We need to talk about the Grammys (and awards shows in general)

To begin, an apology: I don’t want to write about this subject. I want to write about the pop sensibilities of Sleater-Kinney or how bizarrely brilliant Béla Fleck and the Flecktones are. I suppose they must wait for now; gotta jump on this news train while it’s still vaguely in the station. As you can probably tell by my temperament, I’m not really a Grammy fan and through this post I’m likely to add little to the discussion. All the criticism is already laid out before me and to force some kind of new point purely for the sake of it isn’t really my thing. I don’t really do cool or trendy. They sit uneasy. But still, some elements of the show are probably worth a bit of our time, even if it’s only to hold a mirror up to the industry while shouting “This is what is wrong. Fix it”. So take a deep breath. Remember to stay chipper. Let us begin.

The concept of an award is not a bad thing. I want you to remember that I firmly believe that. An accolade that represents a peer reviewed success can ground your work within a wider community. It can give an added layer of meaning and purpose to your achievements should you need it. You can argue that the smaller the industry, the smaller the pool of appreciation (because there aren’t as many people involved) so the greater the need for positive reinforcement. As much as we can mock them, local awards do at least recognise elements in society that the wider world doesn’t usually notice. I think it has something to do with being more focused; for example the Kent Media Awards only recognise the media in Kent. It may be a small recognition, sure, but at least that keeps it nice and simple, I can get behind the KMAs. In comparison; a show like the Grammys tries so hard to cater for this huge, ever-changing, high-profile and bloated industry that really doesn’t need yet another pat on the back. Of course, of course; this is also a peer reviewed system that grounds a work within the wider community. Except that it’s not. An albums success is purely down to the amount of units it shifts. If it were by any other factor then we’d likely be seeing far more critically acclaimed artists being developed by major record labels and a greater variety of music as a result. Possibly; maybe. But cash-money has become the bottom line (and has been for a long time) so any artistry actually involved becomes rather irrelevant. Are you more likely to buy an album because it won ‘Best Surround Sound’ or ‘Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album’? No. You’ll buy it because of all the marketing. You won’t buy Beck’s ‘Morning Phase’ specifically because it won, you’ll buy it because the awards show gave it a mass of free publicity (mostly of the ‘who is Beck? variety).

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Now I know these words are flippant and general, but according to the font of Wikipedia; Morning Phase (as of February 2015) has sold 300,000 units in the US whilst Beyoncé sold 430,000 in 24 hours. Intense. You reply: “Well isn’t it a good thing that ‘proper music’ Beck beat ‘consumerist starlet’ Bouncy?” Of course, but why hasn’t he won before? He’s certainly made good enough (if not better) albums to. You could cynically argue that NARAS is merely paying him his fair dues. You also demean Beyoncé by assuming that Beck is intrinsically more artistic and therefore more worthy. I’m sorry but ‘Single Ladies‘ (like ‘Toxic‘ before it) is a perfect example of breaking apart the ‘Pop’ stereotype and recombining it into something fresh, catchy and artistic right down to its soul. For the record; ‘Shake It Off’ is a highly addictive yet utterly derivative, IV-V-I-ing, generic cash-cow of a song. There is a quantifiable difference between an artist like Beyoncé and a vassal like Swift.

We simply don’t need our awards to encompass everything. Why care about the sole ‘Metal’ award, won by Tenacious D instead of Mastodon (who stole the show regardless), when you have the far more respectable Metal Hammer Golden God awards. A show that caters for only a small facet of the industry but does so with clarity and fairness. Why bother with the one ‘Alternative’ award when you have the NME. But ignore the NME. The NME is for lames and dullards. Actually, come to think of it; what kind of message are the Grammys sending by shunning ‘Alternative’ acts this way? That if you’re different and don’t fit neatly into their many, many neat little boxes then you’re not worth bothering about? Though I suppose that didn’t stop Jethro Tull once winning best metal album. The Brit Awards are the same though far, far more self-serving in that they completely ignore British traditional music to fit in all the boring ‘Indie’ bands clutching forlornly at the spirit of Oasis and British exceptionalism. Images of men in suits quaffing mineral water to silence the reality that the industry is slippping further and further from their fingers with each successive canapé. It’s only a matter of time before the whole lot comes crashing down so we can finally build a new, egalitarian industry that caters for everybody and celebrates talent where it’s due; even the lowliest surround sound engineer would be nominated. We could even hold a gala awards show and make people feel really special for a night… Oh bitter circles; there’s no way to avoid you is there?

On the plus side; Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer won Best Contemporary Instrumental Album (?) so at least we can end on a high!


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