And if so, why?
Surprising discovery – Grammy Awards are not, in fact, automatically assigned to the artist who sold the most albums in a given year. Nope. People actually vote on these things. Here’s how it works.
“…honor artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position.” – Grammy.com
All record companies and Recording Academy members are welcome to submit artists and albums and records and singles and all that business for consideration. Emphasis on the “All record companies” bit, right?
Next, however, 150 “industry experts” screen submissions then vote on which of them should be entered into up to NINE of the Grammys 30 categories. The ones who get the most votes become nominees.
Finally, members of the Recording Academy vote on the winners in up to EIGHT categories, presumably the ones they are most knowledgeable in. In this way, a small cotillion of across-the-board winners – from RCA, Columbia, Interscope, Atlantic, and other labels under Sony and Warner – is produced.
This year, Beyoncé won in 6 major categories. Who else did well? Taylor Swift, The Black Eyed Peas, Kings of Leon – the usually cast of automatic winners who surprise only in how shockingly predictable and generic the selections are.
In case you’re wondering, this is what is called a systematic process of normalization. Experts make a list of selections based on mainstream industry knowledge, geared towards celebrating the commercially successful, and present these bland offerings to an even greater base of loosely savvy and vaguely-to-intensely biased Recording Academy members. And so the stars of the music industry are rightfully honored.
“The Academy’s mission statement is simple, but represents the heart and soul of the organization’s efforts: to positively impact the lives of musicians, industry members and our society at large.” – Grammy.com
Because Beyoncé and Taylor Swift need their lives positively impacted by this type of recognition. It helps society at large.
Are these artists the end-all and be-all of the craft of music on the planet today? Or are they simply a few of the pinnacles of its commercial potential, and the Grammys an opportunity to turn the most extreme examples of this potential, and its fruits, into the subjects of an event designed to give the year’s biggest sellers one last sales push.
The Grammys have not been repeatedly referred to as “self-congratulatory” for nothing. It’s the place where winners go to win more. And that’s fine. Everyone should win as much as possible. And the major label-dominated industry that’s at the core of the Grammys has every right to pat itself on the back.
That being said, why should we care?
“…the music community, music lovers and inheritors of America’s great cultural legacy are reaping the benefit.” – Grammy.com
Of what, exactly? Is the spectacle itself sufficient? Do we benefit simply by the opportunity to glimpse such magnificence on network cable? Or should we, conversely, be exhausted, purged into some species of post-consumer emptiness?
It seems like the industry itself isn’t sure. This year, Lady Gaga rose to pop icon power with her exploration of that very void. She openly embodies the reality of art-as-product and even uses her celebrity to question it. Too much so, perhaps, for the Recording Academy, which largely snubbed this year’s erstwhile awards show-sweeper in favor of those artists who better convey the right sort of industry image – The Peas and Kings of Leon.
It’s easy to point out that last year’s big winner – Lil’ Wayne – is hardly a positive role model. But the industry’s not looking for positive role models. It’s looking for Dwayne Carter, who in all his purple-lady-freestyle-rhyming-shady-past-having-tattooed-prison-body glory is just about as American as apple pie, and an album selling machine to boot. For all that he plays at out of control, Lil’ Wayne buys into the dream – Cash Money, baby! – and that puts him firmly in the control zone for the Recording Academy.
So one last time, the question: “why should people who actually like music care about this kind of shit show?” It’s interesting, from a cultural studies / celebrity gossip sort of perspective, but not only is it stale musicially, it’s downright offensive to working musicians everywhere.
People within ten blocks of the house where I live were doing more interesting things this year than most of the Grammy winners and nominees. Again, I’ll say, the winners and nominees are great – good songs, well produced, well performed – but the best music made over the last year? As most of my readers already know, not by a long shot.