All That Glitters Is Not Gold
After I saw the 2018 Album of the Year Grammy nominees, I told myself that I wouldn’t be mad if any of the artists nominated won the highly coveted award. There were no glaring insults to the culture-at-large, à la Beck or Mumford & Sons. There was Bruno Mars, Lorde, Jay-Z, Childish Gambino and, of course, Kendrick Lamar. All of these artists released albums that seeped through popular culture (though you could argue that the extent of Lorde’s and Childish Gambino’s impacts was less pronounced than the other three nominees).
Despite having a lineup of albums that had their valid arguments and did not seem personally imported into the category by John Lennon impersonator and Recording Academy president Neil Portnow, the final win for Bruno Mars’ resounding coronation changed my earlier assertion that I would not fault the Grammys for awarding something like 24K Magic for Album of the Year. The more I began to reflect on Bruno’s win and what it meant, the more I began to question why we should even pay attention.
That’s not to question the abilities of Bruno Mars. He’s a consummate showman who can sing and perform like no other – the performance of “Finesse” was a standout, though it owed some of its energy to the unflappable Cardi B. He’s a dude with technical chops and charisma that translates across generations in much the same way that someone like Adele appeals to millions. Like Adele, he’s also likable, fun and an artist whose preferred mode is being accessible.
24K Magic as an artistic statement is fun and unencumbered from our fraught political times. It takes the work of Zapp & Rogers, Guy and Bobby Brown and updates them with contemporary hip-hop sonic signifiers. It’s a piece of art that says nothing about the guy making it other than that he really wants to see you dance at corporate functions and weddings. In this respect, 24K Magic can be seen as the Recording Academy’s utopian ideal of what music can achieve: it unites us.
But those connections are tenuous and only last as long as the duration of Bruno Mars’ collection of nostalgic reinventions. Outside of this album exists a world where ICE is targeting 7-11s and Greyhound buses, the Trump Administration and the GOP are mulling over whether or not they want to commit to a constitutional crisis and police departments are committing state-sanctioned murder, on top of a litany of other issues affecting American society. As a result, 24K Magic, while incessantly catchy, exists in its own self-contained, ahistorical, apolitical world that people like American UN ambassador Nikki Haley love because it doesn’t say anything. Just dance while the world burns.
As I watched Bruno Mars accept the award, all I kept thinking about was Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. and how it should have taken home the prize. It was the opposite of what the Grammys typically award: a complex, layered work that confronts the social and political realities of the day rather than gloss over them with empty platitudes. Kendrick’s singular, epic statement on his experience in a country that continually attempts to invalidate him is a masterclass in artistry. He took on all of the naysaying voices that ranged from Fox & Friends’ racist commentary to those within rap who challenged his reign. He scorched all of these foes with deft storytelling, technical precision and the deep emotional range of a three-dimensional human being rather than a sentient jukebox.
Kendrick created a piece of art that was so undeniable that college football, a sport with one of the whitest fan bases in America, ceded the floor at halftime during its national championship. Yet DAMN., like the countless other albums by black artists that challenged the world around them by speaking from their own unique experiences, was denied the Grammy that the Recording Academy recognizes as the year’s best output. Instead, that designation went, once again, to an artist with outstanding technical ability and no rough edges.
Each year, music fans like me are Peter Piper’d with breadcrumbs into watching the Grammys and all of its self-congratulatory pomp. This year, those crumbs were SZA getting five nominations, Lil’ Uzi Vert being nominated for Best New Artist, Cardi B earning two nominations in a genre category and “Despacito” earning the top nominations in both the Song of the Year category and Record of the Year category.
But, like all years Grammy, the awards show skewed towards the familiar and the industry groomed. SZA was shut out of all of her awards, Lil’ Uzi Vert’s was bested by an Alessia Cara, whose work hasn’t approached anything as interesting as “Here,” and “Despacito,” despite being a record-shattering summer smash sung and rapped mostly in Spanish, was brushed aside like the Latin Grammys, the topper on all of this being the Bruno Mars sweep at the end of the major non-genre categories.
As the Grammys continue to award comfort during a time when the Internet has flipped the recording industry on its head, the major categories are sliding into irrelevance as young artists rack up millions of listens without the gold gramophone endorsement of the Recording Academy. Radio and industry gate keepers are being left in the rear view as the information age has lowered the barriers to entry.
Alongside all of this, music writers and critics are reconsidering, re-examining and reframing the canon of American popular music rendering the once Grammy championed acts of yesteryear as less than vital to pop music’s development. With all of this to consider, instead of making these post-mortem arguments about who was more deserving, maybe we need to ask ourselves if we should keep assigning value to these awards.