The Grammy Awards, The Music Industry, And Our Fractured Music Markets
Last night’s Grammy Awards felt like an advertisement for music that didn’t quite know what product it was selling. Child stars that have turned into raunchy pop musicians seemed to be a product—as did violent-sounding longhaired men playing guitars. (One of them was Johnny Depp. It was weird.) Lady Gaga’s spirited if disorganized David Bowie tribute/medley segued directly into an advertisement from Intel, starring Gaga, on how the Bowie segment was made. (Hint: Intel was inside.) A long Target ad starring Gwen Stefani on rollerskates aired live and was almost indistinguishable from one of the Grammys onstage acts. Adding to the very strong sense of faded glory, every single segment appeared to be a tribute or an in memoriam—for Bowie, B.B. King, Glenn Frey, Lionel Richie (still alive), Lemmy Kilmister, and more. And meanwhile, logistical difficulties plagued the show: Adele’s performance was marred by a microphone error. Beyoncé was late. Lauryn Hill ditched. Rihanna called in sick. Kanye West—who is currently staging one of the biggest and weirdest album debuts in music history—didn’t bother showing up. The camera kept zooming over to Taylor Swift, to see her reaction, as if it would be a) authentic or b) sympathetic. The Grammys weren’t selling or defining music as much as it kept asking, over and over again, like an emo teenager: “What are we?” – Sonia Soraiya, ““Hamilton” saved the Grammys: If you think you hate popular music, a tired, epic-length awards show isn’t going to help,” Salon, Feb 16, 2016
Today, the Grammy Awards’ embrace of popular artists and pop music tends be misguided and driven by precedent or safety. How else to explain 2014 sensation Meghan Trainor winning Best New Artist this year? Or Swift winning Album Of The Year for “1989” ahead of Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly”? Of greater concern is how few artists seemed willing to take any sort of risks last night. Country act Little Big Town did with a stripped-down, elegant performance of the hit “Girl Crush,” which featured strings and vocalist Karen Fairchild at the forefront. And so did Lady Gaga: Her polarizing, appropriately flamboyant David Bowie tribute medley—which was criticized as being everything from “cruise ship hell” to a bad Elvis Presley impersonation—was messy and exciting, and unafraid to flaunt its imperfections.
But it was Kendrick Lamar, who took home five Grammys and was responsible for the night’s most indelible appearance, who proved that he’s head and shoulders above pretty much everyone else going right now. His two-song performance started with a laser-focused “The Blacker The Berry,” which took place in a prison setting: Lamar and the others with him onstage wore inmate clothes and chains—in fact, the singer kept the latter on while singing the song—in an obvious nod to the racial tension boiling over in cities across the U.S. The scene shifted to the larger stage for the Black Lives Matter-associated “Alright,” as a large fire raged and illuminated a series of warrior-like tribal dancers. – Annie Zaleski, “Taylor Swift is everything that’s wrong with the Grammys and the music industry: Sanitized, self-congratulatory and safe,” Salon, February 16, 2016
Griping about the Grammy awards is as mainstream and safe as the Grammy’s themselves. That there are two such articles just in today’s Salon show just how mainstream such criticism is. I suppose it gives music critics and journalists something to write that makes them look “edgy” – they get to complain about how bland the Grammy’s are, therefore justifying their cutting-edge bona fides, without actually taking a step back and wondering why they should be worrying about the Grammy’s in the first place. This is the award given to Milli Vanilli, after all. Why is anyone surprised that, despite nominating the most interesting, innovative, and exciting hip-hop artist for eleven different awards, he only took home five? Why carry on about performances being safe, stripped down, as if to show that contemporary musicians aren’t all studio creations (here’s a historical fact: most performers in the recording age, stretching back to the 1920’s, have been studio creations)?
With very few exceptions, particularly as music has become both a visual as well as auditory medium, the Grammy’s have eschewed anything risky, handing out awards as much as to honor long careers as any singular achievement in music (read Bonnie Raitt and Carlos Santana here). The fact that it’s been over a quarter century since Metallica debuted heavy metal at the Grammy’s with their performance of “One” in 1989; that the edgiest hip-hop artist they’ve featured was Eminem, a white rapper who had passed his sell date by the time he appeared on prime time; that there’s been no televised jazz performance in years; that the classical awards aren’t even televised; all this shows just how frightened the music industry continues to be by the realities of today’s music market.
Or rather, markets. While pop music certainly continues to dominate the top 40, such music owes most of its sound to hip-hop, a musical genre that, in its more pure forms, continues to exist in some weird netherland between acceptability and alternative in the minds of the music industry. Never mind it’s the single most influential musical style not just in the United States but around the world; like rhythm and blues when it first rose to prominence and for years after, at its best hip-hop just isn’t white enough for the Grammy Awards. That Kendrick Lamar’s performance was greeted with stunned faces in the audience, at least according to Sonia Soraiya (linked above), shows just how far the music has to go to be accepted for what it is.
And let’s not even get in to how the Grammy Awards treat country music. Country and hip-hop are the two most popular musical genres, often with the same people liking both. Yet neither receives either the respect or attention they deserve. Rather than America’s mainstream music – which it is – country music continues to be relegated both to the radio and sales ghetto, having to hold separate award ceremonies in order to give artists and songs the recognition they deserve. Unlike the LA-based pop music industry, one thing you can say about the Nashville-based country industry is they know what their fans like, but are also willing to invest in a variety of artists, keeping alive long careers while also introducing exciting new performers.
The biggest problem facing the Grammy Awards, however, isn’t industry tone-deafness, racism, or the ongoing ghettoizing of different musical genre and styles. The biggest problem is how the music industry, quite simply put, knows nothing about music. There is so much good, I dare say even great, new music out there. It’s available so easily through internet radio and music-streaming services; bands can write, record, produce, market, and sell their music without needing the music industry at all. Digital technology from recording and production through paid download increasingly both democratize and Balkanize the music markets. Even pretending there’s such a thing as “pop” music, as distinct from what’s actually “popular” through streaming-service information, digital sales, and other means that exist outside the music industry’s traditional control, demonstrates just how out-of-touch it is. Of course, there continue to be small labels that help distribute new music to listeners. Just as both heavy metal and hip-hop, back in the 1980’s, did all their experimentation first through listening to others through tape-trading, then recording exciting, experimental music on small labels; just a punk and new wave, before them, had used small labels and the whole DIY music culture of the late 1970’s to challenge the behemoths of the music industry; so streaming services, with greater access not only to major-label back catalogs but also new releases from up-and-coming labels and artists, offer a greater variety of musical choices, very often choices that simply defy industry-approved marketing niches. Quite simply put, if you either don’t know or refuse to listen to new music, you’re missing out on all sorts of interesting, creative, exciting music that’s available for the taking.
The Grammy Awards function to solidify the music industry’s definitions of various musical styles; they’re conservative, even reactionary, by design. While there are certainly moments where all that gets tossed to the side – it seems both the Hamilton performance as well as Kendrick Lamar’s performance were the big attention-grabbers precisely because they broke that oh-so-safe mold – to act surprised or hurt or even offended that the Grammy’s did exactly what they’re supposed to do, i.e., celebrate blandness and mediocrity, is to forget that is what they’ve always done. The best choice is to set aside the whole idea of industry-approved awards, do some exploring on the Internet, and discover all sorts of new music that challenges industry norms. Whether it’s music in the tradition of 70’s stadium rock, the newest in hip-hop or house, or an up-and-coming metal act like MYRKUR, turn off corporate-sponsored radio and check out all sorts of new and exciting music.