record of the Year”. Who is that? Out of the thousands of songs I’ve listened to that fuel the posts for this blog, I’d never even heard her name before or even heard one song. Isn’t that strange? Maybe that’s on me? I don’t know. A large chunk of my life is devoted to listening to music (especially new music) and I’ve never even heard the name of one of the nominees for one of the major categories.
Twitter and the blogosphere were generally surprised by Beck’s “upset win” over Beyoncé for “Album of the Year”, but really it didn’t shock me. Beck’s record is a fine one. Whether it’s on par with Beyoncé’s I can’t say. I found both to be okay. However, it’s easy to see how a split between her record, Sam Smith’s and Pharrell Williams’ could easily have put Beck over the top. I’m not shocked by it. You have to understand the voting process. The only thing surprising to me was that Beck was awarded 10 years too late. Sea Change anyone? Or for that matter, Mutations and Odelay. He also won “Best Rock Album” over U2’s Songs of Innocence — a record so mediocre (especially by War and Joshua Tree standards) that i-Tunes users didn’t even want it for free.
Let me repeat: It’s all about the process. At the end of last year, I posted what I thought were the best 14 LPs and not one of the five Grammy nominees made my list. Nothing against a decent songwriter like Ed Sheeran, but his album X couldn’t touch Sylvan Esso or Burn Your Fire for No Witness. But the fact that records I loved weren’t nominated isn’t all that shocking to me either. I wouldn’t go all Kanye about it. Some records don’t even get nominated to a nominating committee. That bears repeating, for all the people angry about who won or who didn’t. Some great music doesn’t even get submitted. They aren’t even considered by the committees that pass them along to be voted on to become nominated. I mean, do you think the Jagjaguwar label nominated Angel Olsen to be included in the Grammy process? I haven’t asked them, but I’m guessing they didn’t. And why would they? The process for how music escapes a nominating committee and eventually becomes a nominee is quite antiquated, if it ever was good to begin with. Most of the academy are older, white males, of course, and many vote on music they have no expertise in, which is often why more famous names win. I don’t blame them, it just makes sense that it happens that way. And until the process changes, people should just calm down on calling a win or loss a snub. For me, currently, the award’s significance is largely seen in the case of a band like St. Vincent, because it shows that she’s surprisingly graduated beyond the niche Pitchfork and Gorilla vs. Bear and into the world of grand old populists like The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, and your mom-and-pop’s USA Today.
But clearly there’s a need for voting overhaul. And it’s not the only thing in need of change. What’s with all the desultory balladeering ala Gwen Stefani and Ariana Grande? Okay, so those performances were pretty — pretty boring. I get it. It’s an occasion, but do we need to suck all the oxygen out of the room? Lady Gaga camped it up a bit too much with Tony Bennett, but I do give her kudos for respecting the talent that came before her. Despite that old-meets-new pairing, please — no more Rihanna-Kayne-McCartney trio. And though his antics are entertaining, somebody seat Kanye back in row 20. I’m an old guilty-pleasure fan of the show opener, AC/DC (which performed well), but when is the last time you bought one of their records? I saw a video of their performance via Vimeo today and thought, well, that may have sent Christian-nation into Angus Young-like convulsive hissy-fits: “Oh, look at all those Hollywood, er, I mean music industry people wearing devil horns … Yeah, ‘cuz they’re all gloating about their lavish hell-destined lives … I’m gonna turn this mess off and watch FoxNews. But only after I watch Madonna.” Some show producer gleefully put their middle finger up to middle America with that “Highway to Hell” selection. I smiled at it. But it was still a bit juvenile. It’s like the kind of academy baiting that should have been done in the late 80s, when it would have made a real mark. It shows how sluggish an organization is when even its acts of mischievousness feel a touch gray.
Ouch, Shelby. Ouch …
Shelby Lynne let it be known on her facebook page that she was okay with Beck winning “Album of the Year” over Beyoncé. Well now.
On the road again …
St. Vincent, in gracious form, wrote an e-mail to her fans about all the backwoods and awful touring predicaments she went through on her path to winning a Grammy. It included bedbugs, no-tell motels, $250 gigs, and peeing in cups in crappy dressing rooms. She also made mention of the good stuff, which is being able to open for and listen to the great Jolie Holland. She gave a nice compliment about Jolie’s talent, writing, “What a voice.” Read the letter in its entirety at Stereogum.
Purple prowess …
Maybe my favorite moment of the Grammys, was when Prince, who flashed a quick impish Purple Yoda look, eloquently got his points across without pontificating. What did he say?: “Albums still matter. Albums, like books and black lives, still matter.” ‘Nuff said. Then he broke into an impromptu “Darling Nikki”. (Okay, he didn’t. But a guy can wish, right?)
Find this record now …
If you want to hear something beautiful, go to NPR First Listen right now and check out Pop Staples’ posthumous release “Don’t Lose This”. It contains songs Pops wrote before he died back in 2000. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy helped by lending his talents to the making of the record, along with Mavis Staples. The entire record is solid, and one track, “Love On My Side” is a bluesy wonder work with some wonderful lyricism: “He’s homeless / He’s hungry lord, he’s a broken man / Lookin’ for something he can eat out of a garbage can / He wakes up everyday with the smell of cheap whiskey on his breath / And his filthy skin is shakin’ on his bones like the cold, cold hands of death … / I lost my wife / I lost my home / Lost my children when they got grown / Ain’t got no money / Don’t have no pride / But my heart has nothin’ to hide / ‘Cuz I got love / I got love on my side.”
Dylan unplugged …
What inspired me to begin writing these editor’s notes is a piece on Bob Dylan that I read written by New Yorker editor, David Remnick, that read exactly like a conversation I had with my father the night before Remnick published his piece. (It was the piece I should have written but didn’t.) It was the strangest reading experience I’d had in long time. Each point read like Remnick was in my head. He made observations in the same order I did with my father. He even noted that Dylan’s speech at MusiCares (full transcript at L.A. Times) felt like Michael Jordan’s NBA Hall of Fame acceptance speech — which I also said. Anyway, the point is, I’m going to try occasionally to write beyond the usual song posting. Remnick’s piece is a good one. He writes that recently Dylan has reversed himself from his younger days in regard to talking about his music. (At least while he’s promoting “Shadows In the Night”, a record of Frank Sinatra-related covers.) In those days, his interviews were generally caustic, esoteric, an he got increasingly annoyed with reporters, who were often older, and always trying to “unlock” the mysteries of Dylan. But the interview he gave to AARP was giving, honest, thoughtful, and a goldmine of information that ranged from topics as vast as Chuck Berry to the internet age, Irving Berlin, Roger Federer, what happiness is, Frank Sinatra, Shakespeare, Liszt and romance. — David D. Robbins Jr.