The Grammys Stay True to Form

Courtesy of Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

“Who gives a fuck about a goddamn Grammy?”

This was shouted by Public Enemy in 1988 on the track “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic.” Flash forward to 2014, and it turns out that a lot of people still care about the Grammys. Yet, the event in our world of numerous social media streams has become fodder for snark and reaction in 140 characters or less. The Grammys is the Sharknado of awards shows for some, but for others, it’s an actual indicator of the direction of popular music.

Music’s Biggest Night has never really had its finger on the state of pop within a given year. If anything, it’s the record industry’s attempt at identifying what they think is the state of pop music. That’s why you have an act such as Macklemore and Ryan Lewis shutting out everyone else in all but one of the categories associated with rap. It’s also why the rap categories were never broadcasted, despite the fact that the sound of pop today is heavily influenced by hip-hop. And why Sara Bareilles was somehow given an album of the year nomination in a eligibility period during which Yeezus and Nothing Was the Same dropped.

For years, the Grammys have failed to grasp “youth culture,” and in the age where radio has been largely replaced with applications like Spotify and AUX cable jacks, they are like a blind man trying to play darts. The Internet has not been kind to the recording industry, and the recording industry has returned the favor by continuing to laud the establishment acts funded by major labels. Recognizing the vanguard has never been in the Grammys wheelhouse but it seems that the last few years have seemed especially so. There were some upsets, given that Macklemore and Lorde, two overnight successes without major label backing, took home some significant awards, but the attempt seems more like a ploy by the Grammys to look like they know what’s happening.

If the Recording Academy knew what it was doing (that would take some kind of overnight revelation), it wouldn’t have left the best rap album category off the air. In a race that included Yeezus, Nothing Was the Same and good kid m.a.a.d city, the Grammys decided to use this time to do what the Grammys have always done to rap music and malign its fans by giving all awards to Macklemore. Never mind the fact that Kendrick made one of the greatest major label debuts in recent memory, or that Yeezus pushed the boundaries of taste and sound in the mainstream: rap, in that moment, was defined by someone who has been deemed by many as an interloper and a clumsy appropriator of black culture.

Faring no better was the category for best rock album, to which I don’t think the Grammys have paid attention to since the late ’80s. Among the list of nominees were Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, Black Sabbath and David Bowie, with Kings of Leon and Queens of the Stone Age as the two youngest acts in the category. The difference between Bowie and the rest of the elder statesmen is that his album was at least somewhat artistically ambitious. The winner, though, was Led Zeppelin, for an album which was a recording of a concert from 2007. If there are any rockers in the Grammy voting pool, it seems that they are averse to anything abrasive. Look at the winners from the past five years: The Black Keys, Foo Fighters, Muse, Green Day and Coldplay. All artists whose sound could classify as rock but nothing wildly experimental.

The performances were, at times, as questionable as the awards. Kendrick Lamar was paired with Imagine Dragons in what I can only assume was an attempt to completely drown Kendrick out from the awards (he was shut out from all seven categories in which he was nominated; he, however, would not be shut out by Imagine Dragons in this performance). There was a collaboration between Chicago and Robin Thicke, which made sense until the execution of “Blurred Lines,” a performance that almost headed in the direction of Chicago twerking on Thicke. There was a head banging Taylor Swift at a piano, because America really needs more T. Swift GIFs (:/). Sara Bareilles and Carole King teamed up to remind you that, yes, Bareilles did release an album this year, and it was really nominated for album of the year. But the capper to it all was the performance by Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, Madonna with Queen Latifah as an ordained minister in the state of California.

“Same Love” was performed as 33 couples of different sexual orientations were married before the stage. As Mary Lambert sang the chorus of the song, there was something that felt a little disingenuous about the performance. It seems that the couples were used more as an exploitative tool for Macklemore and the Grammys to announce their progressivism in the fight for marriage equality rather than an actual celebration of love as was stated earlier in the performance. The whole production, as well as awarding Macklemore in most of the categories in which he was nominated, was an attempt to re-position the awards show as forward thinking. We are supposed to forget the fact that when given the chance to award Frank Ocean with the “most prestigious” award in Album of the Year, they gave it to Mumford & Sons, which is more or less a cartoonish novelty from a folk scene which saw resurgence due to more worthwhile acts like the Avett Brothers. So, in an attempt to seem as if they were ahead of the curve, they gave Macklemore’s somewhat self-aggrandizing song the chance to show that they get it. Yet, in true Grammy fashion, the lack of self-awareness was evident.

There were some good moments during the broadcast, the most obvious being Beyoncé’s premiere of ‘surfbort’ on national television and making damn sure you knew that her cool has officially usurped Jay-Z’s dad-rap era. There was also the fun, loose performance by Daft Punk, Stevie Wonder and Pharrell’s Other Park Ranger hat. It was a precursor to the announcement of Album of the Year, which I was kinda glad to see Daft Punk win, though this was more of an affirmation that they are now part of the musical establishment. Random Access Memories, after all, was a record dedicated to giving ‘life back to music’ through the utilization of million-dollar production and musicianship. It was consistent with the awards’ habit to award traditionalism.

While the Grammys have continually lacked in giving praise for what’s really moving the needle, they are responsible for making artists seem as such to hordes of people who, as Complex put it, “simply don’t know better”. These are the same people who will give spikes in sales and SEO trends to artists like Macklemore who haven’t even made the best album of their careers and are nowhere near any music critics’ albums of 2013 discussion. I can say “fuck the Grammys” and be done with it, but there are people who legitimately follow the artists based on the accolades given by the Recording Academy. There are people who will still use a Grammy as a measure of greatness, and as long as that is happening, I will be writing and giving a fuck about the Grammys. Even if they are just highly stylized sippy cups.

  1. Clay said:

    I, like Public Enemy, do not give a fuck about the Grammys, but I did enjoy your post. Doesn’t Macklemore rap about stealing from a thrift shop?

    • jamesunderscorevasiliou said:

      He doesn’t steal from a thrift shop. He does lift from black culture though.

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