Dragging the Grammys out of 1984
The 58th Grammy Award ceremony happened last night. For the 58th time, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences bestowed a collection of gold-plated gramophones upon the darlings of the music industry as a tribute to their art – and, you know, the ungodly sums of money they make for everyone involved.
For the 58th time (the first telecast, though not live, appeared on ABC in 1959) they’ve asked you, the TV viewer and music listener, to care.
So did you?
You definitely did in 1984, widely considered to be the first year in which the awards significantly affected music commerce – the year that an unprecedented 8 awards went to Michael Jackson and Thriller, an album which ended up doing pretty darn well from a financial standpoint.
If the Grammys themselves are to be believed, you cared again when MJ returned to the show with a vengefully brilliant post-snub performance in 1988, and when Natalie Cole paid tribute to her late father with a live half-posthumous duet# in 1992, and in 2001 when the unlikely team of Eminem and Sir Elton John took on the former’s “Stan,”# and so on, and so on.
The Grammys has taken to branding these performances “Grammy Moments,” as a clever bit of self-mythologizing and a way of saying, “you never know what will happen this year, better tune in live…”
But here’s the thing — you’re not tuning in like you used to.
The Grammys are just one more flesh wound on the Pythonesque Black Knight that is the music industry in the 2010s.
Speaking of the industry, remember last night when they tried to foist Common (always a pitch-perfect stand-in for the idea of “adult wokeness” and hip responsibility) and a child piano prodigy on an unsuspecting audience to give a good scolding about the evils of streaming music services, bringing the whole show to a grinding halt?
Remember how stilted, defeated, and generally awful it was?
You probably don’t because it’s likely that you didn’t watch, which speaks to a much bigger problem for the music industry than Spotify, or even illegal downloading.
What’s hurting the music industry more than anything else, more than the complicated ethics of streaming, more than the secondary concert ticket marketplace, more than Martin Shkreli, is the simple fact that there’s no monoculture anymore.
As Robert Christgau warned us years ago and as Some Songs columnists Bryce Rudow and Lindsay Hogan can tell you now, we’re living in culturally spatialized and stratified times. There’s more music being made today than ever before, and a vast panoply of entertainment platforms available to tailor-make your specifically desired music experience. But the technology piece isn’t an insurmountable problem; it’s an economic truth that no matter the distributional barriers, you can always monetize when people actually care about the product.
However, the fact is, fewer people care about our pop stars now than ever before. If you want to get the masses mobilized, your voice and your actions have to cut through the noise. Many criticized Kanye West for his intentionally attention-grabbing activities over the past few weeks, but can you argue that it hasn’t led to utter and complete domination of the entertainment news cycle? To the extent that even on “Music’s Biggest Night,” during a show that should have had nothing to do with Kanye, the conversation nevertheless revolved around him?
I’m not advocating for the Grammys to tweet their support for Bill Cosby or take (full) responsibility for Taylor Swift’s career, but I am saying that they need a shake-up. You can’t ask an audience to behave as if it’s 1984 and they just saw Michael Jackson bring the house down on one of their three channels, thus causing them to make a note on the pad next to their landlines to make a trip to the Sam Goody tomorrow to buy Thriller. The times have changed, and the Grammys have to change with them, in ways big and small.
Here are a few suggestions, starting on the small side and working up…
Conventional Grammy wisdom dictates that you need sparse, minimalist musical moments to break up the louder and bigger performances of the evening.
This is false.
At the 2016 Grammys, we suffered through middling ballads by The Weeknd, Little Big Town, and James Bay & Tori Kelly, all within the same 30 minute span, which is completely unacceptable. Even Adele’s performance, the most hyped event of the night, was poorly received, and not just because of the microphone issues (or, pace Adele Stans, her breath support issues). The performances should be getting bigger, louder, and more star-studded as the night progresses.
Think 2009’s “Swagger Like Us” with MIA, T.I., Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne:
I am no James Corden apologist, but real talk — the Grammy red carpet edition of his cloying-but-popular Carpool Karaoke, starring Justin Bieber, was among the more interesting moments of the night, and it happened way before show time.
It did many things right: it locked in on a trending cultural gimmick, it featured a fascinating figure in music, and it was almost funny!
Think about the 2015 Super Bowl commercials that skewed toward sappiness and sentimentality – everyone hated them. Which is why for this year’s edition, everyone in advertising went balls-to-the-wall with comic absurdism and it totally worked.
Grammys, I’m begging you: do funny, weird things with the celebrities. If the Oscars can (try to) be funny, you can too.
The traditional rollout of the Grammys includes a series of announcements exhaustively detailing the nominees and performers. Why do this? Why not keep a few surprises close to the chest, to generate interest?
The Grammys best friend in the 2010s is its Twitter audience, that voracious network of degenerates that feed on breaking news; you need this audience on your side. But the event as it stands does not make things very easy – it’s long, and it feels even longer when we know what’s supposed to happen every step of the way. There’s no urgency or drama without the capacity for surprise. And no, the surprises of the awards are not enough, because…
…the awards are secretly the least important part.
Everyone knows that the Grammys are like a high school prom where the prom committee is the prom queen’s parents.
A lot of casual viewers complain about the arbitrariness of the awards, but they’re actually pretty easy to predict: if your product is the most commercially viable and also happens to not contain a lot of swear words, you win. If your product does contain swear words, the award goes to Beck.
It’s all in the fine print. But the point from a how-to-save-the-show standpoint is this: the awards divide us, but everything else unites us. We’re united by Lady Gaga’s generation-bridging Bowie tribute. We’re united by the fact that a Broadway musical actually looks kind of cool. We’re united by our dissatisfaction with everything about LL Cool J.
Grammy organizers should Tweet out all the award announcements before or after the show.
Make It A Series
What if the Grammys were a series? Rather than one hurried award show, what about a celebration of the year in music that lasted as long as a season of television?
You go to a different city every week and you get a different handful of the nominees to perform at one venue in each city. They all get separate sets, but they also have to perform various medleys and super-jams together. You emphasize the beautiful outcome of artists working together, instead of alone.
The real tragedy of the Grammys in its current state is that it pits artists against artists, and thus fan bases against fan bases. Nothing splinters culture quite like saying that one great music maker’s work is better than that of another when they aren’t even in the same genre. If you really want to honor musicians, who are creators and not competitors, you throw out the idea of a competition entirely. That way you don’t have to decide whether 1989 is better than To Pimp A Butterfly.
Maybe saving the Grammys, and saving a lot of things, can be as easy as saying “you’re great, and you are too.” I’d tune in for that.
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