EDITORIAL: The Grammys and the Age of Awardlessness

THE DOWNBEAT By DLS Pineda

Adele splitting her Grammy in two sent a strong statement… which unfortunately wasn’t strong enough. Or, perhaps, it was drowned by the noise of well-wishes from liberals who could only find the gesture “sweet” or “righteous” à la Cady Heron and not a bold move against a 59-year-old award-giving institution. But her breaking of the trophy was a protest, nonetheless; the plus-sized lady has sung.

The Grammys have been criticized for losing their “hold” or relevance year after year. Many remember Jethro Tull’s win against Metallica at the inaugural awarding of the Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance as the year they stopped believing in the Grammys. Jethro Tull’s “Crest of Knave” beat Metallica’s “…And Justice for All” and even the awards’ presenters, Lita Ford and Alice Cooper, chuckled when they announced the upset. The crowd booed the moment Tull’s name came out of their mouths and the press immediately drew the irony of Metallica’s “…And Justice for All” receiving no justice at all. Then came a wave of pundits denouncing the Grammy Awards for being out of touch with the wider audience. It was named the biggest upset in Grammy history by Entertainment Weekly. That was in 1989. And now, 28 years later, we have Beyoncé and Adele and their respective fans arguing over a broken, quasi-golden, quasi-record player.

Making a fuss to remain relevant

It seems that the Academy enjoys making a fuss — and it’s easy for them to do so. Shrouded in anonymity and a judging criterion and poetics that are hardly ever elaborated or made public, they have the power to justify one upset after another and get away with it. They can even do it again the following year. Many see this habit as the Grammys’ means to remain relevant, like hipsters who enjoy blurting out names “you haven’t heard before” so they’ll appear above it all and against the flow. On the surface, these upsets may seem like calculated risks, publicity stunts that the Academy engages in to get people talking. But whether or not dancers perform somersaults onstage, or Lady Gaga moshes with Metallica, or Adele breaks the trophy for Best Album in two — all of which actually happened — the Grammys this year wasn’t half as big as the holiday it preceded.

And yet, somehow, the criticism that the Grammys is losing touch is worn out, almost invalidated by the fact that it’s been running for almost 60 years now. It’s not so much that the Grammys isn’t giving us a spectacular show. Listeners just don’t care about awards anymore. Today, when “everyone’s a winner,” these awards, which for a long time enjoyed worldwide fame and influence, now all fall in the realm of things that are just… okay.

The giant is slowly losing

The Grammys is up against a trend and not a tangible, real-life organization or group of people. In this fight, the giant is slowly losing. In the almost two decades since Napster brought irreversible change to the music industry, the Academy has become inept at dictating what counts as “good” music and who deserves awards. Everyone is now part of the conversation and everyone has their favorites. With Spotify and YouTube and all these streaming platforms around, many feel like they’ve been invited to a ball but instead chose to crash a friend’s house party. What’s making these decisions even tougher is the abstractness (some would say “universality”) of music’s language: we can’t have a point system for high notes or vibratos or other acrobatics. The Grammys goes on, anyway. It is what it is — a show.

But discourses circling around the Grammys continue, like why is it that Beyoncé, the most nominated woman in Grammy history (62 nominations total), black, pregnant and queening over the western world, has never won Album of the Year? Worse, critics say, she lost to a white, British woman. They point out how there is systematic racism at work in the selection of Grammy winners. This conservative view, they say, can also be seen/heard in the sonic differences between Beyoncé and Adele, and how hip-hop’s synths and samples are viewed to be less, er, musical beside Adele’s use of “real” instruments. This is testament to the power that still resides in the Grammys and big award-giving bodies in general. The reason why they still remain birthing pools for change and political discourse is because power still resides there.

Power shift

However, there seems to be little need for discussing societal norms when power seems to be shifting out and dissipating elsewhere. Adele herself broke off her trophy’s horn to give to Beyoncé, a subversive incident off-air wherein the artist “won” over the system. As though to say that the individual had “won” over society with Adele later telling the press, “I don’t take any f***ing sh*t when it comes to anyone not liking Beyoncé. You can’t be in my life, seriously.”

With the empowerment of the individual, the musical trend which accompanies it is — strangely — nostalgia, back to the ’70s and ’80s when artists worked in groups and tones were inorganically smooth (in production terms, synthesized and heavily compressed), groovy with breaks and stops in the right places. Perhaps afraid to take risks with the uniqueness (and oftentimes strangeness) of new music produced by individuals in their bedrooms, record companies are going for the tried and tested and are now continuing to repeat history. Perhaps, with the passing of legends, we are drawn to singing old tunes.

But this period will end and it will not take long before we see big record companies losing to the throngs of small music producers, the end of superstars as influential as Queen B and Adele, and even the end of the Grammys. Soon, FM radio will be living solely off remakes, “old” songs à la Slide@88.3 or Friday Madness on 89.9, and only local indie music will be almost famous. It’s hard to imagine, even horrific, but it’s happening now and I’m giving it 20 years until it all goes kaput. Perhaps it will come even sooner.

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Tweet the author @sarhentosilly.

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