Critic's Notebook: Grammy Awards? Your granny's awards
New music today means new media, but the Grammys are mired in the past.
Think about it: How did you first hear Adele's “Rolling in the Deep”? Through a friend of a friend on Facebook? Through your favorite celebrity's Twitter account? During the season four finale of “Gossip Girl”? More than likely, it, or your new favorite song by Bon Iver, Usher or Skrillex, didn't come to you by way of an FM radio station or popular local DJ. Its arrival into your world seemed more organic. You discovered it.
And in many ways, this reality has rendered the notion of a shared conversation about music in America as obsolete as the compact disc, or, perhaps, the Grammy Awards.
The major nominations for the 54th annual awards clearly show that the recording academy has been working overtime to be all-inclusive, but more significantly, they also reveal a deep chasm between its goals and the listening habits of the general population.
Take, for example, the nominations for album of the year. It is still considered the top award, despite the fact that no one listens to albums from start to finish anymore. That aside, does anyone really consider Rihanna's “Loud,” which had its share of passable dance-floor bangers, an “album,” or merely a collection of potential hit singles?
The Foo Fighters' “Wasting Light” was a very impressive Bob Seger imitation, but really, did it move rock forward in any substantial — or even minor — way? Ditto Bruno Mars' exceedingly safe “Doo-Wops & Hooligans,” a bland collection of Pat Boone-friendly pop songs about puppy love and lazy days. Missing from the list? Kanye West's epic “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” the most critically acclaimed album of the year, a career-defining record. West also was partially responsible for the breakout success of Bon Iver (who has a surprising four nominations, three in top categories) due to his collaboration with the indie folk artist.
And if one were to measure the vitality of American music through the filter of the Grammy nominations for song of the year and record of the year, one might think the economy wasn't the only thing that was sluggish. The categories make it seem like there were only six great songs released in 2011.
The same songs dominate both categories: Adele's “Rolling in the Deep” (of course); Mumford & Sons' “The Cave”; Bon Iver's soft-rock mushiness “Holocene”; and Bruno Mars' “Grenade.” The wild card in the record of the year race? Katy Perry's “Firework” — which has as a verse the line “Boom, boom, boom / Even brighter than the moon, moon, moon / It's always been inside of you, you, you / And now it's time to let it through.” There is a beacon of hope — West's “All of the Lights” voted a song of the year contender. Still, lump all of it together and you've got a total of less than 20 minutes of music representing the thousands of hours of tunes that listeners have stored in their cellphones alone.
The aforementioned nominations are all the more frustrating because the spirit of the music world right now is all about discovery, all about being the person to find the amazing song that turns into a sonic meme. It's an environment that is rolling ever more quickly toward a Spotify/iCloud world in which we learn about new music more efficiently via smartphone and laptop than waiting for Ryan Seacrest to play it on KIIS-FM.
The Grammy Awards, however, are only timidly wading into these waters. Instead the focus is still on the old music industry model of cash-cow hits, major label investments and commercial radio. For the Grammys to acknowledge that a small male-female duo like the Civil Wars can make such an unlikely ascent into the conversation, and to honor them with a best new artist or album of the year nod, would be to admit that the machine is no longer a vital tool for anything other than meeting quarterly profit projections.
It's hard not to wonder, especially after watching the less-than-spectacular Grammy nominations on Wednesday night, what is the point of these music awards? It's too cynical to imagine it's only to fill three hours of network television, prompting a quick rush to iTunes to download that one song by Mumford & Sons or Nicki Minaj.
Falling behind the times is nothing new for the Grammys, but once they've lost sight of the artistry that makes music soar, they'll not just be irrelevant, they'll be out of business.
Photo: Nicki Minaj at the Grammy Nominations Concert, November 30, 2011. Credit: Robert Gauthier